Ocean City, Maryland. When the government talks about taking action on climate change, we tend to think in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and investing in renewable energies. In the political sphere, these can be inflammatory topics, raising questions over impacts on the economy, energy independence, international competition and the role of government in our day-to-day lives. However, there is another – less volatile – aspect to our response to climate change that is too often overlooked due to the carbon debate. This critical topic is called “Adaptation” and refers not to what we do to prevent climate change, but rather how we prepare for what is inevitably coming.
Like it or not, climate change is now upon us – we are all witness to the increasing frequency of destructive storms, droughts, unusual and out-of-season weather, and a sequence of warmer-than-average months that hasn’t let up since 1985. And if what we notice in our own lives is not enough, scientists tell us that Arctic sea ice is melting like never before, the oceans are acidifying, glaciers are disappearing around the world, and sea levels have risen a global average of 8 inches over the past 100 years. Whether the world will be able to come together to take concrete action to buffer the impacts of climate change remains to be seen, but we can say with utmost certainty that change is now guaranteed – it is only how much change we’ll see that remains in question.
The good news is that adaptation should be a lot easier to address politically compared to action on carbon emissions. We’ve all witnessed the economic devastation and toll on human life that can come from storms and droughts, and it’s simply a matter of common sense to take precautions for more to come.
New York City is Exhibit A on the consequences of ignoring changing conditions. Scientists had been warning city officials for over a decade that outdated infrastructure and city planning were putting the city at risk from exactly the type of event that played out in Superstorm Sandy. New York now has a monumental challenge ahead. They need to make some serious decisions on whether to pursue multi-billion dollar Amsterdam-style sea barricades or simply rely on the restoration of natural barriers and smaller, ad-hoc engineering adjustments. At the very least, they have countless miles of tunnels and shorelines to secure.
Here on Delmarva, our challenge is somewhat less dramatic, but no less critical. This is a low-lying region, surrounded by water, and dependent on agriculture and tourism, both of which are highly susceptible to extremes in weather. Furthermore, Ocean City’s location on a sandy barrier island means that much of our region’s costliest infrastructure is also the most vulnerable.
A natural first step for implementing climate change adaptation on Delmarva is to ensure that our land-use planning processes account not only for the conditions of today, but for the likely conditions of tomorrow. The profile of participatory planning has recently gained increased attention here due to the newly passed Maryland Septic Bill, the Plan Maryland process and changes to the Critical Area rules. Despite some degree of local scrutiny, for Worcester County at least, very little is affected by these new State efforts. Worcester has undertaken pragmatic zoning processes since 1967. The new statewide efforts are aimed at bringing other counties up to the standards we’ve had for some time. But the specter of climate change brings new relevance to these efforts. It is relatively straightforward to predict what areas of the eastern shore are going to be the most impacted by even moderate sea level rise, and also what industries, human communities and natural resources are likely to be affected by other changes, such as periodic flooding, drought and range migrations of animals (including both pests and economically important species). Such considerations must be integrated into our planning processes should we wish to avoid the fate of coastal New York and New Jersey this past October.
While integrating adaptation factors into our local zoning and planning will require some degree of financial investment, we should see it as exactly that – an investment, providing insurance against natural disasters to come. Alternatively, ignoring the likely risks of climate change could spell economic disaster. We’ll all pay the costs for continued unchecked growth on high-risk coastlines, for the failure of industries and practices not suited for our new reality, for the loss of coastal habitats that serve as first-tier buffers against the worst of nature’s wrath, and for the loss of tourism, should our infrastructure fail or the human toll to climatic events be too high.
Americans are well known to come together and be at their very best in the face of extreme adversity. The threat of climate change and the prospect of ongoing extreme weather events as we’ve seen over the past year present a crisis like we’ve never had to deal with before. Whether we choose to or not, we will feel the brunt of this new adversary together. But it is up to us to muster the will to come together beforehand, to prepare and plan for our common future. We couldn’t ask for an easier first action item than the opportunity presented in land-use zoning. But are we up for the challenge?