A prominent topic of discussion during the question-and-answer portion of the forum was the need for organizations within and across sectors to work together to prepare for future sea level rise.
Many stakeholders are involved, said Pearce, such as the scientists who make predictions, the government agencies that set policy, and the industries or agencies that build and maintain infrastructure. Each group has to look at its contribution to the overall solution, he said. The utility companies “are going to make sure the lights stay on so the trains can keep running. The trains are going to do what they can to prevent their tunnels from becoming backed up. Each sector is going to look at what it needs to do.… It is a broad-spectrum approach.” Because
electricity is fundamental, electric utilities are “at the tip of the spear making sure that [everything] is…working every day, [but] other sectors are going to have to come in and make their own contribution.”
Muilenburg similarly made the case for coordination. “What makes a base operate? It is the people.” Because most people do not live on the base, “it makes no sense for me to raise the roads on the base if the town doesn’t raise the roads at the same time,” he said. The same goes for utilities. Many military installations receive utility services from the surrounding towns. “If the local provider upgrades and raises the level of sewage lines and I don’t do that on the base, again we have a problem. There is a great amount of coordination that has to happen.”
He explained that engagement with the local population, joint land use studies, and other collaborative efforts all need to be “enhanced to a much greater level so that we get all echelons of government in a location and all disciplines working together.” In particular, current funding mechanisms for the federal government, industry, and municipalities are all different. “It seems to me they have to be synchronized somehow for this to work.”
As an example of a successful public-private partnership, Muilenburg pointed to military housing, which “was in shambles” just 15 years ago. The Navy formed a corporation with an industrial partner, in which the Navy provided the housing and land and the private sector partner secured financing and assumed control of the housing. “It has been wildly successful,” he said.
He also mentioned utility energy-saving contracts, in which a private sector company looks at all the technological improvements that can be made at a base. Companies then make the investment and the mortgage is paid back over the term of the contract.
Major infrastructure owners that control large spaces generally are in charge of protecting those spaces, Nicholls said. But “when we think about sea level rise affecting large areas, it has clearly got to be at some level collective. There must be a role for government there as well. I think it is trying to find the right balance. It is going to vary from place to place.”
White agreed that “all of us are responsible.” In the United States, the elected representatives of the public make policy, and government agencies carry out that policy. “We try to do the best job we can to engineer it or, in places where engineering isn’t potentially the right solution, we try to come up with another kind of solution.… It is not a silver bullet. It is silver buckshot.”
Interactions between the public and private sectors can be especially critical, several speakers agreed. When the Netherlands buys land for floodplains, de Jong explained, it looks for stretches that are not densely populated, making it cheaper to buy privately owned property. In some cases, it may also create habitable areas in redeveloped districts, such as residential zones next to a reclaimed waterfront, which may offset expenditures. Another area of public-private cooperation involves insurance; Nicholls cited the insurance industry in England, which lobbies government for better flood defenses.
During a discussion of the private sector’s responsibility to build structures that will not be damaged or rendered inoperable because of flooding, Pearce noted that it is difficult to stop developers from building in areas near water even if they are prone to flooding. “Look at Brooklyn,” he observed. “The stoops [there], historians tell me, are because…there would be regular flooding.”
However, White explained that the financial return can be short for a private investment and much longer for a public investment. The job of government then becomes to ensure that engineering and economic solutions get the attention they need.
de Jong pointed out that if developers in the Netherlands could not build in areas that are flood prone, “we could stop constructing now. As I said, all of the big cities are under sea level.”
Ali Velshi raised the question of how to increase public awareness of the problem, and remarked that doing so is not impossible. “I remember being on the southern tip of Manhattan [during Hurricane Sandy]. The media were all there. The property owners were there. New York went dark for a few days. Many parts of New York didn’t recover for months. [It] got everybody’s attention.”
Pearce agreed that Hurricane Sandy helped create awareness of the threat. “The severity of the impact from Hurricane Sandy really got everyone’s attention. Very shortly after Hurricane Sandy, it was very easy for us to get a billion dollars from our regulators to say, ‘Go ahead and do the most pressing hardening work that you need.’ All the stakehold-
ers who were involved—the real estate interests, etc.—you really didn’t hear much pushback. If anything, [they said], ‘Is that everything that you need to do right now? Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again.’”
New York City has over a trillion dollars’ worth of real estate, Pearce added. “Once you get the attention of the people who own that trillion dollars of real estate, you can really accomplish a lot.” The same is true of cities in general: “Once you get their attention, you will begin to see people saying, ‘Okay, let’s approach this problem.’”
White mentioned the inevitable decline in attention over time. “People who have suffered through an event like this, they think about it, but not for too long.” The key, she said, is to make a business case for preparedness, especially since the private sector often drives change in the United States. “Even people in a state like Wyoming care about what happens on the coastline, because our economy is intimately connected. If they can’t get goods and services to port, they are not going to make a sale.”
Nicholls reported that when he lived in the United States he heard FEMA officials talking about a six-week window of opportunity after a disaster, during which people would think differently. If public officials are willing to make a strong case immediately after a major event, they
can make a difference. That means being prepared before events arrive. “You’ve got [to have] a plan.…You can’t do the work in a short time. A lot of preparation has to be done beforehand.”
Velshi also observed that people in the United States, along with their elected representatives, are not necessarily ready to have a conversation about sea level rise and its implications.
White added that not everyone in a large society is going to have the same perspective. “We have to try to understand those perspectives. We have to communicate with the people. We have to try to provide them with the facts that are necessary for them to understand what is the range of solutions and what are the pluses and minuses of each of those solutions.” This is where engineers come in, she said. Engineers “translate the science into actionable information for the people, for the consultants, for the private sector.” But the Corps does not need to necessarily provide a solution that fits all those perspectives.
de Jong contrasted the situation in the Netherlands, which “[has] been combatting sea level rise for centuries. There is not a tough political debate on this. There is consensus. Everybody realizes that it is a common interest.” In the Netherlands, dealing with sea level rise is a collective responsibility. The government takes care of the large-scale engineering works, and local water boards that have existed for hundreds of years are responsible for the smaller-scale projects and detailed water management. “It’s in our DNA that that is something we have to take care of. That makes a difference for countries that are faced with sea level rise for the first time.” However, he acknowledged that flood control policies need support at the local level if they are to succeed, and “raising awareness is something that we are working hard on at the moment.”
Muilenburg advocated a case-by-case approach when political problems erect barriers. “It is not one size fits all around the world or even [along] our coastlines…. There are installations that we are much more concerned about than others.”
Education and governance are critical issues, Nicholls added. Better information about sea level rise “is useless unless there is a client for it that is willing to make those strategic decisions,” he said. However, he clarified, the flow of information needs to be a two-way street. For
example, government agencies in the United Kingdom have been trying to capture the knowledge and understanding of people who live along the coast and engage in a dialogue with them. “That is the way forward. Otherwise, it seems to lead to conflict rather than a more cooperative approach.” Though the approach can be difficult, “it is worth exploring.”
Prodded by Velshi and by questions from the audience, the forum speakers speculated about possible responses to larger sea level increases than those projected by the IPCC.
Future sea levels are “very, very uncertain,” said Nicholls. “That is one of the core problems here. Many engineers are saying, ‘Give me certainty and I can plan for it.’ Unfortunately, we can’t do that.”
Even the IPCC’s broad estimates of 20–100 centimeters of sea level rise during the 21st century do not cover the full range of uncertainty. In its planning, for example, the United Kingdom has a scenario that calls for 2 meters of sea level rise by 2100. “We are not saying that will happen,” said Nicholls, “but we are saying that it might.”
If all the ice on the planet were to melt, sea level would rise more than 70 meters, according to Nicholls. The ice on Greenland represents about 7 meters of sea level rise, and the West Antarctic ice sheet about 3 meters, but the time scales for complete melting of these ice caps is “hundreds of years,” he said. “Two meters in the next hundred years is a good upper estimate—although we can always be proved wrong.”
Given this uncertainty, planning for sea level rise in major cities is difficult, he continued. “We can see that we are going to deal with a rise.… Taking an adaptive management approach means that we adapt in an appropriate manner. We have to expect that we are going to have to commit resources, but I can’t tell you how many resources.… If we plan, we can probably make it a lot cheaper in the long run.”
In the event of very large increases, the choices are engineering solutions or “some kind of either ungraceful or graceful retreat,” Nicholls said. “Hopefully, it would be a graceful retreat.”
Muilenburg added that if sea level were to rise 6 feet, the Navy would have to consider its options. But with a sea level rise of 2 feet, “we are still in the nuisance flooding range. We [can have] reasonable and affordable accommodations with engineering solutions. The real question for me is in the unknown.”
The speakers acknowledged that many other uncertainties surround sea level rise beyond its rate and extent.
White pointed out that, while much is known about structural solutions, far less is known about cost reductions. “Are there different materials [for structures]? Are there different ways to stage these so that they can be adaptable over time in a way that is less expensive?” Better foundations can support barriers of greater height, but is that cost effective over the life cycle of a structure? “Modeling will help us figure out what to do.”
People are pushing for natural protections, but the evidence for them is primarily anecdotal. “We need information. We have evidence that marshes, for example, under certain kinds of submergence, can actually increase the wave run-up at the land surface. The idea that you could, in large events, be making the problem worse is something that you have to think about.” Modeling the cost effectiveness of structures and of phasing in materials would enhance understanding.
Nicholls noted that much of the technology needed to deal with sea level rise already exists, but a major challenge is to use it in coherent ways. An important innovation would be in modeling to improve planning, forecasts, and responses. Similarly, engineering approaches such as building dikes or nourishing beaches are mature technologies; less is known about working with nature. “If you do put in a marsh, how much less of a sea wall do you need? We don’t really know.”
A challenge for the federal government, said White, is the way benefit-cost analyses are done. These analyses tend not to consider the value of a stronger foundation many years in the future because the value of that foundation cannot readily be calculated or is very low in today’s dollars.
Furthermore, funding is constrained—and likely to be even more constrained in the future. “How do we do those economic analyses in a way that supports adaptation in the future?” she asked. “We are a federal agency. We abide by federal regulations. We follow the Office of Management and Budget’s requirements for federal investments... because they are trying to maximize the return on the investment to the taxpayer.” She clarified that protections are not built to “as low as reasonably possible” (ALARP) principles. “Our dam safety program does include the ALARP principles, but otherwise it is driven by benefit-cost [analyses], because that is what people want from their government. They want us to use their tax dollars responsibly and not overinvest.”
When Velshi asked how the Dutch have approached this problem, de Jong acknowledged that there are limits to what can be built today for eventualities in the long-term future. The Delta Fund runs to the year 2030, and its funding is structured in such a way that it cannot be constantly challenged by government. In addition, the science is changing, and dikes are giving way to working with nature. Sand can be deposited in places where it is carried along the coastline rather than being washed quickly out to sea. “That is a cost-effective way because
you don’t need to replace your dredging equipment all the time. You don’t affect ecosystems right in front of the coast.”
Muilenburg also acknowledged that “funding is a challenge.” The Navy takes risks in maintaining its facilities even today, but “knowledge has to precede funding.” What he needs is more information about the tradeoffs between, for example, funding the shoreline at a naval station or a new ship. One possibility would be innovative funding mechanisms such as those now used to build military housing.
Nicholls made the point that the value of current investments depends on the assumed discount rate, or the value of money spent today compared with money spent in the future. This turns on a philosophical question of “how much you value the future,” he said. “Some people argue that the discount rates are far too high, which would mean that we would have very different decisions.” These kinds of decisions inevitably involve the political arena.
White noted that, in the United States, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) specifies a discount rate. “We must use that discount rate, but it doesn’t prevent us from conducting sensitivity analyses to the discount rate,” she said. “If we look at a very low discount rate, we are able to justify adaptation measures that bring us past the 50-year economic analysis period that OMB requires. As engineers, our horizon is 100 years. We have a struggle for adaptation between 50 years and 100 years. That is where our big problem is.”
Pearce elaborated. Benefit-cost analyses dictate that some assets be hardened and others left in place to ride out the flood. “If we were to harden those and make them totally submersible, it would be an absolutely huge bill.... If you can ride through an event and save yourself $200 million, then it is not hard to get the stakeholders to buy into it.”
Forum participants and audience members agreed that engineers have a unique and pivotal role to play in responding to sea level rise. David Dzombak of Carnegie Mellon University said that “engineers need to be prepared to step up and lead the discussion.” This will require changes in engineering education, he continued, so that engineers are better prepared to deal with uncertainties, can learn about adaptive management, and are not simply waiting to be tasked in response to a disaster.
Wayne Clough, former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, went on to say that engineers need “to own this problem. We have let
our scientific brethren carry the brunt of this argument. Engineers have stood back.... Today, it is our problem. We need to be there. We need to be part of it.”
White called for interdisciplinary approaches. “Engineers have to make room for the social scientists to come in. The old stereotype of the engineer is dead.... If we have a product and we can’t communicate it, whether in writing or orally or through graphics, then we don’t really have a product.”
Several speakers pointed to links between responses to sea level rise and international development. Nicholls advocated joining the adaptation and development agendas to build a more viable economy and secure more resources. “You can see adaptation as being an important component of development,” he said. And Muilenburg mentioned the work of the US military in developing countries. “It is a very effective approach that brings people together and builds capacity.”
White noted that engineers in the United States tend to think that solutions move from the developed to the developing world. In fact, many solutions can move in the opposite direction. For example, Bangladesh and Cuba have greatly reduced hurricane-related deaths through preparedness. “The neighbors are connected. They know exactly what to do. Nobody gets left behind. [Those are] simple solutions that we can use here.”
Pearce, who has lived in Jamaica, concurred. Houses there are made primarily out of cinderblock and steel. “Why? Because we have hurricanes, a lot of them. If a hurricane passes through Jamaica, I don’t expect to hear that more than maybe four people died from it. There is going to be one crazy person who goes for a stroll. There is going to be one person who tries to drive across a river, and someone has a heart attack. You don’t find that 200 people died from a hurricane in Jamaica, because we build for it using appropriate technology for the country.”
A final topic of discussion was the need to get young people involved in addressing the problem. According to de Jong, the Netherlands was having trouble getting young people to attend technical universities to study hydraulic engineering, but that has been changing in recent years, partly as a result of campaigns to attract young people to those careers.
Nicholls similarly reported that students have been coming to the
university where he teaches eager to learn about climate change. “That is one of the things that motivates them. Rather than giving them courses on climate change, we embed it into the whole program.” By teaching about climate change everywhere it is relevant, universities can make the subject “practical and useful in their careers,” he said.
Clough added that the Grand Challenges Scholars Program represents “a tremendous opportunity” to get young people involved, not only in the United States but around the world.
Christina Chang, a PhD student working in a materials engineering laboratory at Harvard, provided an encouraging note at the end of the discussion. She said that young engineers “are humbled by the progress that has been made by all of the present and past scientists and engineers.” Young engineers “are excited to take on this mantle and innovate toward solutions,” she said. “There is a lot of hope.”