Sea levels could rise three to six feet over the next century.
Three feet of sea-level rise (SLR) would increase annual flood damage by 102-200 percent, and just 20 inches of SLR could cause $23-170 billion in damage. (NOAA, Adapting to Climate Change: A Planning Guide for State Coastal Managers at 12-13 (2010)). Physically, SLR will cause more storm surge, flooding, and erosion. Wetlands will be inundated and will drown. Fiscally, governments will be required to spend large amounts of money responding to emergencies and rebuilding flooded infrastructure. Valuable government tax base will literally fall into the sea. If governments fail to plan for these impacts, legal fallout is a certainty.
Recognizing these risks, state and local governments have begun developing adaptation plans. Although there is a wealth of information on climate change, it is not organized so that decision-makers can identify and evaluate which policy options will work in their locale. Decision-makers face more obstacles in implementing policies on the ground — managing potential liability; navigating competing authorities of local, state and federal entities; and financing responses.
The good news is that governments do not need to reinvent how they regulate. For every threat (e.g., erosion, flooding), there are existing policies designed to mitigate impacts (e.g., zoning, easements, and tax incentives). State and local governments just need guidance on how to adapt existing policies to address the new risks posed by climate change.
The Harrison Institute (in support of the Georgetown Climate Center) helps state and local governments become “coast-smart” — better prepared to cope with the threats posed by rising seas at all stages of adaptation: At the planning stage, we help identify adaptation policies and organize them into a coherent strategy. At the implementation stage, we help governments evaluate authority to adapt policies, incorporate policies into existing legal frameworks, navigate legal obstacles, and tap federal resources.
Policy tools for decisionmakers
Sea Level Rise Tool Kit
In our first phase of work, we developed a SLR Tool Kit
analyzing eighteen different land use tools that state and local governments can use to adapt. The Tool Kit identifies adaptive policies, discusses how each tool can be used to address SLR, and provides a framework to help decision-makers weigh the trade-offs between options and to anticipate potential legal and policy obstacles.
In our second phase of work, we have begun to analyze how specific policy tools can be implemented on the ground. In this phase, we focused on local governments because they are primarily charged with making the land-use decisions that will be critical to adapting our shorelines.
Model zoning ordinance for adapting to sea level rise
At the request of the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection, we developed a model ordinance
for helping local governments integrate SLR adaptations into their local zoning regulations. The model ordinance contemplates three adaptation districts:
1) A conservation or retreat zone is designed to gradually relocate development out of highly vulnerable areas and protect natural resources, including provisions restricting the rebuilding of storm-damaged structures.
2) An accommodation zone is designed to allow for continued development while requiring that structures be more resilient to floods, including building elevation and setback requirements.
3) A protection zone is designed to permit hard shoreline armoring in areas with dense development and critical facilities.
We tested the model ordinance in two states, Connecticut
. For each, we developed case studies evaluating whether local governments could implement the model consistently within the framework of state and federal laws and constitutions. the case studies outlined which model provisions could be implemented under current legal authority, which provisions would require additional delegation of authority or statutory amendments, and which level of government would be best suited to implement each measure (state or local).
Federal barriers & supports
In a third phase of work, we partnered with the West Coast Governor’s Alliance to examine the impact of federal laws on state and local adaptation efforts. In the coastal zone (unlike upland areas), local governments do not have autonomy over land-use decisions. They must comply with a variety of state and federal laws that both drive and sometimes conflict with local powers. We examined how two federal programs could hinder or support adaptation efforts at the state and local level, including:
Permits by the Army Corps of Engineers
The Army Corps of Engineers has permitting authority over all lands adjacent to navigable waters. Corps permitting processes tend to encourage use of coastal armoring, which blocks the natural flow of beaches and can exacerbate erosion. Our analysis also highlights how Corps permitting processes provide mechanisms by which states can encourage the use of soft alternatives
to shoreline armoring (such as wetlands restoration or “living shorelines”).
National Flood Insurance Program
The National Flood Insurance Program drives local regulation of development in floodplains but may also encourage development in risky areas because of federal subsidies. We are examining how the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) could affect implementation of retreat strategies (i.e., relocating development) and how states and local governments can use different programs within the NFIP and Stafford Act to encourage retreat (e.g., the Community Rating System and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs). Most recently, we analyzed how reforms to the NFIP
, adopted by Congress in 2012, might affect local planning.