Rob Young doesn’t know why climate change and sea level rise are such political hot buttons.
Part of the problem, he suspects, is that there are a lot of people who profit by keeping our country divided. But, he said, another part of the problem is scientists like himself haven’t done a good job explaining to people how and why these issues will affect their livelihoods and communities.
More from Rob Young:Our coasts are in danger. We’re doing the wrong things to get ready. See why at CivicCon.
Previously at CivicCon:From dreams to deeds, how a nonprofit helps working class families own homes | CivicCon
Young said his own father-in-law, “Mr. Carl,” was very skeptical of climate change until he saw a real world example of it. Carl is a bass fisherman, and over the decades, he had seen the bass in his local Neuse River shifting farther upstream and the trees on the edges of the wetlands dying. Young explained to Carl and his fishing buddies that sea level rise was pushing saltier waters up into the river.
“It’s a small thing, but there are at least six people in Kinston, North Carolina … that now believe sea level can rise and is changing things,” Young told a CivicCon crowd Monday night.
“I guess the message here is that if you want to talk about climate change, you’ve got to meet people where they live. Mr. Carl doesn’t care about the impact of krill on whales. He doesn’t care that polar bears can’t catch seals because the sea ice is going away. You know why? Because he lives in a community that needs jobs. He lives in a community with severe opioid addiction where everybody knows somebody who died. He cares about a lot of things that are very real. If you want to make a difference about some of the (environmental) issues that we’re talking about tonight, keep in mind that you’ve got to make it real for people.”
Young is a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and co-author of “The Rising Sea,” which chronicles what is projected to happen based on scientific predictions of dramatic sea-level rise between now and the end of the century.
During a CivicCon presentation at The REX Theatre, Young talked about some of the problems caused by climate change and the problems with the economic approaches the US is using to address it.
Young argues there are seven things we should be doing as communities and as a country to address flooding and sea level rise:
- First, “do no more harm” and stop developing in flood plains and on ocean fronts
- Remove federal funding support from vulnerable coastal areas
- Abandon costs analyzes that allocate resources based primarily on property values
- Recognize that marshes, wetlands and estuaries are meant to move, and that building infrastructure to hold them in place is not a long-term solution
- Develop a national plan and stop reactivating, off-budget spending
- Take a step back wherever and whenever possible
- Fix climate change ASAP
Communities will be affected by sea level rise depending on where they are, with their elevation playing a major role, but he said the global average is expected to be about 12 to 14 inches of rise by 2050.
“That may not sound like a lot, but that’s how much sea level rise we had over the last century,” Young said. “That’s happening in the next 30 years.”
Addressing our nation’s response to climate change, Young said, “We spend tens of billions of dollars in the United States of America every year on resilience and coastal protection. We spend it with almost no plan.”
I have noted that because of the way the US Army Corps of Engineers conducts cost analyzes for federally funded resiliency projects, it ends up prioritizing the most valuable property in order to get the most “bang for buck.” However, these projects often revolve around finding ways to rebuild expensive homes, resorts and infrastructure in places where they are extremely vulnerable to flooding, storm surge and coastal erosion. That leaves moderate- to low-income areas on the outskirts and unprotected.
Young noted that solutions like building seawalls and putting buildings on stilts aren’t actual solutions. As examples, he pointed to Louisiana’s barrier islands — which were built up over 60 miles at a cost of hundreds of millions but still didn’t stop Hurricane Ida from wrecking havoc along the coast — and the planned $26 million “Ike Dike” designed to protect the Houston-Galveston area of Texas from storm surges, but that won’t protect the community in the event of another rainmaker like Hurricane Harvey.
“We’re still building things for these 100-year storms, and what we really need to be doing is designing things for storms that are much more severe that can do much more damage, but that costs too much, so we don’t ,” Young said. “So we end up spending a tremendous amount of money building something that’s only going to half solve the problem, and it’s still not going to solve nuisance flooding.”
Young said one of the main issues that hasn’t been well studied or publicized is that sea level rise is affecting local water tables, meaning the levels of underground aquifers are rising.
To demonstrate, Young showed a photo of standing water taken near the coast several days after Hurricane Sally had passed through the Pensacola area.
“The water doesn’t go away anymore. You know why? Because the water table under our barrier islands and near the coast is so high it cannot go into the ground anymore. Especially if you get several days worth of rain,” he said .
Young noted that the way our climate is changing, we can’t afford to keep subsidizing risky development practices forever, especially on beachfronts, where — at the national level — much of the land is rental and resort property.
“That’s what we’re doing with the beach nourishment, protecting investment property,” he said.
Young said at his center, the Program for the Study of Developed Shoreline, the goal is to help people understand the real risks and real costs of building on shorelines, flood plains and other vulnerable areas.
“All we ask… is that you bring all of the information to the table in a realistic way and then you understand in great detail, the vulnerability of any site where you’re going to develop. And if, as a community, you decide that you have to put something in place that’s in the floodplain, then make sure you elevate it. come asking federal taxpayers for money to protect that place that you put in a floodplain, figure out a way to take care of that additional vulnerability and risk yourself.”
Young noted that the Florida Panhandle area has one of the most exposed and vulnerable shorelines in the US, having seen powerful storms and incredible frequency.
So in discussing what local beachfront property owners could and should be doing to be part of the solution, he tried to make it real for them, as he had for Mr. Carl.
“I’m sorry, but it’s unlikely that you are going to be handing these properties to your great grandchildren. You will not be, more than likely,” he said. “And at some point, whatever federal largesse that you do get is going to run out, and if you are talking about modest homes, insurance is going to become increasingly a problem.”
He urged waterside property owners, “Be realistic about what you can expect where you are. Don’t expect somebody to come riding in on a white horse and help you keep the map of that community exactly the same 30 years from now as it is.” right now. Be flexible, work with your community to allow that flexibility and management.”
Young’s presentation was part of CivicCon, a partnership of the Pensacola News Journal and the Studer Community Institute to make our community a better place to live, grow, work and invest through smart planning and civic conversation.
The next CivicCon event Sunday, June 12, at the Studer Community Institute atrium will feature Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon, social scientist and best-selling author.
Suskind is founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program and professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
Suskind has a long relationship with Pensacola through her association with the Studer Community Institute and its Early Brain Development program. She also inspired Pensacola to proclaim itself the nation’s first Early Learning City.
In her upcoming presentation, Suskind will discuss lessons from her new book, “Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise,” which examines the neuroscience of early childhood development and how it can guide us toward a future in which every child has the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Registration for the event is available by searching “CivicCon” at eventbrite.com.
For more information about CivicCon, visit pnj.com/civiccon.