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Climate adaptation is a necessity and no longer an option

Climate adaptation is a necessity and no longer an option
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Wildfires, inland and coastal flooding, heat waves, droughts and other climate disasters have become seemingly daily occurrences, with no location on the planet immune to such threats. 

Many of these events have catastrophic consequences in terms of human casualties, property damage and environmental destruction. Beyond that, there are also indirect effects that can cripple an entire region, such as supply chain disruption, economic decline and loss of social connection. 

A clear pattern has emerged over the past several decades showing marked increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather and other climate events. Moreover, future forecasts suggest that this trend will continue unabated. 

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Yet, the political will to acknowledge these developments and take meaningful action has been limited. Instead, state and local governments prioritize short-term economic incentives by authorizing development in areas known to be at high risk. Expensive infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, are maintained and rebuilt despite these risks, in denial that Mother Nature will strike again. And when she does, the rest of us are expected to foot the bill to excuse such poor decision-making and to enable the recurrence of similar outcomes in the future. It should therefore come as no surprise that the National Flood Insurance Program is in serious debt, private insurers are abandoning natural hazard insurance options and as a nation we are losing the appetite to provide a financial safety net for such risky behavior.   

Absent a national or state directive, the onus is on individuals and communities alike to invest in adaptation strategies designed to be resilient to the future onslaught of natural disasters. Solutions include modifying building codes based on current and future climate conditions, constructing flood walls, replenishing wetlands as natural barriers, using more climate-resilient building materials, redirecting water flow and raising the elevation of critical infrastructure. There is no one-size-fits-all playbook for adaptation strategies, as each location faces different natural hazard risks and has varying infrastructure, population demographics, resource availability and other considerations.

Often this requires out-of-the box thinking about what might transpire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, focuses many of its flood hazard mitigation activities in areas considered to be located within what it defines as the 100-year flood zone, representing a 1 percent chance in a given year that the area in question will incur significant flooding. But, a research team at Vanderbilt University, which I was a part of, has concluded that there are regions of the country where, by the middle of this century, the 100-year flood zone will be equivalent to today’s 200-year flood zone. What this means is that the future area requiring protection from a flood of equal probability will be much larger, placing a greater population in harm’s way. 

We are also learning that in some locations adapt-in-place strategies will not be sufficient. An emerging strategy for responding to climate change adaptation is one that requires fundamentally and permanently changing human interactions with nature. Coined managed relocation or managed retreat, it involves relocating individuals or entire communities to another geographical area simply because it is no longer feasible to maintain the supporting infrastructure.  

At one time deemed to be a far-fetched idea, managed relocation is now the subject of serious discussion. The issues are challenging, requiring a complex understanding of place attachment, the interconnectedness with other systems and people and whether laws and regulations permit governments to authorize relocation. Relocation also places additional stress on receiving communities, as the influx of new people puts greater demand on transportation, housing, employment, health care, energy and other critical infrastructure systems. Without proper planning, these so-called unintended consequences can create new risks that offset the natural hazard risk benefits of relocation.

Climate adaptation is a necessity and no longer an option if we want our communities to survive. We must come together as a community, state, nation and planet to put much-needed resources into strengthening community and infrastructure resilience. The situation is critical and time is not on our side. We can choose to kick the can down the road or even exacerbate the situation by continuing to act in ways that fly in the face of risk-informed decision-making. But if we do, many will suffer needlessly and the gap between the natural hazard threats we face and our ability to overcome them will only widen. 

Mark Abkowitz is professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University. He chairs a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Extreme Weather and Climate Change Adaptation.