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WATCH: Sea level rise urgently requires new forms of decision making: study

Flagler Beach, Florida
Flagler Beach, Florida

US cities facing sea level rise need to look beyond traditional strategies for managing issues such as critical erosion and coastal squeeze, according to new research from Lund University. Civil society initiatives must now play a crucial role in adapting society to climate change, the study argues.

WATCH: Seaside community of Flagler Beach, Florida, faces sea level rise

Using the City of Flagler Beach in Florida as a case study, researcher Chad Boda illustrates that the traditional options put forward to address erosion and sea level rise affecting the city’s beach and coastal infrastructure either take a market-driven approach which fails to take into account many environmental and social considerations, or are currently too politically contentious to implement.

The three options that have been considered in Flagler Beach are: constructing a sea wall, beach re-nourishment, or relocation of coastal infrastructure.

The sea wall option, long promoted by the Florida Department of Transportation, would protect vulnerable coastal infrastructure but would damage the local beach environment, which is central to the city’s tourism economy. The sea wall would also affect the nesting habitat of federally protected endangered sea turtles, the study shows.

The beach re-nourishment option, meanwhile, proposed by the federal agency United States Army Corps of Engineers, has the potential to provide incidental environmental benefits, but is primarily concerned with maximizing return on investment. This option was later abandoned after Hurricane Matthew, that struck in October 2016, wrought such extensive damage to the coastal environment that it was deemed no longer economically justified to proceed with the project.

Both of these options are ultimately based on a cost-benefit analysis, where return on investment takes precedence over environmental concerns such as maintaining the beach and the dunes. The aborted re-nourishment project makes this very clear. The hurricane has basically made it too costly to go ahead, even though re-nourishment would provide for more social and economic benefits than a seawall”, says Chad Boda.

The study instead proposes, that from a scientific, environmental and societal perspective, it is the option of relocating coastal infrastructure that would likely provide the most benefit to the city in the long-run, as it would protect both the beach and vulnerable infrastructure. Relocation  has been promoted as the only viable long-term sustainable approach to beach management by coastal scientists; since it would provide for the beach to naturally adapt to sea level rise. Implementing this solution, however, is not likely to be an easy task.

“That option is currently too politically controversial as the local community was concerned that local businesses could lose customers, that it would cause more traffic jams in the city, and that it would ultimately reduce property value”, says Chad Boda.

The study highlights that this course of events has left Flagler Beach with effectively only one option on the table: some form of sea wall, since re-nourishment was deemed too expensive to implement, and the city’s residents and politicians are currently unwilling to relocate coastal infrastructure.

“Yet this option, since it incorporates no procedure for adapting to sea level rise, will only lead to ever-increasing cost of erosion control, and the eventual loss of all sandy beaches along developed shorelines”, explains Chad Boda.

According to Boda, this indicates that Flagler Beach, along with many other American cities unable to afford ever more expensive re-nourishment projects, has effectively reached the limit of what actions it is able to take in terms of addressing erosion and sea level rise. The city is now effectively back where it started, holding the line against erosion with expensive and environmentally problematic temporary projects, with no clear plan for how to address future erosion caused by storms or to make the tough decisions needed to adapt to climate change. The continued degradation of the local environment will likely pose a major problem for the city’s tourism economy and tax base in the coming years, particularly as sea level rise continues.

The study argues that a new decision-making model - a social choice model – could be one way forward. By taking primarily economic criteria into account, a wide variety of other concerns citizens have, including those of far-away tax payers and future generations, are left out. Therefore additional criteria, whether environmental, cultural, or recreational, should be identified through reasonable public discussion.

This would require not only more effective collaboration between federal, state and local governments, but also the ceding of more decision-making power to citizens and civil society organizations.  

“By using a social choice model, the city would have a richer source of options and ideas to work with. Something that puts all available options on the table and requires that they be evaluated with a more comprehensive and long-term perspective”.

Because social choice involves changing the way decisions of public concern are currently made, it is not likely to be justified by current government or economic calculations, according to Boda. This means civil society initiatives would need to provide the primary mechanism for achieving the needed change in practice.

“There are many cases in US history where civil society has played a crucial role in bringing about change. These institutions could be the drivers for new ways of collective decision making since we can no longer rely only on the market or formal government to offer solutions that will protect both our environment and our society in the face of rising seas and a changing climate”, Chad Boda concludes.

Download Chad Boda’s dissertation, The Beach Beneath the Road:  Sustainable coastal development beyond governance and economics.

Chad Boda
Chad [dot] boda [at] lucsus [dot] lu [dot] se (Chad[dot]boda[at]lucsus[dot]lu[dot]se)