Among the many possible negative consequences of climate change, sea level rise is the least controversial. Since reliable records began in the 1800s, sea levels have been steadily rising worldwide, something that poses an obvious risk to the trillions of dollars in real estate that now sit at our coastlines. Yet, sea level rise is also a deceptively subtle hazard. While sea levels are indeed steadily rising, that rise is at such a slow rate, about three millimeters a year, that it would likely go unnoticed by all but the sharpest of eyes. The Miami and New York City waterfronts today, for example, look pretty much the same as they did a century ago. Ships still land at the same ports, waterfront parks are as reliably dry today as they were in the past.
Yet there are strong indications that this is about to change. The consensus among climate scientists is that we are soon approaching an irreversible “tipping point” in the rate of sea level rise, such that by the turn of the next century, sea levels may be three feet (or more) higher than they are today. Such an increase would not just require the relocation of vast numbers of people and infrastructure currently adjacent to the coast, but also create a wide range of spillover effects, including amplification of the effects of storm surges and, in the case of South Florida, seawater intrusion into the local fresh groundwater supply.
While this threat is a very real one, the good news is that we have plenty of time, at least in principle, to prepare for it. In South Florida, for example, there is ample time for builders and city planners to start the slow process of elevating streets and buildings, installing pumping technologies, and planning for the construction of desalination plants to deal with saltwater intrusion in the water supply. Better yet, because in Florida the money for such preventive actions needs to come from real estate tax revenue, the fact that the threat is some years off should allow the area to sustain its appeal to tourists and investors, filling the coffers with the money needed to pay for it all. One might think sea level rise would be an easy risk to manage: We know it’s coming, and we have the time and resources to deal with it preemptively.
Yet, what we are about to say won’t surprise you: None of this is happening. Planners in coastal cities are sounding the alarms, but the pleas to take action are widely falling on deaf ears. The City of Miami Beach, for example, recently invested $400 million to build pumps to deal with the increase in nuisance flooding that has been seen in recent years, but the investment is designated only to remedy the problem as it exists today, not the much larger problems that will come as the century wears on. The City of New York has approved spending to prepare for sea level rise, but all in anticipation of a two-foot rise by the end of the century, not the three-foot rise that most climate scientists warn about.
This conundrum, of course, is by no means limited to sea level rise. Climate change poses a broad range of other threats whose consequences lie beyond the planning horizons of current residents, and our society faces long-term social and economic risks that are similarly difficult to fathom. Yet ignoring these risks is clearly an unacceptable option. We have a moral responsibility to care for future generations, even in the absence of immediate paybacks to ourselves.
How might we achieve this? We propose four guiding principles as an umbrella for how societies should approach the management of long-term risk:
Guiding principle 1: Commit to long-term protective planning as a major priority. This principle, of course, is fundamental; decision makers in the public and private sector need to place reduction in future losses and the required investments in protection near the topic of their agendas, and provide rationales for individuals to support their proposals.
Guiding principle 2: Commit to policies that discourage individual and community actions that increase their exposure to long-term risks. The simplest means of managing risk is to avoid it. Policies regulating land use, building codes, and insurance need to be designed to reflect the expected benefits and costs associated with exposure to future risks. Insurers should be permitted to price their coverage to reflect the nature of the risk and encourage those at risk to invest in loss-reduction measures. Building codes could complement insurance by requiring structures to meet specific standards.
Guiding principle 3: Create policies that consider the cognitive biases that inhibit adoption of protective measures. Regulatory policies designed to dissuade risk exposure will be effective only if they are widely adopted and enforced. People are naturally prone to a range of biases that inhibit long-term thinking. Therefore, policies have to be designed in ways that recognize and overcome these biases.
Guiding principle 4: Commit to addressing problems equitably. A transformative shift toward long-term protection will lead to costs that will differentially impact different groups in society. Long-term protective policies must be designed with these inequalities in mind, addressing the hardships faced by low- and middle-income households facing budget constraints, so that those households have economic incentives to adopt the protective measures.
If we as a society are to commit ourselves to reducing future losses from natural and man-made disasters in the truly long run, we need to do more than hope that individuals and policy makers will see wisdom in these investments on their own. Rather, we need to engage the private and public sectors in innovative partnerships that create environments where safety is the social norm, encouraged by appropriate regulations and well-enforced standards, and where the costs of this transformation are equitably distributed across society—ideas that follow from these four guiding principles.
Adapted from The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, copyright 2017. Reprinted by permission of Wharton Digital Press.