Ocean State Urged to Adapt to Rising Seas Now

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Should Rhode Island be moving faster to address sea-level rise and other threats from climate change? According to at least one economic policy expert, it’s better and cheaper to act now.

“It’s a real economic threat,” said James Neuman, an economist with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Industrial Economics Incorporated.

The costs of inaction increases by millions and billions, according to Neuman. Delaying climate adaptation-projects is not a sound investment, he said.

“You get more bang for your buck by actually taking action now before the worst effects are seen,” Neuman said during a Feb. 25 meeting of a House commission studying the economic effects of flooding and sea-level rise.

Large-scale projects are likely inevitable, or are at least worthy of serious consideration, Neuman said, because sea-level rise can’t be held back in a significant way. Meanwhile, billions of dollars worth of property are threatened by storm surges, erosion and flooding.

Recent predictions indicate that Rhode Island is facing 7 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. The higher waters would likely submerge large sections of coastal communities, including portions of Providence.

Neuman, who is a lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 2014 National Climate Assessment, spoke of adaptation actions and concepts being considered around the world, such as sea barriers near New York City and Venice, Italy. Local concepts being discussed include a new storm barrier at the entrance to the Port of Providence and barriers at the mouth of Narragansett Bay.

Commission chairwoman, Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, and committee members expressed a more immediate concern about the lack of back-up power at the hurricane barrier in Providence.

“In the event of major a hurricane where you’ve got flooding problems there’s a good chance you're going to be losing power, too,” said James Opaluch, chairman of Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island.

Vulnerable assets across the Ocean State include residential and commercial property, bridges, energy and stormwater infrastructure, natural habitat, and popular beaches. Paying for protective projects today is the biggest challenge, Neuman said, because the benefit in money saved might be decades away.

Studies show that massive engineering projects, such as building a seawall between New Jersey and Brooklyn, N.Y., have little immediate benefit under current climate conditions, while higher seas expected by 2050 make the project worthwhile.

Climate change is a real economic threat to Rhode Island and adaptation is one of the most cost-effective options, especially in densely populated areas, according to Neuman.

“But you should also understand you are not going to be able to adapt to all of climate change," he said. "No matter what you do there are going to be residual risks — things you just can’t adapt to."

Not all storms and floods can be contained. “Some of those things will still remain even if you take the most aggressive adaptation action,” Neuman said. “It’s less expensive to move early on these things than to suffer the damages."

Neuman suggested that policymakers take a philosophical approach to setting adaptation goals, such as deciding if it’s more important to protect each property or embrace the broader aim of protecting Rhode Island’s overall economy and way of life.

Making it happen
A do-nothing approach will likely cause insurance premiums to increase and businesses to fail, Neuman said. This option might be suitable in high-risk areas, but is largely too precarious for an entire state, he noted.

Instead, explaining the dynamics of insurance rates lets property owners know the risks they face and compels them and municipalities to begin adapting. Special tax programs and districts can also help fund larger adaptation projects, Neuman said.

Federal funds might be available to protect trade centers, such as the shipping terminal in Providence. But beginning with smaller green infrastructure pilot projects might create awareness and spawn other projects, he added.

Neuman concluded that Rhode Island is prepared to act because of well-defined regulations, strong risk-assessment tools, and effective cooperation between state agencies like the Coastal Resources Management Council, academia and the private sector. He noted such examples as a real estate property owners guide and mapping tools for sea-level rise.

“It’s your advantage of being small,” he said.

Although these adaptation projects will be expensive, the urgency is sinking in among some Rhode Islanders, Carson said. “I think people are starting to realize they have to figure out a way to come grips with the water," she said.

The findings of the commission will focus on Newport, Providence and Westerly. A report is expected to be presented to the House of Representatives by April 15.