October 17, 2007

The High Priority of Rising Sea Levels...100 Years from now?

Marc Comtois

Today's ProJo contained this story about the latest warnings from the enviro-Henny Pennys:

This fall, the state agency that regulates coastal development in Rhode Island plans to become one of the first local regulatory agencies in the country to officially recognize the likelihood of sea-level rise and write policies and regulations to prepare for higher water.

The rising waters will require that new buildings in flood zones be constructed at higher elevations, says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council. He says there should also be changes in the state building code for coastal development and different rules for septic systems. Sewer outfalls and bridges may be affected.

The CRMC website contains an explanation, too:
Climate change refers to fluctuations in the Earth’s climate system – a result of natural and manmade causes – and is evidenced largely by rising global temperatures, increasing weather extremes which result in more frequent floods and droughts, and rising sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) 2007 report states a potential rise in sea level of 18-59 centimeters by 2100 (depending on the scenario chosen). State experts have agreed that for planning purposes, Rhode Island should expect a minimum rise of 3-5 feet by 2100. The actual sea level rise may be higher than that, however, if greenhouse gases are not reduced far before that time.
Set aside that we're talking about yet more onerous regulations and bureaucracy being imposed on the citizens of the state. That's nothing new around here. But now we're gonna spend tax dollars--and force citizens to devote portions of their paychecks to abide by these new regulations--based on what might happen 100 or so years from now. I'm all for scientific research and forecasting, but imposing government regulations based on a 100 year out forecast seems to be kinda low priority right about now.

This is the sort of misplaced prioritization that Bjørn Lomborg writes of in Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming .

Stephen Hayward reviewed the book in the latest National Review:

Notwithstanding Lomborg’s major concession that “global warming is real and man-made” and is “beyond debate,” environmentalists will not be happy. Lomborg questions “whether hysteria and headlong spending on extravagant CO2-cutting programs at an unprecedented price is the only possible response.” Any competent economist can tell you that deep CO2 reductions fail every cost-benefit test; this is true even of economists, such as Yale’s William Nordhaus, who accept the catastrophic-global-warming scenario.

Environmentalists, along with most liberals, snort at cost-benefit analysis...The virtue of Cool It is that Lomborg effectively translates the aseptic language of cost-benefit analysis into persuasive plain English...

...As Lomborg states, “the benefits from moderately using fossil fuels vastly outweigh the costs.” If anything, Lomborg understates this point. The tradeoff for arguably increasing the average global temperature by 0.8ºC in the 20th century has been nearly a doubling in life expectancy, a huge decline in infant mortality, and the steadily increasing spread of middle-class prosperity across the planet’s population. Does anyone outside the tiny ranks of environmental extremists really wish we had not made this progress, which depended vitally on cheap energy? Acknowledging this calculus is environmentally incorrect, but it is the silent ground upon which practical policymakers will build policy. There simply is no near-term, large-scale alternative to fossil fuels. Deal with it.

...Lomborg thinks we should aim at modest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, invest heavily in energy research, and devote resources to adapting to changing conditions. Eventually, policymakers throughout the world are going to come around to Lomborg’s point of view (indeed they already are, if the tenor of the recent APEC meeting in Australia is any indication), though they will do so kicking and screaming and with multiple genuflections toward the alarmist totems.

In short, Lomborg advocates an adaptation strategy. Another review by Jonathan Adler further explains Lomborg's thinking:
The proper approach, according to Lomborg, is not to focus on emission cuts to the exclusions of all other policy options. Rather it should be to identify the major economic and environmental problems facing human societies, including those that could be augmented by an increase in global mean temperature, and to dedicate resources where they can do the most good. This, in turn, means adopting policies other than controls on greenhouse emissions. He explains: “Even though CO2 causes global warming, cutting CO2 simply doesn’t matter much for most of the world’s important issues. From polar bears to poverty, we can do immensely better with other policies. This does not mean doing nothing about global warming. It simply means realizing that early and massive carbon reductions will prove costly, hard, and politically divisive and likely will end up making fairly little difference for the climate and very little difference for social impacts.”

One of the primary reasons to fear global warming is that it could exacerbate other problems, from the spread of disease and water shortages to flooding and extreme weather events. Like others before him, Lomborg stresses that it is far more cost-effective to address these concerns directly than to seek greater protection through emission controls. If we care about controlling the spread of malaria or fresh water supplies — two problems that could be worse in a warmer world — direct interventions are far more cost-effective than climate change policies; “in the short and medium term we can help real people much better through alternative policies. We can cut diseases, malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water, and sanitation while improving the economy with much cheaper policies that will have much greater impact.” Building infrastructure and improving access to health care are far less costly than controlling the consumption of fossil fuels.

On one hand, I suppose the new regulations being proposed by CRMC could be viewed as government's way of forcing the sort of adaptation that Lomborg advocates. But maybe not...
The proposed regulations will authorize the CRMC to develop and adopt policies and regulations needed to manage the state’s coastal resources and property and protect life and property from hazards resulting from the projected sea level rise. The Council, under these regulations, would also be authorized to work with the State Building Commissioner and to adopt freeboard calculations to determine new development guidelines.
The actual regulations aren't available, so all we're left to is conjecture. Who trusts that the CRMC won't overreach? Not me.

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It is possible that sea levels will rise. AGW proponents say the range of the rise will be 3' - 20' but this is speculative, especially at the upper end. Yet a member of the CRMC science advisory panel is telling us to prepare for the worst: a twenty foot rise.

There is an attitude that global warming is almost sacrosanct and there is nothing we shouldn't do to stop or prepare for it. But before we determine the sea rise basis for this proposed new regulation, in view of the fact that we don't know for sure whether and by how much the sea will rise, shouldn't a cost analysis (gasp) be done for each part of the range?

Further, if these new regulations are carried out, as I understand, the amount of buildable land on a lot of parcels of land will be reduced. My tree-hugger, don't-build-anything-anywhere alter ego has no problem with this.

But if these regulations become law, doesn't this become a land-taking by regulation? And isn't there a law that says that compensation must be paid to property owners under such a law? So that would need to be factored into the cost analysis. But then my taxpayer side comes out and says, wait a minute, should our tax dollars be going to buy land that may (OR MAY NOT) be under water 10 - 100 years from now?

Posted by: Monique at October 18, 2007 12:47 PM
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