Climate Change Represents Real Threat to Southern New England


We pulled into a parking lot in Wickford, R.I. A nearby car was parked in 3 inches of water, and salt water bubbled up through a storm drain. The tide was high, but not extraordinarily so. These days, occasional flooding of the parking lot is more of an annoyance than a real threat. But what about the future?

Rhode Island was the second stop on my “Adapting to Climate Change” learning tour. Last summer I visited several Cape Cod communities to see how they are dealing with accelerating beach erosion and other adaptation challenges, including chronic flooding from sea-level rise, warming ocean temperatures, storm-surge risk and habitat decline. This past winter, I toured Rhode Island with the same objective, but with a special focus on developing decision-making tools to help communities become more resilient.

Both trips confirmed that Cape Cod and coastal Rhode Island are on the front line of adapting to climate change. Few places in the world are experiencing as much change in such a short time frame. And, few places have as much to worry about. The economy of each area relies on beaches, recreational and commercial fishing, tourism and water-dependent commerce. The good news is that coastal communities in southern New England are beginning to learn how to deal with the impending storm of advancing climate change.

But communities like those I visited need better capacity to handle the challenges that await. Fortunately, President Obama’s Climate Action Plan puts adaption efforts on equal footing as reducing carbon emissions. The plan also directs federal agencies to assess how climate-change impacts will affect our programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to assemble and clearly communicate information on risks, build tools to help communities better understand these risks and offer assistance to communities on how to enhance their resilience. As I make the rounds of our six new England states, I’m learning about what communities really need, what some are already doing to adapt to current impacts, and how the EPA and other federal agencies can help them do even better.

So far, here’s what I’ve learned:

Local resources are stretched incredibly thin, and federal agencies need to acknowledge this in the way we provide information and support tools. Purposeful, proactive efforts are necessary to help local officials use climate information.

Especially here on the southern New England coast, climate-change impacts will affect the core character of communities. The choice to become more resilient may clash with other closely held values. Taking steps such as raising bridges, moving streets and allowing salt marshes to migrate inland will affect the look and feel of a community.

Even simple measures, such as installing green infrastructure, can create intense neighborhood concern. We will need a lot of community engagement to take real action to enhance resilience. In time, as communities gain more experience and have better information, these challenging discussions will be easier.

Federal agencies must learn, too. Federal hazard mitigation planning requirements must become more workable, especially for small communities. Water infrastructure investments to enhance resilience must become as important as investments to improve water quality — in fact, they are often self-reinforcing.

We must reduce the burden and increase flexibility in grant making. So far, local experiences with new floodplain mapping and disaster recovery grants haven’t lined up with President Obama’s intent. Integration of water infrastructure planning must move more quickly from directives on paper to reality.

While the EPA and other federal agencies are making good progress despite limited resources, I and my federal colleagues can and must do better.

Information used in maps and decision-support tools must be brought down to the local, even neighborhood, scale. These planning and decision-making tools must help answer questions including: What land can we acquire for marsh migration over the next 10 years? Which businesses are most vulnerable to the most likely storm events we will see over the next 10 years? What water infrastructure do we need to reinforce or relocate first, to prevent their destruction by damaging tidal flooding?

Less-certain 50-year projections over a large area can cause a panicky response, or worse, denial. A 10-year projection over a much smaller area gives a community realistic options and creates momentum for doing more.

We must do all we can to create confidence that carbon emissions will be abated and the worst-case climate-change scenarios can be avoided. For without that assurance, community-level conversations in especially vulnerable coastal communities will continue to be extraordinarily difficult.

Over this past winter, New England showed its resilience by bouncing back from a historic series of snowstorms. This resilience was entirely due to much improved planning, better communication and a commitment to smart actions based on experience. The same commitment will build greater community resilience to the longer-term impacts of climate change.

To succeed, leaders at all levels must make adapting to climate change as high as any other priority on their “must-do” list. The future prosperity of New England, especially southern New England depends on it.

Curt Spalding is regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office in Boston.


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