Robb Fulcher

CLIMATE CHANGE – Agencies, insurers look at coastal areas

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Nobel Prize Laureate Don Wuebbles

Nobel Prize Laureate Don Wuebbles addresses the Climate Adaptation Symposium at Space Park in Redondo Beach.

Insurers have been trying to anticipate the danger of flooding, wildfire and drought in coastal areas, which could accompany climate change from greenhouse gas emissions and other factors, a researcher told a symposium co-sponsored by the City of Hermosa Beach.

A number of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, told how government agencies, researchers and private-sector organizations are attempting to plan for deeply uncertain scenarios presaged by climate-change research, at the Monday symposium held at the sprawling Northrop Grumman plant in Redondo Beach.

Scientists cited an analysis prepared for three California agencies by the Pacific Institute that estimates 480,000 people, a wide range of roads, hospitals and schools, vast wetlands and nearly $100 billion in coastal property could face increased risk of flooding caused by rising sea levels, if there are no adaptation efforts, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists stressed that the analysis was based on a scenario of medium to medium-high greenhouse gas emissions, which is only one of many possible scenarios.
In the analysis, two thirds of the threatened property is in the San Francisco Bay area.

Over the past century, the sea level has risen nearly eight inches at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Under the medium to medium-high greenhouse-gas emissions scenario, sea level is projected to rise four or five feet by 2100, the Pacific Institute concluded.

Hecht said rises in sea level would vary from place to place.

A map for that scenario, prepared by the Pacific Institute, shows some sea-level flooding in western Hermosa, with the Pier Plaza under water.

Sean B. Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center, said Lloyd’s of London and other large “re-insurers” — which insure the insurance companies against losses — are mulling possible coastal effects of climate change including wildfires, and flooding and storms from rising sea levels.

Insurers drive much of our behavior, Hecht said, because investments cannot be made, businesses cannot be launched and developments cannot be built unless they can be insured.

But, he said, insurers cannot be counted on to discourage risky behavior. Government regulators aim to keep insurance affordable, which can encourage possibly risky actions such as dense development in attractive coastal areas and “serial rebuilding” in areas that see regular flooding, Hecht said.

‘Deep uncertainty’

Entities willing to plan for possible effects of climate change include water agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District, which are required to prepare long-term plans for water availability, Robert J. Lempert, a scholar in the field of “decision making under conditions of deep uncertainty,” told the symposium.

Water agencies also must weigh the potential for future droughts, said Lempert, director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition at the Rand Corporation and a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Officials on the Gulf Coast, where Hurricane Katrina struck, also are interested in contingency planning because they are already convinced of the dangers of storm-related flooding, he said.

“People have always included climate in their plans, but they were pretty sure it would be the same as it was in the past,” he said.

“Deep uncertainty” exists in climate change scenarios, Lempert said. He encourages long-range planners to “run their plans backwards,” identifying where they are vulnerable, determining what fixes could be made, and then studying the costs of the fixes.

He singled out a California agency, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, whose 25-year plan will include “signposts” that significant climate-change effects are occurring. The signposts would trigger greater efforts to recycle water and recapture ground water. If the signposts do not appear, the contingencies would not be triggered.

Rand also is helping the MWD prepare a report looking forward to 2060, which will include signposts and contingencies of its own, Lempert said.

Discussing the reception of climate change science, a hot button issue for some, Lempert said, perhaps understating, “It makes some people happy and some people mad.”

“Coastal cities and counties are focused not only on sea level rise and inundation, but on severe storms, rising temperatures, reduction in the quantity and quality of water supply, damage to marine and other ecosystems, decline in air quality and health challenges – all critical issues for discussion and strategic decisions,” said Judy Mitchell, chair of the South Bay cities Council of Governments, in a statement prior to the symposium. The council was another of the co-sponsors. ER