An Adaptation Portfolio for the United States Coastal and Marine Environment

Jun 16, 2009 | David Kling, James N. Sanchirico

Marine and coastal resources are particularly vulnerable to projected changes in the Earth's climate. Increases in ocean and air temperature, the acidification of the oceans, greater spring run-off, rising sea levels, and shifts in ocean circulation are some of the key physical changes that will stress marine and coastal environments. Among the significant ecological impacts: coral bleaching, species invasion, changes in species distribution and biodiversity, and reduced biological productivity.

A new report entitled "An Adaptation Portfolio for the United States Coastal and Marine Environment" by RFF University Fellow James Sanchirico and David Kling of the University of California-Davis examines a range of public policies to enhance the resilience of human and natural systems to the impact of climate change and variability for marine and coastal environments within the United States and its territories.

The paper is one of a series issued as part of a major RFF project on domestic adaptation policy.

An excerpt from the report:

"Although abandonment or the strategic retreat from a place is a politically difficult position to take that has many potential distributional and social justice consequences, the question of if and when to retreat needs to be in the forefront of the dialogue on adaptation policies. This is true for decisions regarding coastal habitat restoration in the face of sea level rise, habitat protections, and development in highly vulnerable locations such as barrier islands. With abandonment not in the feasible set of policies, cost‐effective adaptation policies will remain elusive.

In general, an adaptation framework that embodies a more holistic planning and decisionmaking structure will expand on the set of factors to consider when designing policies, including the baseline from which we are measuring changes, the type of regulation or rule (e.g., liability, command and control, or an incentive‐based approach), the level of control, the set of actors to consider, the time frame, and the spatial scale and scope of the policy. At the same time, adaptations to climate‐driven hazards and environmental stressors must fit within a portfolio that includes mitigation efforts. The design, implementation, and assessment of the effectiveness of these different types of risky investments become exponentially harder as the dimensions under consideration increase; this increases the difficulty of developing adaptation policies.

Understanding, valuing, and managing these complex risks and trade‐offs will require interdisciplinary teams of researchers along with adequate representations of stakeholders. We conclude with a recommendation firmly grounded in economic theory: because the effects of climate change on marine and coastal areas are uncertain and we will have many opportunities to learn along the way, policymakers at all levels should focus on adaptive policies that are flexible, designed to facilitate learning about the system, and that avoid large, irreversible outlays of capital."