Panel Paper: Governance Issues With Adaptation to Sea Level Rise

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 12:10 PM
Lincoln (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Margaret Peloso, Vinson & Elkins LLP
Population density in the United States’ coastal regions far exceeds that of the nation as a whole, and coastal populations are expected to increase in the future.  At the same time, the coastal zone is exposed to a number of hazards as a result of climate change including sea level rise and increased strength or frequency of storm events.   While not definitively a climate-driven event, Superstorm Sandy and the ongoing recovery serve to highlight the challenges that coastal communities face in preparing for and adapting to increased storm intensity in the coastal zone.  One of the most pressing policy challenges for coastal communities is thus to determine how they will prepare their populations for impeding sea level rise and make communities more resilient to storms.

Policy responses to sea level rise can generally be divided into three categories: hold the line strategies, managed realignment, and the use of market forces to promote retreat.  Hold the line strategies include measures that are focused on maintaining the coastline in its current position.  Such measures include the construction of seawalls and beach nourishment.  In contrast, managed realignment encompasses a suite of policies that encourage retreat the coast.  A managed realignment strategy that has gained particular attention in the United States is the rolling easement: a tool by which a property owner dedicates an easement over part of his property that moves landward as the sea level rises and ultimately results in retreat.  Finally, many have looked to the insurance industry as a potential means to use economic incentives to encourage investment in lower hazard areas.

This paper examines sea level rise adaptation strategies with a particular focus on state’s ability to promote retreat from the coasts through the adoption of a policy of rolling easements.  Drawing up on case studies from California, North Carolina, and Texas, this paper will examine whether variations in state coastal management structures result in a differential ability to promote adaptation to sea level rise.  Ultimately, this paper concludes that it is the interaction of political and economic factors—not coastal management laws and policies—that is shaping adaptation responses to sea level rise to date.