July 12, 2016

Loss, Damage, and America’s Eroding Edges

At the end of each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation publishes that year’s 10 preservation wins and losses, a list that spotlights the dedication of local groups who fought tirelessly to save the landmarks and landscapes they cherish most. It is filled with inspiring stories of moving lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard and turning California’s Hangar One, once a docking station for the USS Macon, into a scientific and educational facility. The list is also a somber reminder that not every preservation fight is a win. For each important place saved and celebrated, another is lost to neglect or demolition. Although the stunning Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida, and the Portland Gas & Coke Co. Building in Oregon live on in photographs and local memories, both were razed to make way for new development.

The bittersweet annual tradition uses both the wins and losses to motivate preservationists to save America’s historic places in the year to come—an exercise that the American climate change community could learn from. For the first time in modern history, our coastlines are moving on a national scale. The combination of rising sea levels, increasingly extreme storms, and exacerbated erosion and subsidence trends are impacting hundreds of American communities and thousands of coastal residents. Across the country downtown districts are flooding, farmers are facing saltwater intrusion, and the structural integrity of school buildings and public infrastructure is being compromised by rising tides.

The Three Pillars

With at least 400 towns, cities, and villages projected to be partially inundated by the end of this century, it is difficult to imagine the scale of the potential loss, particularly for a research community that rarely addresses loss and damage. While the United States government has made progress on climate change mitigation solutions like clean energy technology and greening the economy, mitigation is only one of three main pillars of climate change policy.

Climate change mitigation involves efforts to reduce or prevent further emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The use of renewable energy; curbing industrial meat production; and investments in efficient building technology, like those in the National Trust’s Green Lab, are all effective mitigation strategies. They aim to limit global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the agreed-upon warming humanity can tolerate before experiencing the most destructive and dangerous effects of climate change. Climate adaptation is a response to the adverse effects of climate change that humanity is unable to avoid. Adaptation reduces the vulnerability of social, economic, and environmental systems to climate shifts by protecting communities. Strategies can include revising local land use planning to avoid flooding by rezoning building codes or augmenting natural defenses like mangroves and coastal marshland.

Flooded front yards and fales, traditional gathering places, in American Samoa after tropical cyclone Victor hovered 200 nautical miles offshore in January 2016. | Credit: America's Eroding Edges

Climate mitigation and adaptation efforts only go so far in lessening permanent loss or irreparable damage caused by severe weather events—as well as slow-onset processes exacerbated by climate change. These ecological shifts, like extreme shoreline erosion and sea level rise, can overwhelm even serious attempts to adapt. While adaptation is vital, damages like the relocation of peoples from small island states in the Pacific Ocean go beyond the coping capabilities of its frameworks.

Loss and damage, the third pillar in climate policy, refers to the negative effects of climate variability and climate change that people have not been able to cope with or adapt to. Damage impacts operate on a continuum ranging from “events,” which are associated with variability around current climate norms, to “processes,” which are associated with future anticipated changes in climatic norms. They exist when coping or adaptation measures are not effective enough; when the costs of measures are not regained; when measures are helpful in the short term but have adverse long-term consequences; or when no measures are possible. Loss and damage may refer not only to economic harm but also to loss of life, livelihoods, ecosystems, or cultural heritage.

For the past decade, researchers and policymakers working on climate change in the United States have overwhelmingly focused on mitigation efforts, and rightly so. The United States is second only to China in its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, and significantly reducing America’s emissions is necessary to reach the global goal of two degrees. In 2013 President Barack Obama released The President’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to cut carbon pollution in America, prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, and lead international efforts to address global climate change.

One core pillar is absent from the Action Plan, however—loss and damage. Loss and damage is traditionally discussed in relation to developing and least-developed nations, which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. But in every corner of the United States, communities are making difficult decisions on what will be lost, adapted, and relocated as our country’s edges erode.

Concrete sea wall along American Samoa's Route 1, the only road with access to the island's hospital and airport. | Credit: America's Eroding Edges

Facing Loss and Damage

On the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the Quinault Indian Nation is developing a master plan in 2016 for relocating the lower village of Taholah to higher ground. In Louisiana a $48 million federal grant is assisting the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians on the Isle de Jean Charles move inland to retreat from the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. And on our northernmost shorelines, the Inupiat village of Shishmaref, Alaska, located on a barrier island one quarter mile wide, voted in May 1973 and again in July 2002 to relocate away from wave and slough erosion. These are only three of dozens of coastal communities facing severe loss and damage in the wake of rising sea levels and a changing climate.

While preservationists have been addressing the loss of historic buildings and cultural heritage assets for centuries, the American climate change community is just beginning to acknowledge that not everything can be saved. Over the next year, the America’s Eroding Edges project will delve deeper into what it means to be an American experiencing loss and damage from climate change today. In dozens of communities along America’s coastlines, my associate Eli Keene, and I are interviewing communities directly affected by shoreline erosion and climate change.

The interviews will help us explore the nexus of climate change and historic preservation and better understand what communities across the United States, including U.S. territories, need in order to adequately adapt and address loss and damage. Connecting the shared experiences of the Americans facing these dramatic transformations can inform a national policy framework to guide, provide for, and support local loss and damage decisions at the federal level.We are not yet at the point of writing an annual list of 10 wins and losses from climate change, but that day will come soon. It is now, when a dozen—not a hundred—communities are making decisions to relocate, that America should invest in accepting their realities, learning their needs, and enacting effective policies so that there are more wins than losses.

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Victoria Herrmann is the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene, as well as president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute's research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.

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