Taming the Bureaucrat
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Create a free personal account to download free article PDFs, sign up for alerts, and more. Purchase access Subscribe to the journal. Get free access to newly published articles. Create a personal account to register for email alerts with links to free full-text articles. We also have new technologies for providing the information via the Internet in a more visually compelling and user-specific manner. Flood elevations and flood insurance rate maps have to be updated for thousands of communities across the nation. However, neither the updated maps nor the advisory elevations have traditionally incorporated sea-level rise.
Only in did Congress pass legislation—the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act—authorizing FEMA to factor sea-level rise into flood elevations provided by the flood insurance program, so the agency has had little opportunity to accomplish this for most of the nation. Right now, people could be rebuilding structures with substantially more near-term risk of coastal flooding because they are using flood elevations that do not account for sea-level rise. Of course, reacting to any additional flood risk resulting from higher sea levels might entail the immediate costs of building higher, stronger, or in a different location altogether.
But such short-term costs are counterbalanced by the long-term benefits of health and safety and a smaller investment in maintenance, repair, and rebuilding in the wake of a disaster.
How Hurricane Sandy Tamed the Bureaucracy
So how does the federal government provide legitimate science—science that is seen by decisionmakers as reliable and legitimate—regarding future flood risk to affected communities? And how might it create incentives, financial and otherwise, for adopting additional risk factors that may mean up-front costs in return for major long-term gains? After Sandy, leaders of government locally and nationally were quick to recognize these challenges.
Governor Mario Cuomo of New York established several expert committees to help develop statewide plans for recovery and rebuilding. The leadership and composition of the groups established by the president and the mayor were particularly notable and distinct from conventional efforts. They brought expertise and emphasis that focused as strongly on preparedness for a future that is likely to look different from the present, as on responding to the disaster itself.
The organizational details are complex, but there is one especially crucial part of the story that I want to tell. When Mayor Bloomberg created the initiative on risk and resilience, he also reconvened the New York City Panel on Climate Change known locally as the NPCC , which had been begun in to support the formulation of a long-term comprehensive development and sustainability plan, called PlaNYC.
The bureaucrat. The taming of the DHEW.
Of course, science-based groups such as the climate panel should be valuable for communities and decisionmakers thinking about resilience and preparedness, but often they are ignored. Within NOAA, there are programs designed to improve decisions on how to build resilience into society, given the complex and uncertain interactions of a changing society and a changing environment.
These programs routinely encourage engagement among different scales and sectors of government and resource management. Through its Coastal Services Center, NOAA also provides scientific tools and planning support for coastal communities facing real-time challenges. This complex organizational ecology also helped create a social network among professionals in science, policy, and management charged with building a tool that can identify the best available science on sea-level rise and coastal flooding to support recovery for the region.
We have to reconcile what we learn from science with the practical realities we face in an increasingly populated and stressed environment. Before moving on to the sea-level rise tool itself, I want to point out important dimensions of this social network and the context that facilitated such complex organizational coordination. Sandy presented a problem that motivated people in various communities of practice to work with each other. We all knew each other, wanted to help recovery efforts, and understood the limitations of the flood insurance program.
In the absence of events such as Sandy, it is difficult to find such motivating factors; everyone is busy with his or her day-to-day responsibilities. Disaster drew people out of their daily routines with a common and urgent purpose. Moreover, programs such as RISA have been doing research not just to provide information on current and future risks associated with climate, but also to understand and improve the processes by which scientific research can generate knowledge that is both useful and actually used.
Research on integrated problems and management across institutions and sectors is undervalued; how best to organize and manage such research is poorly understood in the federal government. Those working on this problem themselves constitute a growing community of practice.
In order to do so, they have to establish networks of experts with whom they can develop, discuss, and jointly produce knowledge that draws on relevant and usable scientific information. But not all communities have the resources of New York City or the political capacity to embrace climate hazards. If the federal government wishes to support other communities in better preparing people for future disasters, it will have to support the appropriate organizational arrangements—especially those that can bridge boundaries between science, planning, and management.
For more than two decades, the scientific evidence has been strong enough to enable estimates of sea-level rise to be factored into planning and management decisions. Based on such information, the National Research Council published a report in estimating that sea level would rise between 0. More recent estimates suggest it could be even higher.
Of course, many coastal communities have long been acutely aware of the gradual encroachment of the sea on beaches and estuaries, and the ways in which hurricanes and tropical storms can remake the coastal landscape. So, why is it so hard to decide on a scientific basis for incorporating future flood risk into coastal management and development? For one thing, sea-level rise is different from coastal flooding, and the science pertaining to each is evolving somewhat independently. Researchers worldwide are analyzing the different processes that contribute to sea-level rise. They are thinking about, among other things, how the oceans will expand as they absorb heat from the atmosphere; about how quickly ice sheets will melt and disintegrate in response to increasing global temperature, thereby adding volume to the oceans; and about regional and local processes that cause changes in the elevation of the land surface independent of changes in ocean volume.
Scientists are experimenting, and they cannot always experiment together. They have to isolate questions about the different components of the Earth system to be able to test different assumptions, and it is not an easy task to put the information back together again. This task of synthesizing knowledge from various disciplines and even within closely related disciplines requires interdisciplinary assessments.
The sea-level rise scenarios that our team used in designing the Sandy tool, which derived from the National Climate Assessment prepared for Congress every four years to help synthesize and summarize the state of the climate and its impacts on society, varied greatly.
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The scenarios were based on expert judgments from the scientific literature by a diverse team drawn from the fields of climate science, oceanography, geology, engineering, political science, and coastal management, and representing six federal agencies, four universities, and one local resource management organization.
The scenarios report provided a definitive range of 8 inches to 6. One main reason for such different projections is the current inadequate understanding of the rate at which the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting and disintegrating in response to increasing air temperature.
The scenarios were aimed at two audiences: The authors addressed this possible concern by associating risk tolerance—the amount of risk one would be willing to accept for a particular decision—with each scenario. For example, they said that anyone choosing to use the lowest scenario is accepting a lot of risk, because there is a wealth of evidence and agreement among experts that sea-level rise will exceed this estimate by the end of the century unless and possibly even if aggressive global emissions reduction measures are taken immediately.
On the other hand, they said that anyone choosing to use the highest scenario is using great caution, because there is currently less evidence to support sea-level rise of this magnitude by the end of the century although it may rise to such levels in the more distant future. Thus, urban planners may want to consider higher scenarios of sea-level rise, even if they are less likely, because this approach will enable them to analyze and prepare for risks in an uncertain future.
High sea-level rise scenarios may even provide additional factors of safety, particularly where the consequences of coastal flood events threaten human health, human safety, or critical infrastructure—or perhaps all three. The most likely answer might not always be the best answer for minimizing, preparing for, or avoiding risk. Framing the scenarios in this fashion helps avoid any misperceptions about exaggerating risk. But more importantly, it supports deliberation in planning and making policy about the basis for setting standards and policies and for designing new projects in the coastal zone.
The emphasis shifts to choices about how much or how little risk to accept. In contrast to the scenarios developed for the National Climate Assessment, the estimates made by the New York City climate panel addressed regional and local variations in sea-level rise and are customized to support design and rebuilding decisions in the city that respond to risks over the next 25 to 45 years. They were developed after Sandy by integrating scientific findings published just the previous year—after the national scenarios report was released.
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The estimates were created using a combination of 24 state-of-the-art global climate models, observed local data, and expert judgment. The change of title will depend in part on the payment terms agreed in the contract of sale, and in part on the laws governing the contract of sale. So you need to make sure you have agreed on payment terms as part of the contract of sale.
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