Social and Political Factors, Not Just Technical Feasibility, Determine Success of Coastal Resilience Projects

Written by
Keely Swan, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment
Feb. 19, 2021

With coastal flooding events expected to become more frequent in coming decades due to climate change, climate adaptation public works, such as storm surge barriers and levees, could be a key element in protecting coastal communities from storm damages and sea-level rise. And yet, these kinds of large-scale projects have been slow to move from the drawing board to breaking ground.

A recent literature review by Princeton University and Rutgers University researchers explores the ways that politics, laws, governance structures, and public engagement have enabled or hindered large coastal adaptation public works projects in recent decades. The authors argue that better understanding the factors that contribute to a project’s success or failure can help inform future decision-making processes and avoid wasting precious time and planning resources.

The article published in Earth’s Future focuses on projects in the United States, looking specifically at challenges related to federal systems of governing, where the responsibilities for addressing climate risks are split across different agencies and levels of government. The authors review prior works in the fields of natural hazards, infrastructure, political science and climate adaptation.

“Cities around the country are looking at building megastructures to defend against floods from powerful coastal storms,” said lead author D.J. Rasmussen, a postgraduate research scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment. “There’s a desire to know what’s involved beyond just having a plan and money to pay for it. We wanted to highlight the important role that politics plays, both for public officials and for academics who study coastal resilience.”

The authors highlight four general factors that play a significant role in the process of bringing about a coastal resilience megaproject.

First, multiple flooding events are often needed to raise sufficient attention and interest in coastal risk reduction. Governments are usually busy managing multiple policy issues at one time. Often there is a short “policy window” for action following a disaster, and government officials should be prepared with projects ready for consideration when there is interest.

The authors then argue that strong, continuous leadership is required to advance big projects. Politicians often may pay a political cost up front for pushing for resilience megaprojects that may not yield benefits until many years in the future. While there is risk of the public viewing projects unfavorably due to expense or other factors, this kind of long-term planning and thinking is critical for climate adaptation efforts.

Third, the review points out that participatory planning efforts can help build consensus around coastal megaprojects. There are many stakeholders involved, from the general public to various agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, and politicians. Each of these groups may have different or competing perspectives on what the priorities should be and how to address them. Tradeoffs often exist across technical feasibility, level of protection, cost, and social impact or environmental justice considerations. In some cases, disagreements between stakeholders have led to failure to achieve consensus.

The authors’ final conclusion is that environmental laws and public opposition remain enduring challenges to coastal resilience megaprojects. Environmental protection laws have been put in place to protect natural resources, preventing developments that would cause significant degradation to the environment. However, many coastal megaprojects that would lead to greater overall security for people living along the coast have been blocked because of the real or potential damage they might cause to marine or coastal ecosystems. In some cases, consideration of the environmental impacts of a proposal have led to lawsuits from neighborhood groups, environmental organizations, or other special interest groups.

Environmental justice concerns are another factor that can influence public engagement – either from the perspective of certain communities being disproportionately affected by the inconveniences of project development, for example through loss of public spaces or pollution, or through competing ideas about the costs and benefits of projects, for example with some groups being more concerned about access to parks and recreation than about ensuring protections for low-income communities.

The literature review stops short of making specific policy recommendations to government agencies involved in coastal protection, such as the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the authors will provide these insights in future work. “In a second study, we look at a few projects in detail and glean some specific insights that we hope will be beneficial for the Army Corps and other agencies involved in coastal resilience,” Rasmussen said. The authors plan to submit this work for publication in the near future.

The article, “The political complexity of coastal flood risk reduction: lessons for climate adaptation public works in the U.S.,” first appeared in the journal Earth’s Future on December 28, 2020. The authors are D.J. Rasmussen (Princeton University), Robert E. Kopp (Rutgers University), Rachael Schwom (Rutgers University), and Michael Oppenheimer (Princeton University). The research was supported by NSF grant ICER-1663807, NSF grant 1520683, and the High Meadows Foundation.