The Coasts Are Disappearing. We Need to Protect Them for Everyone.

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and coasts to disappear. Can we protect these vital ecosystems for humans and other animals at the same time?

coast turtle beach

Perspective Climate Oceans

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We know that climate change will affect everyone. Yet in our efforts to address climate change, we tend to consider some individuals much more than others. For instance, when we attempt to protect our coastlines, we tend to consider the needs of humans much more than the needs of nonhumans. We also tend to consider the needs of some nonhumans, such as land animals, much more than the needs of others, such as aquatic animals.

This narrow approach to coastal policy needs to change. Fortunately, when we consider the needs of everyone contextually, holistically, and structurally, we can find new approaches that benefit humans and nonhumans alike.

Consider the threat of sea-level rise. As a result of warming temperatures, melting ice caps, and other factors, sea levels have risen by about six inches over the past 115 years. Sea-level rise causes flooding and erosion, habitat and corridor destruction, and adverse effects for humans and nonhumans in coastal regions. The damage is difficult to overstate. Naturally vegetated coastlines protect us from many of the worst effects of sea-level rise. Yet we have already lost more than 50 percent of coastal wetlands over the past century, with more losses to come.

Fortunately, many people are aware of the threats to coastlines and are working hard to protect them. Coastal adaptations can take many forms, including coastline restoration, construction of sea walls, elevation of coastal structures, and managed retreats from shores. Since each coastal region is different, there is no universal way to protect coastlines. Climate scientists are advising governments to think contextually and holistically about which adaptations are best for which regions, given everything that makes a region distinctive.

Unfortunately, our efforts to protect our coastlines mostly consider only one group of impacted constituents: humans and, to a degree, other land animals. By ignoring aquatic animals, adaptation plans are not nearly holistic enough—and so their effects are, at best, mixed.

In Miami Beach, adaptation efforts involve a combination of elevating structures and pumping flood water back into the bay. While this approach mitigates flooding, it also dramatically increases water pollution. The pumped water contains an estimated 1,000 times the safe limit of fecal bacteria, which originates from leaking sewage systems, retired septic tanks, and other poorly maintained human-built infrastructure. The environmental impact assessment for this adaptation effort excluded any analysis of potential impacts to the bay. As a result, these impacts, much less the detrimental effects on aquatic animals, were simply not considered.

In other parts of Florida, adaptation efforts involve building sea walls. While sea walls protect property, they also damage sea turtle nesting sites. Ninety percent of all sea turtle nesting in North America occurs on Florida beaches. Sea walls make it harder for sea turtles to find suitable nest sites and enhance erosion which can wash away the nests that they do create. And while we can replenish nesting sites with sand from the ocean floor, the acts of dredging and placing this sand can cause environmental damage as well. Yet neither sea wall construction nor ocean floor dredging requires an environmental impact assessment, and regulations for sea wall placement are full of loopholes.

Some might argue that we should simply accept these harms to aquatic animals. Implementing climate policy almost always involves trade-offs; when the interests of aquatic and land animals (including humans) conflict, then, some might think, we should favor our own interests. But doing so would be a profound mistake. We have a responsibility to consider the interests of everyone impacted by our coastal policies, no matter who they are or where they live. Moreover, if we approach coastal policy in a contextual, integrated, and structural manner, then we might be surprised by how many mutually advantageous solutions we can find to coastal problems.

Many people already accept that climate change policies must be contextual, integrated, and structural when considering the impacts on humans. Human adaptations must be contextual since our problems and abilities vary by region, and therefore our solutions must vary by region as well. Human adaptations must be integrated, since our problems are linked, and therefore our solutions must be linked as well. And human adaptations must be structural, since our current political and economic systems limit which solutions are available to us, compelling us to develop new structures to implement new and better solutions.

Our task now is to apply this framework to our relationships with other animals, including aquatic animals. It might seem as though we have to choose among humans, land animals, and aquatic animals because past decisions limit present options. Humans have already significantly altered coastal environments through the destruction of coastal ecosystems, creation of coastal infrastructure, and displacement of nonhuman populations. If we continue with the same approach, then, yes, our options are limited. But if we fundamentally alter our approach, then we can simultaneously address historical harms and expand our options for limiting future harms.

Consider what a more holistic approach to sea-level rise in Florida might look like. We could conduct more impact assessments, for instance by considering the ecological impacts of sea wall construction and ocean floor dredging. We could conduct these assessments more comprehensively, for instance by considering how pumped flood water affects water quality and, as a result, human and nonhuman health. And we could combine these impact assessments with meaningful environmental regulations, to ensure that we both pursue the best possible adaptations and reduce and repair any harms that the chosen solutions cause.

Sea levels will continue rising for hundreds of years, regardless of emissions trajectories. As humans adapt to the changing climate, we need to consider—in a contextual, integrated, and structural manner—the interests of everyone involved, including aquatic animals. This approach is necessary for creating a safe and equitable future for everyone in our communities.

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