Adapting to a Changing Ocean: A Global Society Perspective


David Victor is a professor of international relations and director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at UC San Diego. His research focuses on highly regulated industries and how regulation affects the operation of major energy markets. He is the author of Global Warming Gridlock, which explains why the world hasn’t made much diplomatic progress on the problem of climate change and the search for new strategies. He is a member of the advisory council for Nature Climate Change and a board member of Climatic Change and the Electric Power Research Institute. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an A.B. from Harvard University.

How did you get into the areas of climate change and sea-level rise?

I got into sea-level rise and climate adaptation almost accidentally. It came from despair about the diplomacy on mitigation. I study international law and one of the areas where international and legal negotiations and diplomacy have been going on the longest and have achieved the least is climate change. When you look at that record, a lot of what I do is try and make that diplomatic process better and I realize it’s going to be slow and difficult, even when it works well, and that means we’re committed to a lot of climate change and a lot of adaptation.

What are the challenges that societies face from sea-level rise in the future?

I think we have to remember that sea-level rise is part of a larger set of likely impacts of climate change and we need to prepare to adapt to those. We need to also remember that adaptation is part of a larger strategy to deal with the climate change problem and we also can’t forget that we have to fundamentally change our energy system and make cuts in emissions that are causing the climate change problem in the first place.

One of the reasons this is a hard issue to deal with is it requires working on mitigation, adaptation, and getting ready for emergencies in case extreme or catastrophic changes in the climate occur. We need to be ready for that as well.

I think one of the challenges with climate policy is that no one really feels like the clock is ticking and that results in inaction. We talk about climate problems but we don’t really do very much about it. Adaptation is going to be very different because the problems are going to start happening and they are going to be in our face and we’re going to need to address them. Extreme drought, wildfires, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and other things in California alone. I think the good news in this area is that policymakers won’t be able to avoid these problems. They are going to have to do something much more urgently because the problems will be much more apparent with immediate costs from failure.

What should the public and especially coastal communities know about sea-level rise, climate change, and their impacts? Why should they care?

The most fundamental point is that we are in for a lot of climate change. We have spent more than 20 years talking about this issue at diplomatic conferences and basically haven’t gotten much done. As a result of that, emissions are building up in the atmosphere. We know the climate is sensitive. We know that the inevitable result of all that is that seas will rise and a variety of other impacts from climate change will happen.

We need to get serious about cutting emissions. But even if we do that we are committed, in effect, to significant climate change. It’s something that we in the academic community need to understand better and need to help policymakers prepare for.

How might people and societies adapt to rising seas and stronger storms?

I think coastal communities need to know that first of all the seas are rising. It’s hard for people to grasp that because it’s outside the realm of their normal experience. They’re used to days with high seas and low seas, and they are used to stormy days. But the overall sea level is rising and the overall impact of storm surges will become more severe over time.

The second thing they need to know is that the impact of these rising seas and stronger storms will vary enormously by local conditions. Here in San Diego, for example, there is a big difference between the vulnerability and the best strategies in Mission Bay, for example, which is an enclosed area with relatively shallow slopes going into the ocean, versus some of the cliff areas, where the adaptation strategies are going to be quite different.

When you think about adaptation to rising seas from a policy perspective, it’s almost the exact opposite of the policy problem for controlling emissions. The policy problem for controlling emissions requires that all countries in various ways cooperate to address the problem. One country working by itself won’t really have a big global impact. So it’s a really intrinsically international policy problem.

Adaptation to rising seas is the exact opposite. The best strategies for adaptation need to be rooted deeply in local conditions. They might be different in San Diego from New York, Miami, and coastal areas in China. So local policymakers have a much more central role to play.

What will be needed from the social sciences to address these areas?

I think one of the open questions is whether policymakers can learn from each other. So some places in the United States are already on the leading edge of thinking about adaptation to climate change, including California. Some cities around the United States are doing things similarly. Many cities in Florida are already experiencing similar kinds of impacts

Some of what policymakers need to know is that other policymakers are experiencing similar kinds of challenges. They can compare notes and that’s an area where institutions can help move knowledge around the world.

Policymakers need to understand that academic research can really play a big role here. We know a lot about the physics of how rising seas will affect storm surges, will affect the way waves break, will affect erosion. We’re learning more about the social science around this, about how people make decisions, about how institutions succeed and fail. If we can bring that knowledge to bear then I think that will be enormously valuable for policymakers.

What role will institutions such as Scripps Oceanography and UC San Diego play in developing the research needed to more fully understand sea-level rise and its impacts?

I think people and institutions are going to make very different decisions when you compare the relatively easy, small changes, which won’t be that expensive. Beach nourishment in San Diego is a few million dollars, which is serious money but nothing like the potentially much larger impacts of climate change.

There’s a big difference between those small decisions that institutions already know how to make, and which they can finance with existing capabilities, and the potentially much larger, much more expensive, much more strategic decisions. We know looking around the world that societies vary enormously in their capacity to look forward, plan, and make strategic decisions like this, to work together. In fact, in some sense, one of the most fundamental insights about political behavior and social behavior is that people vary enormously in their ability to work in groups, especially in political groups, and to make collective decisions.

Some of that will happen as the climate changes. It will put pressure on societies to band together and make collective, expensive choices where they are investing together in their own long-term future.

I think the impacts of climate change are one of the grand challenges that we face in society. It’s not the only one. There are tremendous and interesting questions about the future of the Internet, large data processing, tailored medicine, and the list goes on.

But when you look at the physical environment, climate change is one of—if not the—greatest challenge worldwide to nature as we currently understand it. It’s almost entirely driven by humans and so it implicates how humans interact with nature, which is really a question of justice, political philosophy, and moral philosophy. These are all things that people are working on inside the academic milieu, and areas where we can really make a big difference in the day-to-day and eventually the long-term evolution of how our societies are organized and how we live.

— Mario C. Aguilera

Related Video: Adapting to a Changing Ocean: A Global Society Perspective

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