Preparing for the Future Without Experience of the Present


I’ve long suggested that the appropriate course of action for government agents who believe that climate change is bringing potentially cataclysmic changes ought to be to prepare, not to trample freedom in a futile effort to forestall it.  That preference hasn’t changed, but it doesn’t mean other options don’t exist… like leaving people alone.

My sense that the third option is probably the appropriate one grows when I read articles like Alex Kuffner’s “Here’s how Rhode Island can begin to resist rising seas,” in the Providence Journal.  To understand why, apply just a little bit of skepticism to the example around which Kuffner structure’s his piece:

Tucked in amongst the grass and shrubs along the shoreline just a short walk from Oakland Beach is a patch of crumbling asphalt.

This is where Sea View Drive used to continue south along Buttonwoods Cove and curve around the coast to the beach that opens onto Greenwich Bay.

The storm surge from the Hurricane of 1938 leveled the homes built along the road and the same thing happened again during Hurricane Carol in 1954. Aerial photos taken after the latter storm show a sea of empty foundations.

So, Sea View Drive experienced a relatively rapid-fire pair of destructive weather events just 16 years apart, but that was 63 years ago.  Aren’t these events supposed to be increasing in frequency?  Yes, yes, I know how odds and randomness work in these matters, but if activists and journalists are pushing a call for action, readers aren’t obligated to ignore how far back they have to reach.

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Kuffner reinforces the point later, when he attempts to convey a sense of increasing urgency:

How rapidly are conditions changing? When work on the Beach SAMP started in 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected an upper estimate for sea level rise of seven feet by 2100. Since then, NOAA has revised that projection upward to 10 feet.

If conditions are changing so “rapidly,” why is the evidence limited to old anecdotes and new projections from a government agency with institutional incentive to predict and pre-address speculative events?

By all means, let’s stop subsidizing relatively wealthy waterfront property owners (like radical U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse) by collectivizing the risks that they take when they invest in supposedly threatened areas, but let’s not work ourselves into a panic to get there.

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  • Rhett Hardwick

    “Why do they have to go back so far”, the answer is simple and obvious, they are seeking “advocacy statistics”. I am sure they will go to any lengths.

    My favorite “advocacy statistic” is the amazing number of “missing children” the Center for Missing Children produces. One of their definitions is that if a kid is usually home from school at 3:30, if he doesn’t arrive until 3:40, he has been “missing” for ten minutes.

    • Mike678

      Interesting that the most current NOAA analysis from their website is:

      “Scientists are very confident that global mean sea level will rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meter) but no more than 6.6 feet (2.0 meters) by 2100″

      I guess 8″ or the extreme of 6.6′ doesn’t convey the same “sense of urgency.” That said, it’s smart to think about climate change in deciding where to build roads and what elevations new homes in coastal areas and flood zones should achieve. Flood insurance rates can help drive that dynamic.

  • Merle The Monster

    You write that “government agents “ should not “trample freedom “in addressing the effects of climate change. Specifically which freedoms are you referring to and how would they be trampled?

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Property Rights come to mind immediately, if you own land near the water and are not allowed to build.

  • BasicCaruso

    “….if activists and journalists are pushing a call for action, readers aren’t obligated to ignore how far back they have to reach.”

    The U.S. in the midst of one of the worst hurricane seasons on record and Justin says everything must be find because his roof is intact. Classic.
    As the Weather Channel noted, the number of hurricanes which hit the US in 2017 was four—Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate—the worst such season on record since 2004 and 2005, both of which saw five storms hit the US. But the intensity of some individual storms has been far worse; since records began being kept in 1851, never have three Category 4 storms (Harvey, Irma and Maria) hit the US or its territories in the same year. And the impact on the US and particularly the Caribbean has been devastating, with numerous cities and islands ravaged by the consecutive storms.

    • Justin Katz

      Hey, talk to Kuffner.

      What I find “classic” is your use of “hitting the United States” as the metric while sneering at me for following Kuffner’s implied metric of “hitting Rhode Island.”

      • BasicCaruso

        I don’t blame you from wanting to distance yourself from the myopic belief that storms will never hit Rhode Island. And who can even remember all the way back to 2012?

        Hurricane Sandy leaves beaches along Westerly, R.I., shore, including Misquamicut, devastated and nearly unrecognizable

        Or 2010?

        What Made the Flood of 2010 So Devastating?

        • Justin Katz

          Now you’re widening the goal. Kuffner set the scope of this particular discussion, which is sea level and waterfront. Both of your citations are for weather. A hurricane and a heavy rain storm. There’s a reason Kuffner didn’t apply those to his topic for this article.

          • BasicCaruso

            Last I checked, the Hurricane of ’38 was weather, just like Sandy. And Kuffner mentioned increased flooding as cause for concern, not once but twice.


            Sandy, alas, is giving us a frightening preview of the future. Storm surges – the giant waves propelled by hurricanes (and, to a lesser extent, other types of storms) – have traditionally been a problem for cities along the Gulf of Mexico, where a lot of infrastructure is in the line of hurricanes, and storm surges can rise very high as they run up on shallow coastlines. But on the East Coast, we’re all New Orleans now: the combination of rising seas and fiercer storms from climate change poses a serious long-term threat, and we’re going to see some of what that means over the next 24 hours.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I had t add th8is. NASA confirms sea levels are falling: