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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