A Public Health Perspective on Sea-Level Rise: Starting Points for Climate Change Adaptation

25 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2008 Last revised: 3 Feb 2013

Date Written: April 15, 2010


One of the widely acknowledged consequences of global climate change is sea-level rise. Sea-level rise has predictable impacts on human welfare and the environment. Indeed, these impacts are potentially so severe that, in a policy briefing organized by the U.S. Geological Survey, both federal and state officials advised Congress in March 2008 that the federal government should be providing assistance to coastal states for climate change-induced sea-level rise and storms.

Sea-level rise requires coastal states and communities to plan adaptation strategies. Sea-level rise is already occurring, as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in Massachusetts v. EPA, and the oceans will continue to rise for some time, regardless of the climate change mitigation measures that the countries of the world decide to take. Therefore, some adjustment to sea-level rise - adaptation - is inevitable.

However, sea-level rise poses two challenges for leaders trying to formulate adaptation plans. First, sea-level rise is slow, measured in millimeters per year, and the full extent of climate change-driven sea-level rise is expected to take centuries to manifest. This is a planning horizon outside the political ken of most governmental bodies; indeed, planning horizons longer than a few decades are extremely rare. Second, scientists are still uncertain as to the extent of the problem. Specifically, how high will the oceans rise?

For both reasons, adaptation to sea-level rise requires some form of adaptive management - an ability to react to new information regarding the extent and speed of sea-level rise as that information becomes more certain and precise for different areas of the country. Moreover, an adaptive management approach to sea-level rise allows current governmental officials to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the uncertainties and time frames involved into inertia. Instead, recognition of the need for an adaptive approach necessarily counsels governments to implement initial adaptation measures that will be beneficial to coastal communities regardless of how far the oceans encroach and how fast they do so.

This Article suggests that taking a public health approach to sea-level rise can provide governments and planners with immediately implementable and no regrets adaptation measures that will be beneficial to coastal communities regardless of the eventual actual impacts of sea-level rise in particular areas of the country. Specifically, this Article suggests that planners should begin by looking at three specific concerns: (1) availability of drinking water supplies; (2) potential changes in disease exposure, with possible resultant changes in medical infrastructure and training needs; and (3) the potential for the toxic contamination of sea water as it comes ashore, with resultant changes in allowable land uses in the coastal zone.

Keywords: climate change, adaptation, sea level, public health, planning, land use, disease, water supply

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, A Public Health Perspective on Sea-Level Rise: Starting Points for Climate Change Adaptation (April 15, 2010). Widener Law Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 521-540, 2010, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 307, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1119563

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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