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In the Adaptation Report of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies floods in urban riverine and coastal areas as among the key climate-related risks for North America. Not surprisingly for residents of coastal and riverine communities devastated by recent extreme weather events, the Adaptation Report acknowledges that risks related to sea-level rise, increased frequency and duration of extreme precipitation events, and increasingly intense coastal storms are not only future risks, but are current risks that are already manifesting in property and infrastructure damage, ecosystem and social system disruption, public health impacts, and water quality impairment. The Adaptation Report identifies the current risk level for North American coastal cities as “medium” and projects that, with a 2° Centigrade (C) increase in global average temperatures over pre-industrial levels, coastal urban areas will have to implement “high adaptation” just to maintain the current risk level of medium. With a 4°C increase, even high adaptation is projected to have little efficacy—indeed, the IPCC reports that under a 4°C pathway North American coastal cities will face high risk levels even if they implement high adaptation. Given that staying within a 2°C pathway appears unlikely, policymakers should heed the IPCC’s projections by implementing waterfront development policies consistent with increasingly severe flood risks in both current and expanded flood zones.

Notwithstanding the magnitude of present and future risks to coastal and riverine communities, however, waterfront development policies have shifted only incrementally. The result has been the continued siting of residential communities and critical infrastructure in vulnerable waterfront areas and the expansion and entrenchment of policies, behaviors, and preferences that, at best, fail to mitigate risk and, at worst, heighten risk. Even communities that have otherwise undertaken robust climate change mitigation and adaptation planning continue to base waterfront development policies on irrationally discounted risk projections and embrace communication strategies that obfuscate the risk and ultimately undermine the communities’ ability to adequately respond to the risks. The literature on “wicked” and “super-wicked” policy problems suggests that, in the current context of heightened risk aversion following a major disaster like Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina, municipal governments in the affected areas have an opportunity to transform waterfront development policies consistent with scientific evidence on climate related risks. Shifting waterfront development policies toward resilience likely begins with official communications that accurately portray risk, including waterfront and hazard mitigation plans, flood risk maps, and comprehensive planning processes, which can facilitate changes in zoning and building codes and private market behavior consistent with near- and long-term risks.

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Environmental Law Institute

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Land Use Law Commons