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What We Learned at NOAA's Social Coast Forum

February 20, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

Last week we attended the 5th Biennial Social Coast Forum in Charleston, South Carolina. The event, hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA), is held every two years to bring coastal social scientists together for crucial knowledge-sharing. As first time attendees, we had the chance to meet and learn from individuals working on inspiring projects ranging from economic valuation to managed retreat. With well over 100 sessions, it was impossible to hear every speaker so we focused on attending sessions centered on digital tools and climate adaptation. We learned a lot about a lot. Here are some of our key takeaways:

We need to redesign or reimagine the status quo

A theme that pervaded the event was articulated early on during the plenary session: we can't keep doing what we've done in the past. U.S. Representative Joe Cunningham (SC-01) spoke about environmental justice and the equity implications of climate change in the lowcountry: "More often than not, those who create the mess don't have to live in it." He called on the crowd to think outside of the box to rally public and private resources for adaptation. Nicole LeBoeuf, of NOAA's National Ocean Service (NOS) dug deeper — calling for a reexamination of the role of the federal government in planning for future climate scenarios. She also spoke about the need for nimbleness in experimenting with outreach and engagement solutions. Surili Sutaria Patel, the Director of the Center for Climate, Health & Equity at the American Public Health Association (APHA) ended the plenary with a powerful keynote on the importance of sea change at all levels of government: "If we don't do things differently, we are risking our human and civil rights."

Throughout the Forum, speakers responded to these calls for action with examples of on-the-ground solutions. A notable instance was Wetlands Watch's adaptive land management work, which was presented by its Director of Policy — Mary-Carson Stiff. The organization is partnering with the Living River Trust to mobilize land trust to enable managed retreat. While the partnership is still in Year 1 of implementation, its work hold significant promise for developing solutions to traditional barriers to adaptation. Research conducted by NOAA Coastal Management and Digital Coast Fellows proposed additional changes to land use regulation and incentive processes with an eye to environmental and procedural justice. Alexis Cunningham presented research on access to FEMA's Community Rating System (CRS) that suggested a crucial gap in the participation of low-income and rural communities. Amber Anastacio-Roberts presented ongoing efforts conducted by the California Coastal Commission to put its innovative environmental justice policy to work.

The question of scaling.

Though quite varied in practice, Social Coast's attendees were united by the lens of social science as a tool for research and outreach. As noted by NOAA NOS' Nicole Leboeuf, "we need social scientists to help tell the story of the outsized economic and social impacts...that our coasts have on our entire nation." Nicole spoke about the challenge of translation (how do you communicate environmental risk to varied stakeholders?) and that of scaling (how do you grow an audience and make sure that your work is equipped to communicate at scale?).

The question of scale is pretty hairy, especially in the context of limited local government resources and centuries of coastal investment. Multiple presenters cited municipalities as the key to unlocking risk communications. In their presentation entitled "Shaping Community Resilience: Measuring Neighborhood-Level Perspective on Recurrent Flooding",  Anamaria Bukvin and Hongxiao Zhu recommended that "Localities should find innovative ways to provide resources for a bottom-up adaptation." While cities are, in many ways, uniquely positioned to enable local adaptation, they are also often chronically understaffed. In speaking about the Jamaica Bay Community Flood Watch Project, Helen Cheng noted how challenging flood planning can be for municipalities. During her presentation, she stated that "it's like asking the city to stop the ocean." Echoing this sentiment during his presentation of Texas A&M's Community Health and Resource Management tool (CHARM), Steven Mikulencak recalled asking government participants what the single greatest barrier to becoming more resilient was. They answered "ourselves".

Financing still presents major challenges.

Surprise! Money for coastal risk education, outreach, and research is still scarce and difficult to manage. Several speakers called on industry and research institutions to produce additional tools for communicating flood risk and building adaptation arguments. Funding for adaptation action is often predicated on a community's ability to make data-based claims about need, budget, and implementation. Jeremy Bell of The Nature Conservancy presented Maine's Coastal Risk Explorer. He observed that, while the tool was built for planning and outreach, it found significant utility in informing and providing evidence for community funding applications. Relatedly, on the last day of the conference, Skip Stiles presented a Wetlands Watch's local government needs assessment. The organization found that local governments wanted marketing materials and data to build arguments for funding.

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