Last year, I participated with a group of academic researchers and environmental professionals from around the state of Georgia (e.g. Emory University, College of Coastal Georgia, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, Nature Conservancy, and the list goes on) to publish the results of the Climate Research Roadmap. Through a year-long information-gathering process and workshop, 40 experts from the natural, applied, and social sciences convened to construct a manuscript of the key climate research questions that could lay the groundwork for Georgia decision-makers to take effective, science-based action in our state.
Among these 40 questions, a few stand out as particularly relevant in the Golden Isles where our geography presents at least two unique risks — a coastal ecosystem and rural communities. I call these features of our geography “risks” because from a climate change perspective, we are facing specific threats according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration in late 2018 — rising sea levels, increases in heat waves, more widespread droughts, increasingly intense storm events, and extreme precipitation events. These factors are unpleasant to deal with at best, but are costly as well.
In Coastal Georgia, we have $1 trillion of our national wealth held in coastal real estate and as a state, agriculture contributes $73 billion annually to our economy. As sea levels continue to rise and storms continue to increase in intensity and frequency, our coastal real estate and infrastructure have become vulnerable assets that are already costing residents and businesses dearly. Though rebuilding after tropical storm and hurricane events in the Golden Isles has thus far been relatively successful, costs will escalate alongside escalating climate impacts. Agriculture is already seeing the impacts of increasing temperatures on soil quality and food yields, which is likely to have an impact on food prices not just in our state but nationally. And while all of us feel these economic stressors, economically underserved and disadvantaged communities bear the largest cost as they are least equipped to adapt. Low or no access to savings or emergency funds make low income communities particularly vulnerable to long term effects like uninhabitable structures and health risk exposure (e.g. mold). This is not welcome news for the 18 percent of Glynn county residents living below the poverty line.
Climate change impacts are being felt now, but the costs of those impacts are going to be felt well into the future. It’s a long game policy issue. Unfortunately, bureaucratic systems (particularly in a democracy) are not well-suited to addressing the long game. Bureaucracies can be bulky and take entirely too long to get things done. Elected officials in democracies are increasingly forced to answer to the immediate concerns of constituents and have difficulty tackling long term issues that may fall outside of the scope of their elected term of office. Clearly this is not always the case, but it seems to be closer to the rule than the exception.
How grim, so where do we go from here? What rural and coastal Georgians could benefit from is resiliency planning. Resiliency planning is both reactive and pre-emptive. It addresses current and anticipated needs. Several coastal communities are already engaging in this process including Tybee Island’s Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan and St. Mary’s Flood Resiliency Project. Glynn County and the City of Brunswick have begun talking about this need through events like the recent “Rising Sea Level Predictions: What They Might Mean for Glynn County” symposium, but concrete, collaborative resiliency planning is not yet a reality.
I mentioned before that the Georgia Climate project landed on several questions that can help provide coastal Georgia decision-makers with credible, relevant data that can inform planning and policy-making. These questions address issues such as planning for and adapting to extreme weather events, understanding coastal risk factors, agricultural impacts, and impacts to rural infrastructure and communities. This research has the potential to contribute both scientific and historical/cultural knowledge to the process of resiliency planning.
A good next step would be to connect researchers working on these questions with decision-makers who can use the information to create a more resilient Golden Isles. Using relevant data to inform our planning, we can position ourselves to efficiently deal with the impacts of climate change and perhaps avoid unnecessary costs in the future.