OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Surveys about Adapting to Changing Climate Reveal Coastal Concerns

01/21/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Coastal officials and owners of coastal property in Oregon and Maine don’t need to be persuaded that climate change is happening. They believe that both government and individuals should begin taking action now to adapt to expected effects.

These are among several insights from surveys conducted in Oregon and Maine by the Sea Grant programs in those states. The surveys, launched in early 2008, are believed to be the largest studies to date to focus on United States’ coastal populations and the challenge of adapting to the expected effects of coastal climate change, such as a rise in sea level. Most climate surveys focus on opinions related to reducing the causes of global warming.

In Oregon, survey participants were 300 individuals, all of whom make decisions regarding development in the coastal zone. They included representatives of both the public sector, such as city planners, city council members and state agency personnel, and the private sector, including realtors, geotechnical consultants and bankers.

In Maine, 548 homeowners and 55 coastal public officials took the survey.

The surveys were designed to obtain particular insights about the specific groups, and so some questions differed between the Maine and Oregon surveys, and some questions differed between the Maine homeowner and public official versions. But other important questions were identical for all respondents in both states, said Joseph Cone, project leader and assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant.

“Across the board, a large majority of all respondents are concerned about climate change and believe both governments and individuals should take immediate steps to both reduce the causes of climate change as well as prepare for expected effects,” said Cone.

The fact that most climate change surveys focus on opinions about reducing global warming can make the issue seem distant or impersonal issue, he added – “a matter of polar bears or cap-and-trade emission-control schemes.”

The Oregon and Maine surveys revealed coastal residents are very aware of the direct effects of climate change on them. Oregon participants, for instance, were specifically asked to list up to five risks that they associate with the effects of climate change on the Oregon coast. The survey question did not prompt with risk examples, yet 280 of the 300 respondents identified at least one risk.

“Psychological research shows that people judge risks by both facts and feelings, analytically and from personal experience,” said Cone. “Personal experience with some of the environmental risks associated with living along the coast under existing circumstances probably made respondents more attuned to risks associated with climate change. For them, climate change is not distant or abstract.”

In both states, coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and increased flooding associated with climate change topped participants’ lists of concerns. Within these topics, their effects on existing infrastructure, such as seawalls, roads and sewage treatment plants, were important concerns.

A rise in sea levels is one of the greatest concerns globally with climate change, said Cone, but he noted that people in different locations expect different rises. The State of Maine officially is preparing for a two-foot rise in sea level during this century, and numerous, often expensive, beachfront homes, are likely in harm’s way. Rules established there in 2006 place some limits and conditions on new construction and reconstruction in designated erosion hazard areas.

“Maine is way ahead of the curve in terms of regulations for both construction and reconstruction of personal dwellings and of seawalls in erosion hazard zones,” said Susan White, project co-leader and associate director of Maine Sea Grant. “However, many coastal property owners are frustrated by the difficulty in navigating through these regulations when they just want to protect their homes.”

The two surveys found that public officials in both states are more likely than private citizens to consider themselves well-informed about climate change effects, and the officials believe that climate change will require action from them in the next two years (72 percent of officials in Maine; 64 percent in Oregon). But they also perceive specific barriers in the way of taking action: workload, funding and critical information.

In Maine, approximately half of the officials indicated they already have a full load at work and can’t add another activity. But more than 80 percent of respondents indicated they would be willing to take action in their work if they had compelling information about anticipated risks and if there were adequate funding.

The Oregon public sector responses are similar; nearly 80 percent of respondents wanted compelling information about risks and adequate funding in order to act.

Perhaps as significant as these considerations for some was the perceived lack of urgency regarding local climate change effects from those who influence or assign the work to respondents, Cone said. Fewer than two out of five respondents in both states were hearing a sense of urgency.

While the results of the surveys are substantial and informative, they cannot be construed as strictly representative of the coastal populations of either state, because of the way the surveys were conducted.

“Given the novelty of the subject of adapting to coastal climate change and our desire to have as large a response from our survey audiences as possible, we did not randomly sample,” said Cone. “Nevertheless, we feel that the results are constructive and will help us assist our coastal communities, as they become ready and interested in adapting to climate change.”

The surveys are part of a larger joint project between the states funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Climate Program Office’s Sectoral Applications Research Program.

For more news about science, marine education and related activities on the Oregon coast, subscribe to “Breaking Waves,” the Oregon Sea Grant news blog, at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/blogs/