My name is Dylan Voorhees and I am the Climate & Clean Energy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Thank you for allowing us to present this testimony. We appreciate the effort of the sponsor to bring forward this important bill, and thank the members of this committee, including the co-chairs, who co-sponsored it. We support this common-sense legislation, which would integrate critical scientific information about sea-level rise into permitting and licensing decisions in a consistent and predictable manner. Doing so will better protect Maine’s environment and built infrastructure, and increase regulatory predictability and certainty.
Maine scientists, planners, and others have understood for some time that sea-level rise from a warming climate poses a considerable risk to Maine’s extended coastline. We have the second-longest coastline on the eastern seaboard (after Florida), and large portions of our coast are low-lying. Much of our population—and therefore our built infrastructure—is located close to the coast. Furthermore, our coastal economy, from tourism to fisheries, is extremely important to Maine’s economy and traditional values.
Sea-level rise is an established scientific fact, whether you consult the literature from the international scientific community or from the University of Maine. And unfortunately for us, the severity of sea-level rise projections have only increased over the past decade, in particular as scientists’ understanding of melting glaciers has matured. Below are some key findings about sea-level rise from four extremely well-respected scientific institutions.
In its 2015 update to its “Maine’s Climate Future”¹ report, the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute stated:
- Today, sea level is rising at a rate much faster than any time in the past 5,000 years.
- Global sea level is projected to rise an additional 0.5 to 2.0 feet or more by 2050. Scientists consider these ranges of estimates to be conservative, with other estimates of global sea-level rise notably higher—an equivalent of 3.3 feet or more by mid-century.
- The last time temperatures increased by 3.5–5.5 °F (which international climate models predict for Maine by 2050 under “business-as-usual” scenarios), the accompanying melting of portions of Greenland and Antarctica resulted in an eventual sea-level rise of more than 16 feet, suggesting that current estimates of sea-level rise for the projected warming by 2100 may be on the low end.
The Risky Business Project² focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate. The project is led by a bipartisan committee that include George Schultz (Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State for Ronald Reagan) and Henry Paulson (Treasury Secretary for George W. Bush), and former U.S. Senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe. According to the 2014 Risky Business report:
“While the Northeast region of the U.S. is expected to experience a sizeable increase in temperatures and average number of extremely hot days over the course of the century, the region’s major climate impact will be sea level rise and its effect on coastal infrastructure.” (emphasis added)
The scientific basis for a response to sea-level rise is clear. It is also obvious that an enormous amount of private and public property lies close to current coastlines. These include roads, bridges, schools, and wastewater treatment plants, all of which are paid for by taxpayers and most of which are built to last for a generation or more. Attached to our testimony are three maps that illustrate in red the minimum impacts of sea-level rise of three feet. The orange areas show areas that would be impacted by larger amounts of sea-level rise—and also serve as useful illustrations of areas most vulnerable to storm damage that occurs when sea-level rise is combined with more frequent and more severe storms (which are also projected to accompany climate change).
Several responses are called for, at multiple levels of government—including actions to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions which, if unchecked, will mean we experience the most extreme levels of sea-level rise. Adaptive responses and planning are also required. One of the most cost-effective and common-sense approaches is to ensure that new or modified development and infrastructure, i.e., those requiring a permit or license, will not be unduly at risk—or put public resources at risk—as a result of sea-level rise over coming decades. Existing infrastructure is hard to shift, but we have a chance to get new infrastructure right if we plan ahead now.
In 2014, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection issued an excellent report on adapting to climate change. One of the recommendations was for the Department to “Develop application submission requirements to address sea level rise as a consideration in design and review for all projects within 250 feet of a coastal wetland, that are subject to DEP licensing under the Natural Resources Protection Act or the Site Location of Development Act.”³ This bill would provide the Department with clear authority to implement that recommendation.
The language of this bill is thoughtfully balanced to provide legal clarity and sufficiently broad authority. It falls well short of what could be done on this issue, but is nonetheless an incredibly important step. It does not give the Department additional authority to protect natural resources, but it requires more foresight and predictability in how they go about the business of assessing risks and protections.
This bill will increase regulatory predictability for permit applicants and licensees by establishing a clear regulatory standard that arguably replaces case-by-case discretion by the Department. The bill gives the Department considerable discretion, but discretion to set a standard by which all applicants will be held in a consistent and predictable manner. It gives the Department wide latitude to consider scientific and other information about potential sea-level rise and storm surge. And the bill provides the Department with a generous time period (more than a year from the likely effective date of the bill) to prepare for and conduct rulemaking.
The fact that sea-level rise is already happening is indisputable. And the conclusion that additional sea-level rise will occur in the coming decades is inescapable based on fundamental science. How much will occur and how quickly, and how sea-level rise will combine with storm surges, is more uncertain. It would be unfair and costly to expect developers and applicants to try to anticipate how any given Department will consider sea-level rise. Instead, a generally applicable standard can take the best available science and apply it uniformly to protect resources under existing authority.
In conclusion, we could hardly put it more clearly than Risky Business committee member Olympia Snowe, who stated: “What Risky Business shows us is that climate change poses measurable risks to our economy, and that some of these risks are quite severe. Our coastal communities are especially vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge. But the risks get even worse if we don’t act to make our coastal infrastructure more resilient, and begin to mitigate the risks through reducing emissions.”
Additional scientific information about sea-level rise
The National Climate Assessment4 is the country’s top interagency review of climate change science and impacts. The Third Assessment was published in 2014. (Dr. Robert Kates, from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, was a lead author for the Northeast chapter.) Key findings for the Northeast include:
- Coastal flooding has increased due to a rise in sea level of approximately 1 foot since 1900. (This rate of sea-level rise exceeds the global average of approximately 8 inches.)
- Global sea levels are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100. Sea-level rise in the Northeast is projected to continue to exceed global average sea-level rise.
- Sea-level rise of two feet, without any changes in storms, would more than triple the frequency of dangerous coastal flooding throughout most of the Northeast. (Furthermore the Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States. Between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw more than a 70% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events.)
A study published in the journal Nature in 2015 found that the Northeast experienced an unprecedented spike in sea-level rise during 2009-2010.5 During this two-year period, sea level rose four inches across the Northeast, and five inches in Casco Bay. This study revealed the fact that sea-level rise can occur in extreme leaps, and found that such extreme changes are likely to occur with greater frequency given the trend in climate emissions and warming.
A 2016 study, also published in the journal Nature, nearly doubled previous projections about sea-level rise, based on the latest findings about melting in Antarctica.6
1 Fernandez, I.J. et al. 2015. Maine’s Climate Future: 2015 Update. Orono, ME: University of Maine. climatechange.umaine.edu/research/publications/climate-future
2 Risky Businesses: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States. June 2014. http://riskybusiness.org/reports/national/
3 Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “Monitoring, Mapping , Modeling, Mitigating & Messaging: Maine Prepares for Climate Change.” September 2014. p. 37. www.maine.gov/dep/sustainability/climate/maine_prepares.pdf
4 Horton, R., et al, 2014: Ch. 16: Northeast. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program. http://s3.amazonaws.com/nca2014/low/NCA3_Full_Report_16_Northeast_LowRes.pdf?download=1
5 Goddard, Paul B. et al, “An extreme event of sea-level rise along the Northeast coast of North America in 2009–2010”. Journal name:
Nature Communications Volume: 6. 2015.
6 DeConto, Robert & David Pollard, “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise.” Nature 531. 2016. Robert M. DeConto 1 & David Pollard