How Sea Level Rise Simulations Can Improve Climate Adaptation

Co-Director, Wharton Risk Center

Sea level rise threatens coastal communities around the world. In densely developed, low-lying regions such as South Florida, the threat is particularly acute.  One of the most financially vulnerable regions on the planet, an intermediate sea level rise scenario could result in annual flood losses exceeding $25 billion and ultimately displace hundreds of thousands of residents. Proactive investments in flood risk-reduction could dramatically reduce those losses, but it requires taxpayers and city officials to spend money now to ward off a hazard that lies in the distant future. That future is becoming more of a reality and a few months ago, Miami voters passed a bond and property tax to begin to address impacts of sea level rise.

In a recent study published in Global Environmental Change, co-authors Galen Treuer and Kenneth Broad and I explore the likely effects of sea level rise on South Florida’s adaptation efforts through an interactive online simulation in which 348 homeowners experience and respond to 18 inches of sea level rise at different points in time between 2016 and 2050. The simulation allows participants to “live” in a future South Florida that is experiencing worsening effects of sea level rise, and where residents are asked to support adaptation efforts through costly bond measures. As in the real world, participants learn about conditions by accessing online media, watching television news, and hearing the views of local residents. After viewing as much or little media as they like, participants are asked to vote on the bond measure and answer a series of questions about worry, willingness to move, and willingness to invest in self-protective measures.

Our results contain a mix of optimism and caution for the prospects of future adaptation. On the positive side, over 75% of participants supported higher taxes to pay for adaptation, even as the costs of the measures and effects of sea level rise increased over the years. Likewise, we find little evidence that politically conservative residents who normally have more skeptical views about climate change are less inclined to support adaptation, or only look to information sources that downplay the threat. We also find that homeowners’ willingness to move out of the region increases steadily over time as the sea level rises – a result that will likely concern policy makers and planners.

At a broader level, this study shows that engaged learning and experience provide an effective way to communicate the risk of sea level rise and overcome psychological barriers to serious climate adaptation efforts. Encouragingly, homeowners become increasingly concerned as they actively learn about threats posed by sea level rise; and as their concern rises, so too does their willingness to take protective actions.

Two suggestions emerge for local policy makers and educators. First, work to communicate confidence in the possibility of future sea level rise scenarios with simple, clear facts about how community and daily life could be impacted. Second, provide opportunities for citizens to actively investigate those future scenarios through multiple sources of information: visuals, immersive simulations, scientific reports, stories, coastal flooding tours, and testimonials.


Read the full study in Global Environmental Change here.