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Sea level rise forum at ODU focuses on equity, environmental justice

Photo by WHRO. Flooding in Norfolk.
Photo by WHRO. Flooding in Norfolk.
http://assets.whro.org/POD_Coastal forum.mp3

When local leaders decide which projects can best prepare the region for sea level rise, they have a wide range of factors to consider.

How much will the project cost? Will it keep up with rising waters? What does the science say?

But Hampton Roads officials are increasingly trying to put equity and environmental justice front and center.

The concept is defined as fair treatment for all when implementing and enforcing environmental laws. That means weighing a project’s potential impacts in a community including income, health outcomes and other social factors, in addition to science.

The latest Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum last week centered around the human side of coastal resilience.

Wie Yusuf, assistant director of Old Dominion University’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience, said such discussions are not new among local leaders. But they’re increasingly top of mind.

“If we're thinking about resilience infrastructure, the social science considerations of who pays, how much do we pay, who is impacted, to what extent are they impacted? How do we mitigate these impacts?” Yusuf said. “I think it’s just a slower uptake to realize social justice and environmental justice concerns with the resilience issue and challenges.”

The adaptation forums have been happening quarterly for a decade, she said. They bring together engineers, government planners, scientists and others.

Discussions over the years “evolved with the attention span of the region,” Yusuf said. 

Friday’s forum was the first back in person after the pandemic. About two dozen attendees at ODU watched short video presentations and discussed how to apply the concepts in Hampton Roads.

NOAA economist Kate Quigley for example, presented about the importance of including equity in a typical cost-benefit analysis.

Wealthy homes would beat out those from lower-income areas in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis of property to save, she noted. 

“That results in a situation where projects protecting high value properties are going to get approved more often than projects that are protecting low property values,” Quigley said. “And that's when you can have inequities.”

Improving community welfare or saving a species is also hard to quantify, she noted.

Sea level rise solutions don’t happen in a silo, Yusuf said. They require buy-in from a community.

“We also have to think about the disproportionate impact that coastal resilience projects might have,” she said. “And that's really why we're trying to bring social science considerations to the forefront of the coastal resilience conversation.”

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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