September 22, 2021

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The power of transferring technology for climate adaptation

A key part of adapting to climate change is prediction. In Louisiana, where water is eroding huge chunks of land every year, that means looking at how increasingly dangerous hurricanes move water and sand, and which areas might flood and which won’t. Monday, I talked with Dutch scientists who make computer models that help make those predictions.

The Water Institute of the Gulf is a research organization based in Baton Rouge that uses the Dutch models to mitigate erosion and transfers its findings around the world. I spoke with Justin Ehrenwerth, president and CEO of the Water Institute. He told me the answers the institute is looking for can’t only come from computers. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ehrenwerth: We started something called participatory modeling, and what that really means is we begin with the community experience. We roll up our sleeves and really work with the community to understand what are the things that they’re most worried about. What are they seeing? What are their ideas for how to protect and restore the areas that they care the most about? We introduce the numerical models to our colleagues in the community, we get their ideas and their feedback. And we actually take their thoughts, their suggestions, and we put those ideas into our numerical models, and we run them. And then, we come back and have another session where we say, “All right, look at the results of your suggestion. That was remarkable.”

Molly Wood: It sounds like what you’re saying is, it’s really easy to run a simulation that says, “This area just won’t be habitable anymore. The end. Everyone has to leave.” And that not only is there a more empathetic way to do that, but in fact, there might be a way to run a better simulation.

Ehrenwerth: Exactly. And if you do it the old-fashioned way, where you’re looking at a series of projects to protect vulnerable communities, and you use the old-fashioned benefit-cost analysis, that is going to absolutely contribute to environmental injustice. So we need to value the input of community members. And then, we need to ensure that it gets the same level of treatment in determining what solutions do we put forward? What adaptation strategies do we invest in, and where?

Wood: Has a community solution, to your knowledge, ever been adopted?

Ehrenwerth: So there are several in development and being considered right now. In St. Bernard, there were a series of ideas that were put forward that are being considered. We also did a good bit of work in participatory modeling in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, that came up with this suite of proposals that are now before the governor and the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority in Louisiana for potential incorporation in the 2023 coastal master plan here. So we’re really scratching the surface of this methodology, and we look forward to doing much more of it.

Wood: Where else are you finding that your models are more applicable in the last decade or two decades than you would have imagined?

Ehrenwerth: Well, in the U.S., one of the areas we’ve been spending a lot of time recently is in Charleston, South Carolina. There is a recognition that to preserve the deep history and culture in a place like Charleston, they need to invest now on the front end, and not wait for the next storm. And coastal environments in other parts of the world are dealing with these issues. We’ve spent a good bit of time recently in Argentina, 25 kilometers outside of Buenos Aires, in a community that is really trying to prepare for the next 25 to 50 years of increased inundation. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of areas that need this kind of attention.

Wood: I was actually gonna say it feels to me like maybe Facebook or the city of San Francisco, which is eventually going to lose its airport, should probably call you.

Ehrenwerth: Absolutely.

Wood: I mean, there’s like a lot of modeling that shows that a lot of the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, will be underwater in 20 to 50 years.

Ehrenwerth: Yes. And while we haven’t done it as the Water Institute, a couple of our colleagues at the institute, before they joined, actually did a lot of work in San Francisco for exactly the reasons that you mentioned.

Wood: Facebook should totally call you.

Ehrenwerth: Give them my number.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Maybe a little unrelated today. Last week, we talked to Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic, who helped create the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer effort that compiled and presented data about testing, cases, deaths and hospitalizations when the federal government could or would not. He suggested that perhaps that work wouldn’t be necessary for much longer now that some data tracking, like hospitalization data from Health and Human Services, is working after many months, and the Biden administration is engaging more meaningfully in dealing with the pandemic. On Monday, Madrigal and co-founder Erin Kissane announced that indeed they’ll shut down the project on March 7 because, they wrote, this work is “properly” the job of the government itself. If that government can be bothered to do it. I think we can all agree that we’re happy to have had the help along the way.