The world is changing and will continue to change at rates unprecedented in recent human history. Both rapid-onset and slow-onset hazards pose substantial risks to many coastal communities of Puerto Rico. Storm surges, winter swells, tsunamis, coral bleaching are examples of rapid-onset events, while sea level rise and ocean acidification are examples of slow-onset events. Risks from these phenomena are projected to increase due to continued development in hazardous locations, changes in the frequency and intensity of inundation events, and acceleration in the rate of change along vulnerable shorelines. Adequate attention must be given to respond to the impacts of coastal hazards that are already occurring and at the same time prepare for future impacts. Strengthening the ability of Puerto Rico to reduce risks will safeguard economic progress and increase the resilience of our ecosystems and our people.
In Puerto Rico, approximately 419,000 people live within the coastal zone, and 2.3 million live within the 44 coastal municipalities of the Commonwealth (Diaz and Hevia 2011). Although all of Puerto Rico (including Culebra and Vieques) are coastal areas, the coastal zone is defined as 1 kilometer inland with additional distance for key natural systems. These populations are exposed to specific hazards such as coastal and riverine flooding, tsunamis, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes and droughts. Hazard events and related social consequences are described in historical documents dating back before and after the Spanish-American War (Bush 1995; Fassig 1928; Jibson 1987; McCann 1984; Palm and Hodgson 1993; Reid and Taber 1919; Rouse 1992; Wilson 2007), specifically hurricanes (Schwartz 1992), and some have been described and passed on through oral history, pottery, and petroglyphs since the Tainos (Culture 2012; Ewald 1987; Maclachan 1990). Vulnerabilities to these recurring hazards are widespread in Puerto Rico and a result of multiple factors, such as continuing development in high hazards areas, poor maintenance of existing shoreline stabilization structures and stormwater management systems, poor maintenance and dredging of rivers, canals and reservoirs, lack of soil management practices on land and in watersheds, and from the elimination of dunes, reefs, mangroves, and other naturally protective features that reduce the negative effects of hazard events. While these problems persist, some corrective measures have been implemented since the 1970s, such as water quality and flood control initiatives, habitat restoration and other enhancement projects.
A new threat has the potential to exacerbate these already existing vulnerabilities and may even create new ones – climate change. There is consensus among the scientific community that anthropogenic activities are driving changes in the global climate and increasing global average temperature (IPCC 2007). Even if all greenhouse gas-emitting activities were halted immediately, the planet would still experience decades of climate impacts due to the inertia inherent in the global climate system. Climate change is often thought of as a global systemic problem; systemic as its causes are initiated anywhere on earth, and the effects felt worldwide (Frederick & Gleick, 1999; Wigley, 1999). While climate change is a global problem, it already has and is predicted to continue manifesting locally in Puerto Rico.
Many decisions made on a daily, weekly, annual, and decadal basis in Puerto Rico come with a long-term commitment and can be very sensitive to climate conditions. Examples of these types of decisions include land-use plans, risk management strategies, infrastructure development for water management or transportation, coastline and flood defenses (e.g., dikes, shoreline stabilization structures, flood control and stormwater management infrastructure design), urbanism (e.g., urban density, parks), energy production, and building design and norms. These decisions have consequences over periods of 50-200 years and perhaps longer. Decisions, as well as investments, are potentially vulnerable to changes in climate conditions such as changes in precipitation and temperature patterns, sea level rise, greater intensity of storms, etc. In the past, these climate-driven parameters could be observed and measured. Today, engineers and public works officers use statistical analyses and optimization algorithms to determine the “best” designs as a function of known climate conditions (e.g., dike or revetment heights as a function of the return time of storm surges, building characteristics as a function of typical temperature levels) and planners often lay out coastal communities with a historical view of the shoreline. In the future, there will be substantial climate uncertainty making these methods more difficult to apply. Additionally, decisions and actions on how to adapt to changes in climate by people and institutions within or managing the coastal zone are shaped and constrained by a range of factors, including the resources available to decision-makers and the social, economic, and political context in which decisions are made.
This report puts the discussions that are happening about this global problem and decision-making in a changing climate into the Puerto Rico context. Certain sectors should already start taking climate change into account because they involve long-term planning, long-lived investments and some irreversibility in choices and are exposed to changes in climate conditions (Hallegatte, 2009:241). To guide decision making processes in Puerto Rico around coastal development and natural resource management the Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program (PRCZMP) has partnered with over 140 researchers, planners, architects, practitioners, agency representatives and communications experts to develop a comprehensive climate change vulnerability assessment for Puerto Rico. Employing multiple collaboration and facilitation tools, scientific knowledge management, spatial analysis, and communication methods, the PRCZMP has been working through the newly created Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC) to accurately assess vulnerability to life and property.
The PRCCC has found that climate change will impact the social, economic, and ecological fabric of life in Puerto Rico, affecting key sectors such as economic development, tourism, services, natural resources and biodiversity, cultural and historic resources, security, and critical infrastructure. The size, history, and relative isolation of the islands of Puerto Rico will make them feel the effects of climate change differently than other U.S. coastal zones. For years this picture has been incomplete due to lack of a coordinated effort to compile the best available scientific and local knowledge. This section discusses the history of climate change efforts in Puerto Rico and the process and techniques used from 2010 to 2013 to create and coordinate the work of the PRCCC. The section concludes with information about the next steps of the PRCCC and a brief discussion about the need for climate change adaptation efforts in island states like Puerto Rico that currently make decisions based on a static environment.