Story By Victoria Morian, OBXFS Field Site Student.
Dr. Andrew Keeler, the program head for Public Policy and Coastal Sustainability, sees the role of economics at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute as one of many valuable approaches to research being done at the center.
“If you want to understand people’s motivations, almost everybody is motivated to some extent by their own economic choices,” he says.
Keeler is an economist by trade; he has worked overseas in Tanzania, served on the climate change policy teams for two presidents, and now works at both East Carolina University and the UNC Coastal Studies Institute.
The institute’s public policy program concentrates on three areas of research: coastal renewable energy sources, ecosystem services, and adaptation to increasing coastal changes.
In his role as program head, Keeler offers a new perspective to renewable ocean energy research being conducted at the Institute. Looking at alternative energy sources like gulf stream energy and salinity gradient energy, he is approaching questions about economic feasibility, competitiveness, and the kinds of policies needed to encourage the use of renewable energies.
Keeler’s second area of work involves estuarine ecosystem services, or the benefits humans gain from the ecosystem. Keeler and his colleagues are looking at the ecosystem services provided by oyster aquaculture and oyster restoration and how to incentivize such projects to produce better economic and environmental outcomes.
Ecosystem services from oyster beds include shoreline stabilization, nutrient reduction and fisheries enhancement, which Keeler says are services that benefit people across different spaces and jurisdictions, thus making a case for the usefulness of new and innovative public policies.
“Those are all governed by different levels of government and affect people through very different markets, so we’re trying to understand how important they are, how to measure them, and also how to craft policies to incentivize them,” he says.
Situated on the coast of North Carolina, the Coastal Studies Institute provides a location apt for studying adaptation to sea level rise. Sea level rise, coupled with increasing storms, makes for a combination that Keeler says will create conditions that will increase risks to coastal communities and at some point in the future are likely to make many coastal communities unlivable at their current scale. Keeler and colleagues are studying the role of public policy in anticipating and guiding this transition.
“But adaptation to sea level rise is what in the jargon is called a wicked problem. It’s so complex that it doesn’t really have a solution,” he says. “Like climate change, it’s not something we’re going to solve. It’s something we’re going to manage.”
Adapting to the problem, he says, has significant physical, economic, behavioral and psychological components. The complexity of the issue requires considering all of these aspects together rather than attempting to analyze them individually.
“The goal of this effort is not to predict the future,” he says. “That would be great, but it’s not going to happen.”
Instead, the goal is to better understand the complex system of sea level rise in order to pave the way for policies that reduce risk and improve the way that they are selected, modified, and financed — everything from beach nourishment to highway projects and flood insurance provides incentives for certain behaviors and may influence how choose to react to and protect themselves from increasing climate risk.