Planning for the long term may be more than human brains can handle

Today we are thinking about the limits of humans’ capacity to plan for the future. This reverie was caused by perusing the draft plan to address sea level rise in downtown Olympia, and by the need for a new county courthouse.

According to the Olympia Historical Society, our current, obsolete county courthouse opened in 1978, so it’s just 41 years old. That makes us wonder how long a new one, to be located at Eighth and Plum in Olympia, will be built to last.

The draft sea level rise plan crafted by the City of Olympia, LOTT Clean Water Alliance, the Port of Olympia and the consulting firm AECOM Technical Services Inc. has this thought about the longevity of buildings in downtown Olympia:

“. . . given the long-term planning horizon for sea level rise adaptation, there will be cycles of retrofit and rebuild for existing assets as they reach the end of their useful life. At that time, the asset owners will re-evaluate the siting and design of those facilities. For example, an asset could be replaced and rebuilt at a higher elevation or relocated to a less vulnerable area.”

The plan doesn’t address when “the end of their useful life” might be, or when retreat from the low-lying shoreline will be necessary. And of course it will vary widely from one building to another and one location to another. But though they don’t explicitly say so, a careful reading of the plan might lead you to think that about 50 years from now would be a good time for certain “assets” to move to higher ground.

The plan’s authors certainly don’t predict that such decisions will be necessary any time soon. And they point out that “Given the extensive infrastructure and investments made in our downtown, wholesale retreat is not a pragmatic strategy to pursue during the planning horizon.”

We don’t disagree, because it’s clear they have engineered some pretty cool ways to protect downtown for the next handful of decades. But we can’t help but wonder: What happens after that?

The plan’s authors estimate 6 inches of sea level rise by 2030, 12 inches sometime between 2030 and 2050, 18 inches sometime between 2040 and 2060, and 2 feet sometime between 2050 and 2080.

Then they punt: “The vulnerability assessment did not evaluate sea level rise projections beyond 24 inches.” There’s a good reason for that; it’s just too soon to really know what will happen that far in the future. Nonetheless, the plan envisions that at the end of this century, we might experience up to 68 inches of sea level rise. We can’t imagine what adaptation strategies would be required then, or how much they would cost.

The draft plan is silent on what might happen much after 2100.

It’s a thoughtful, well-crafted plan, and given the uncertainty about even nearer term predictions, it’s as smart and solid as anyone could expect.

But its silence on the next century makes certain questions painfully vivid. For instance, if the sea rises by 68 inches or more, won’t the American economy be in such shambles that huge investments to save low-lying areas will be out of the question? After all, if the sea rises by more than 5 feet, what other catastrophes – heat waves, wildfires, droughts, food shortages – will our country also be experiencing? Do we think deficit spending is an immortal and inexhaustible solution? Sadly, the fact that we live as if it is will not make it so.

These questions send us on another train of thought: How do we live with ourselves knowing that these climate change consequences are likely, and that we share responsibility for causing them? How do we stay focused on reducing our individual carbon footprints? How do we get faster, deeper progress on the big scale, system-wide changes in energy generation that will limit the vast human suffering and species extinctions that are already being caused by the way we live now?

This requires thinking ahead not just a little but a lot – enough to make our brains hurt.

It’s especially hard to think about a future we can’t imagine, because we have no idea how new technologies, new elected leaders, or new energy sources could alter the course of climate change.

But the draft sea level rise plan makes a persuasive (if unintended) case for the urgency of changing the course we’re on now.

And the need to replace our 41-year-old courthouse makes a persuasive (also unintended) case that we need to exercise our planning-ahead brain cells more vigorously to invest in a new county courthouse that lasts much longer than 41 years. One might hope that exercising those brain cells will build their capacity to plan for the future beyond the year 2100.