From Mitigation to Management

We are failing to manage successful response to climate challenges on land, along the coast and deep in the ocean; we are failing to manage within the structures that are already in place that might enable solutions. We must welcome best management practices now and use new management tools to renovate and build for the future—not by resisting change but by embracing it for the better with renewed certainty and enthusiasm.

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To mitigate is to lessen the force or severity of a phenomenon – anger for example, or grief, pain, or physical attack. It is to make less severe, to become milder, softened, more gentle, appeased.  Mitigation is a key word today for how we respond to natural challenges, frequently an engineered response – a dike or a drainage system that may defend or redirect flood water away from an agricultural or settled area, or a much larger project like the major tidal control gates and barriers that protect London from storm surge up the Thames or the Netherlands from similar threat alongshore to a nation mostly at sea level or below.

Disasters occur when these mitigating factors are overwhelmed, be they collapsed levees in New Orleans during hurricanes or our disappointment and dismay when we have not been able to protect ourselves against an emotional challenge.  What then do we do? In too many cases, we revert to our prior behavior – repair the damage, perhaps build the defenses more strongly, a response that does not truly address the cause of the traumatizing effect. Why did this happen? Will it happen again? Why did the system in place fail? How do we reconcile answers to these questions with actions that will do more than lessen the pain or severity of the circumstance the next time?

In the context of the ocean, climate change, sea level rise, extreme weather, acidification, mitigation seems a naive, if not useless choice for the future.  Have we seen any significant effort by the public to reduce their carbon footprint, to support any regulatory program to reduce emissions, mandate new standards for automobiles and trucks, or to accept any tax increase that might use market forces to reduce fossil fuel consumption? What we have seen is a political agenda, dominated by lobbyists and corporate contributions to political campaigns that have negated such legislative initiatives not only in the future but also in the past by the evisceration of previously enacted laws such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and more. The environmental achievements of the past twenty years are under attack, the laws, and indeed the very agencies that have been responsible for whatever successes there have been.  This is a perverse parody of mitigation, a backward-focused, mirror image strategy that will inevitably make things more severe, more painful, more destructive, and more threatening and problematic for our children.

We are failing to manage successful response to these challenges, be they on land, coastwise, or in the deep ocean. We are failing to manage even within the structures that already exist that might enable solutions. We legislate, but do not enforce the legal requirements of the legislation.  We set standards, but choose not live up to those aspirations. This must change, even if it requires individual sacrifice. This must change, and we must find the leadership to make it so.

We have schools for organization and management. We have institutes and universities researching and designing new administrative structures, applying new technologies, and inventing new procedures and policies. But I am amazed by how wary and closed we are today to innovation, how paranoid and protective we are faced with change. When any one of us looks back over our lifetime we must admit that we have witnessed astonishing advancement in almost every aspect of our society. It is far from perfect, and certainly not everyone has shared in the benefits of this change, but progress it has been and we are the better for it. Why then would we suddenly resist this process now?

Coastal management is exemplary. Faced with ever increasing migration to our shores, over-building, pollution, erosion, and growing inundation, we must apply the best management practices to overcome the reality of bad practice with new.  We must use new management tools, such as integrated ocean and land planning, water recycling and watershed conservation, better sanitation, sewage treatment, industrial drainage systems, and storm protection engineering, revised building codes, improved air pollution controls, less impactful construction methods, new targets for tax incentives and public subsidies, use of alternative energy sources – all tools available to us now if only we can muster the will to insist they be applied.

We must not regress or mitigate, but renovate and build for the future; we must not resist change and the new, but embrace them now for the better as we have always done; we must not abandon engagement and hope, but express them now with renewed certainty and fervor. If we manage for our families, our communities, and ourselves then the ocean will inevitably heal and benefit and provide that beneficence to us all. Oceanside, bend down and lift up seawater in your hands: that is where the future lies, in your hands.


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.