Solving Climate Change Conundrums

Summer 2017

Illustration of city floating on water
(Illustration: Shutterstock)

If there’s anything that’s certain about the effects of climate change, says Ben Hobbs, it’s how much is still uncertain. No one knows exactly how much sea levels will rise or local weather patterns, like storms, will change, making future planning extremely difficult for vulnerable coastal and flood plain areas.

But Hobbs and his colleagues are helping to ease some of this uncertainty, or at least better reckon with it, when making decisions about how to use and protect coastlines and watersheds. Hobbs, the Theodore M. and Kay W. Schad Professor of Environmental Management in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, was recently tapped as a co-investigator for the multi-institutional Mid-Atlantic Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (MARISA) program.

The center, currently funded for five years, was established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help stakeholders adapt to climate change in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Leading the center is Debra Knopman, PhD ’87, of the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

MARISA’s goal is to help water planners, transportation engineers, land use developers, and other managers effectively deal with the questions that climate change is bringing about. One focus is on deciding how much adaptability to incorporate into a system while factoring in costs.

For example, explains Hobbs, paving new roads isn’t as simple as it used to be. Should transportation planners pave roads or build railroad beds at ground level, as they always have? Or is it worth it to use extra funds now to raise them a few feet higher, since retrofitting them later will be more expensive?

Hobbs, an applied mathematician and economist, is helping stakeholders in these areas make choices by formulating complex decision trees—decision support tools that have become a mainstay in business and the public sector. He and his colleagues, including graduate students Feng-wei Hung and Huai Jiang, are using math, statistics, economics, and social preferences to sort out the pros and cons among the many available options to solve climate change conundrums.

“We’ll know we’ve been the most successful if we’ve helped real managers better cope with climate uncertainty—whether they are state transportation planners or utilities or the Army Corps of Engineers,” says Hobbs, who directs Johns Hopkins’ Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute.