Abstract for: Fighting the inevitable: Systems thinking, infrastructure, and coastal community trajectories in the face of sea level rise

As climate change transforms American coasts, communities face difficult questions about their optimal level of protection. Combining sea level rise projections with property values and other socio-demographic data, researchers have sought to model which adaptation strategies are appropriate for different areas. Although these models typically compare the cost of building and maintaining protective infrastructure (e.g. sea walls) to the value of the property and assets at risk, basing infrastructure investment decisions on cost alone exacerbates existing inequalities by encouraging the protection of the largest, wealthiest communities and abandonment of small, disadvantaged communities. We argue that the tendency for infrastructure investments to occur in wealthy cities manifests a positive feedback loop; infrastructure investments protecting areas with valuable assets encourages development, which further increases the economic value of the area, and strengthens the argument for additional, future infrastructure investments. This cycle is unsustainable in light of accelerated sea level rise beyond the end of the century. We integrate diverse literature to create a dynamic hypothesis to explore alternative trajectories of future community vulnerability. We test this hypothesis in four diverse case study areas, exploring how varying densities, wealth, and political influence alter these dynamic feedbacks and motivate future coastal infrastructure investment strategies.