Humans are programmed by genetics to react quickly to immediate threats. That’s the “fight or flight” syndrome known to every high school biology student. But the other side of the coin is that humans are also programmed by genetics to be virtually incapable of recognizing and responding to long term threats — like climate change.
Rising Ocean Levels Threaten Coastal Properties
Two new reports out this week are doing their best to alert people to the realities that climate change will soon visit on people who live in the US. Taking into consideration the increasingly rapid melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and the Arctic, coupled with melting of the permafrost in Siberia, scientists now predict the world’s oceans will rise 3 to 6 feet by the end of this century. When (and if) that happens, more than a trillion dollars worth of wealth currently tied up in coastal real estate will be wiped out.
That’s the number that Reuters came up with in 2014 when it examined how sea level rise will impact America’s coasts. Right now, the Florida real estate market is comprised of “pessimists selling to optimists,” says Bloomberg. The bubble is about to burst, as those who can see what is happening are cashing out their investments in coastal property. That means lots of people are going to be on the short end of the stick.
In South Florida, “Tidal flooding now predictably drenches inland streets, even when the sun is out, thanks to the region’s porous limestone bedrock. Saltwater is creeping into the drinking water supply,” the Bloomberg story continues. Dan Kipnis, chairman of the Miami Beach Marine and Waterfront Protection Authority has been unable to find a buyer for his home for more than a year.
Sean Becketti, the chief economist at Freddie Mac, warned in a report last year of a housing crisis for coastal areas more severe than the Great Recession, one that could spread through banks, insurers and other industries. And, unlike that recession, this time there will be no hope that property values will bounce back — at least for several hundred thousand years. Already some lenders are declining to offer 30-year conventional mortgages on property located in South Florida.
Millions Will Become Climate Refugees In The US
Maybe you’re one of those people who finds it hard to shed a tear for wealthy folks living in gated oceanfront communities. But before you let yourself feel too smug, consider this. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that rising ocean levels will create more than 13 million climate refugees in America by the end of this century.
“We typically think about sea-level rise as a coastal issue, but if people are forced to move because their houses become inundated, the migration could affect many landlocked communities as well,” said Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia and author of the study. “For many inland areas, incorporating climate change scenarios into their strategic long range planning would be an appropriate strategy.”
Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University responded to the study this way. “The global equivalent of this paper may be even more important. Climate refugees may become common if we continue to drive rapid climate change. Looking at where those refugees might go, as well as where they will come from, will provide better information for planners and voters considering adaptation and mitigation.” Alley was not involved in the study.
The study predicts that Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix will be among the most likely destinations for climate refugees, whether for the short or long term.“We know that people tend to migrate short distances or to areas with embedded social networks and family ties,” Hauer said. “Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando, and Austin are all major cities located near coastal areas. Naturally, they would be the top destinations.”
Kevin Trenberth, a well-known climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research says numerous factors influence and complicate migration trends following a flood according to Think Progress. “Sea level rise from climate change occurs slowly and gradually, but its effects are profound and manifested when three things or more come together — a storm surge on top of a high tide on top of sea level rise — so it affects people not as a gradual process, but rather as an episodic, catastrophic one,” he said. “Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy are likely poster children for this.” Trenberth was also not involved in the study.
Where Will They All Go?
Michael Mann, another Pennsylvania State University climate scientist who was also not involved with the study, asks, “Where are these people likely to go? And what does it mean when they compete with native inhabitants for the same water, food, and land? This is really where the rubber hits the road when it comes to climate change and water, food, and land security.”
The answers to those questions are why the US military calls climate change a matter of vital national security. As challenging as they are for Americans, the answers will have far worse consequences for those around the world who lack the financial resources to adapt to the stress of migration.