Retreat & Abandonment — The $400 Billion Problem Confronting US Coastal Communities

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The Center For Climate Integrity forecasts that protecting US coastal communities from rising sea levels could cost as much as $400 billion over the next 20 years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Center for Climate Integrity

In a new report, the CCI says, “These costs reflect the bare minimum coastal defenses that communities need to build to hold back rising seas and prevent chronic flooding and inundation over the next 20 years. They represent a small portion, perhaps 10 to 15 percent, of the total adaptation costs these local and state governments will be forced to finance during that time and into the future.”

Retreat & Abandonment

In a new report entitled The High Tide Tax, CCI says in the executive summary,

This looming climate and financial threat exists for every coastal community, regardless of size, population, or financial position, and includes large cities such as New York and Miami and small communities like Dames Quarter, MD and Topsail Beach, NC.

For hundreds of small coastal and tidal communities identified in the report, the costs will far outstrip their ability to pay, making retreat and abandonment the only viable option unless enormous amounts of financing emerge in a very short period of time. Yet even retreat comes at a substantial cost, as courts have begun to rule that governments that fail to protect private property must compensate property owners for the value of the property that is abandoned.

As just one example of the scope and gravity of this problem, in 19 small, mostly unincorporated communities, the cost of seawalls to protect property and infrastructure from a moderate amount of sea level rise by 2040 is more than $1,000,000 per person. It seems fair to say that these communities will not be defended, although those decisions will all be made locally. In 43 communities the cost is more than $500,000 per person, and in 178 communities the cost of basic coastal defenses is $100,000 per person. 

Not The Worst Case Scenario

Climate deniers, bought and paid for by fossil fuel interests, like to scream that all these scary predictions by climate scientists are based on worst case scenarios that are unlikely to ever happen. CCI thought of that and guided themselves accordingly.

“In reality, the situation could be much worse. This analysis is based on modest sea-level rise projections that assume some reductions in carbon emissions. Seas could easily rise more than we project in this study, they are very unlikely to rise less. And we assumed protections only for a one-year storm (the event that is virtually certain to occur every year), even as one in 100 and one in 500-year storms strike the coast with alarming frequency.

“This conservative approach is by design, and is intended to shine a light on near-term costs and choices that cannot be avoided. Unlike many studies that look at sea-level rise in the year 2100 and assume a higher level of ongoing emissions, we purposefully analyzed more moderate and immediate scenarios to direct the policy discussion toward decisions that need to be made right now.”

Headlines Galore

The report has created lots of headlines around the nation. The Tampa Bay Times points out that Florida will need to spend some $76 billion to protect its cities from rising waters. That’s a lot of money. Florida’s entire state budget is $89 billion. And the CCI report is really a best case scenario. The cost of doing the job right could be far higher.

“These cost estimates represent a small fraction of total costs associated with protecting our coastal communities against sea-level rise. First, this study only considers relatively conservative estimates of future sea-level rise. Second, it does not account for many line items that must be included in city resilience plans.

“For example, in New York City’s comprehensive plan to defend the city against predicted sea-level rise, coastal protection amounts to only 16-20% of the total estimated cost. Other resilience considerations include: elevating buildings, insurance, utilities, liquid fuels, healthcare and community preparedness, telecommunications, transportation, environmental protection and remediation, and water and wastewater.”

The Charleston Post & Courier reports tells its readers that South Carolina coast will require $20 billion in mitigation costs with $1 billion of that going just to protect Charleston. The Long Beach Post has similarly dire news for its readers.

States At Risk

The report ranks all US states by the amount of money they will need to spend to defend against rising seas. Not all states are included in the list and the states are arranged alphabetically. Figures are given for the year 2040 and for 2100, assuming the conservative projections made by the CCI prove valid. The CCI report also breaks down the financial pain by cities, counties, and congressional districts.

Who Should Pay?

The Center For Climate Integrity makes its position on who should pay to clean up the mess created by burning fossil fuels crystal clear. Here is its policy statement as contained in the report.

“As things stand, oil and gas companies and other climate polluters who knew their products caused climate change at least 50 years ago, and then masterminded an exquisitely effective denial campaign for 30 years, are paying none of these costs. And their position, as expressed in courtrooms across the country, is that they should continue to pay nothing at all.

“That simply cannot stand. Regardless of your political persuasion or your views on energy policy or climate change, there is no avoiding the conclusion that the companies that made and promoted the products that they knew would irrevocably and radically alter the global climate, and then denied it, must pay their fair share to help the world deal with it. Failing to hold polluters to this basic responsibility would be to knowingly bankrupt hundreds of communities,
standing idly by as they are slowly and inexorably swallowed up by the sea.”

Yet holding those companies financially liable is going to be tough. The US government at all levels has been bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry. Government hacks are not likely to bite the hands that have fed them so well for so long. Republicans are busy packing federal courts with judges who were suckled by the Koch Brothers throughout their entire careers. Five of the members of the US Supreme Court are already Koch stooges.

All three branches of government are opposed to holding fossil fuel companies legally responsible for their lies and deceptions. Which means it it up to us to stop electing these lying, cheating, spineless bastards who dance to the tune called by their corporate paymasters while continuing to put the American people in harm’s way.

The Global Climate Strike

Naomi Klein, Greta Thunberg, and other climate activists are calling for all of us to put down our labors and pastimes on September 20, go outside, and demand immediate, effective action on reducing greenhouse gases. Thunberg in particular is urging older people to join in the fun and make their voices heard. Naomi Kline writes in The Guardian,

“We hope others will join us: that people will leave their offices, their farms, their factories; that candidates will step off the campaign trail and football stars will leave the pitch; that movie actors will scrub off their makeup and teachers lay down their chalk; that cooks will close their restaurants and bring meals to protests; that pensioners too will break their daily routines and join together in sending the one message our leaders must hear: day by day, a business as usual approach is destroying the chance for a healthy, safe future on our planet. (Emphasis added.)

She goes on to say,

“We hope all kinds of environmental, public health, social justice and development groups will join in, but our greatest hope is simply to show that those working on this crisis have the backing of millions of human beings who harbor a growing dread about our environmental plight but who have so far stayed mostly on the sidelines. It may take a few attempts to get those kind of numbers in the streets, but we don’t have too long: our window for effective climate action is closing fast.

“We know not everyone can join us. On a grossly unequal planet, some people literally can’t do without a single day’s pay, or they work for bosses who would fire them if they dared try. And some jobs simply can’t stop: emergency room doctors should keep at their tasks. But many of us can put off for 24 hours our usual day to day routine, confident it will be there when we return.

“We hope some people will spend the day in protest: against new pipelines, or the banks that fund them; against the oil companies and the politicians that spread their lies. We hope others will spend the day putting insulation in the walls of their neighbors’ homes, or building cycle paths. We hope everyone will take at least a few minutes in a city park or a farm field or on the roof of their apartment to simply soak in the beauty of the world it’s our privilege to protect.”

On behalf of CleanTechnica, we encourage all our readers to participate and to urge their neighbors, friends, and colleagues to join in. As Dr. Seuss taught us decades ago in Horton Hears A Who, if we all raise our voices in unison, our message may get through. If you notice any resemblance between Greta Thunberg and the young kangaroo at the end of this video, go to the head of the class.

Images: Center For Climate Integrity

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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