Who Will Pay for the Huge Costs of Holding Back Rising Seas?

By Jim Morrison. Originally published by Yale Environment 360 and cross posted from Grist’s Climate Desk collaboration

For cities in the United States, the price of infrastructure projects to combat rising seas and intensifying storms is coming into focus — and so is the sticker shock.

In Boston, where many neighborhoods have been built and recently expanded in low-lying areas, an estimated $2.4 billion will be needed over the next several decades to protect the city from flooding, one study says. That report came as the city abandoned plans to build a harbor barrier that would have cost between $6 billion and $12 billion, which researchers concluded was economically unfeasible.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the mayor said last year that the city, which floods regularly during high tides, had an estimated $2 billion in needed drainage projects.

In Norfolk, Virginia, the Army Corps of Engineers has recommended a $1.4 billion series of seawalls and other infrastructure to protect part of the shoreline. As with many cities, that’s just the start.

In Harris County, home to Houston, planners say $30 billion is needed to provide protection against a 100-year flood. Hurricane Harvey, which in 2017 caused 68 deaths and $125 billion in damages in the state, was the city’s third 500-year-floodin three years.

And in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a storm surge barrier and floodgates to shield parts of the city and New Jersey from rising waters. The estimated cost: $10 billion.

While the threats to these cities are growing as climate change intensifies, what is not clear is how to pay for projects needed to protect tens of millions of people and trillions of dollars of property. Conservative estimates of the capital investments needed to combat rising seas and worsening storms run into the hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades.

“The failure to face these costs is the next phase of climate denial,” says Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental advocacy group that champions forcing polluters to pay for climate crisis costs. “We’ve got to look at this squarely and figure out how to pay for it.”

The center recently issued a study concluding that by 2040, building sea walls for storm surge protection for U.S. coastal cities with more than 25,000 residents will require at least $42 billion. Expand that to include communities under 25,000 people and the cost skyrockets to $400 billion. That’s nearly the price of building the 47,000 miles of the interstate highway system, which took four decades and cost more than $500 billion in today’s dollars.

The research is a rough yardstick because it only considers sea walls, not other ways to mitigate flood risk including buying out homeowners and improving storm water systems. “It’s a deliberate underestimate,” Wiles adds. “We know it will cost more — a lot more.”

The report says that Florida, with an estimated $76 billion in costs, is the state with the largest exposure, followed by Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. A key issue as different jurisdictions and the federal government grapple with how to pay for this infrastructure is equity. Wiles and other experts say that while some of the bigger, richer cities may figure out how to finance their needs, smaller communities will face huge challenges funding resilience projects. “We think this is an emerging crisis for most of these communities,” he adds. “A very simple way of thinking about it is that it will be tens of thousands of dollars per resident in places that may not have a large tax base.”

For comparison, Wiles notes, protection for Jacksonville, Florida, would cost $3,990 per capita, while in New York the cost would be $231 per capita. Outside cities, the price per person jumps dramatically to $37,366 in Cumberland County, New Jersey, and $154,747 in Dare County, North Carolina.

Globally, the question of equity is even more acute, with cities in developed nations far better able to fund climate change adaptation projects than in developing countries. “In an environment of scarce resources for local authorities, especially in poor countries, mobilizing such resources will be a real political and institutional challenge,” according to a World Bank study.

William Stiles, the head of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based group that advises local governments and nonprofits on sea-level rise adaptation and floodplain management, says local officials are just coming to terms with the staggering scale of the challenge. State and local money is limited. Resilience bonds, which could fund extensive capital improvements to deal with flooding and sea-level rise, have been slow to take off. “There is no coordinated strategy nationally, there is not enough money, states are not moving, and this loose talk of resilience bonds in the private sector is not a reality yet,” Stiles says.

He estimates that Norfolk and neighboring Virginia Beach, hotspots for relative sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast, each have about $4 billion in resilience work to do over the next couple of decades. That does not include protecting the port, one of the busiest on the East Coast; the area’s military shipyards; or the world’s largest naval base. A land-use study by the local planning district identified 22 projects, many estimated to run from $10 million to $50 million, including raising roads, improving storm water systems, and making wastewater treatment plants more resilient to serve the six military bases in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

“It will cost many tens of billions,” he says.

At the federal level, potential funding sources include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and community block grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But none offer the kind of money necessary to address the need.

FEMA is devising a program, Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, focused on funding public infrastructure projects that increase a community’s resilience before a disaster by setting aside up to 6 percent of estimated disaster expenses, a total of $300 million to $500 million per year. FEMA has a $160 million program to fund projects that reduce the risk of flood damage, but Stiles notes that it only covers properties insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $25 billion in debt after covering losses from three hurricanes, Sandy, Katrina, and Ike.

HUD is developing guidelines to spend $16 billion in block grants supporting mitigation activities, but those funds are focused on places that experienced presidentially declared disasters from 2015 through 2017.

The Army Corps, which is moving ahead with a design for Norfolk’s sea wall, has a $98 billion backlog of authorized construction projects, yet only receives annual construction appropriations of about $2 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued earlier this year. Stiles notes that cities will be competing to get in line for that limited Army Corps funding, so a mid-sized city like Norfolk will be up against New York or Miami or San Francisco.

“There’s no other federal agency to whom you can turn,” he adds. “You have to wait for a storm to get HUD community development block grant recovery money. Before a storm, the money is hard to find.”

The lack of federal funding places a heavy burden on state and local governments. In Virginia, the state legislature passed the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund in 2016, but has yet to fund the program. In Norfolk, which is faced with regular street flooding, the City Council recently created “special service districts” to allow residents in a neighborhood to effectively tax themselves to address sea-level rise issues like storm water improvements, wetlands restoration, or floodgate construction. The city manager acknowledged that the program might be seen as giving wealthy homeowners an opportunity to solve their problems, but added that if a richer neighborhood can pay for a fix, it would free money for other areas that could not afford it.

Issuing bonds to pay for resilience projects may be problematic for cities like Norfolk, already burdened by more than $1 billion in debt. “Now that localities are stepping in and saying, it’s time to take action, they’re finding out how complicated the funding part of the picture is,” Stiles adds.

Some cities have begun exploring funding vehicles. Miami’s voters passed a $400 million “Miami Forever Bond” to address sea-level rise ($192 million) and the city’s affordable housing crisis, levying a new property tax to repay the debt. Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez says he hopes it will become a catalyst for the billions needed in the future. Some other Florida cities have funded resilience work; Miami Beach, for instance, raised storm water fees to pay for $500 million of flood protection projects.

Florida’s recent budget more than triples funding for the Florida Resilient Coastlines Program, but it’s still a tiny amount — about $5.5 million. Consider that Miami-Dade County says rising sea levels threaten septic systems, and fixing the issue will cost more than $3.3 billion.

In San Francisco, voters approved a $425 million bond to pay a quarter of the costs of fortifying a sea wall. In Harris County, Texas, voters reeling from Hurricane Harvey, approved a $2.5 billion bond to pay for flood protection. But Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, has estimated that about $30 billion would be needed to upgrade the county’s 2,500 miles of streams and man-made drainage channels to handle a 100-year rainfall.

Although the growing threat of sea-level rise in cities such as Miami has received widespread attention, other cities like Boston also face severe challenges. In recent decades, the city has greatly expanded its boundaries, turning tidal marshes and shorelines into neighborhoods that are increasingly flooding. By 2070, neighborhoods like the Seaport, East Boston, Charlestown, and South Boston could flood monthly, resulting in $1.4 billion in annual losses to businesses and property. An initiative called Climate Ready Boston has studied the city’s neighborhoods, documented the costs of doing nothing, and then outlined protection steps.

“Over the full city over the rest of the century, we’re looking at a few billion dollars we’re going to have to find,” says Alison Brizius, the city’s director of Climate and Environmental Planning. While Boston is looking at creative ways to fund those projects — such as Resilient Boston Harbor — she adds that more federal funding will be essential. So far, Mayor Marty Walsh has pledged that 10 percent of the city’s annual capital budget — which will total $2.8 billion over the next five years — will go toward resilience efforts, but that amount falls far short of what is needed.

“The city can’t pay for it,” says David Levy, a management professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the lead author of a report about financing climate resilience in Boston. “It is beyond the means of Boston, and Boston is a relatively affluent city, let alone the means of the smaller towns up and down the coast.”

The report recommends a multi-pronged approach of federal, state, city, and private financing strategies, including a statewide carbon tax and an increase of the state gas tax; a Boston climate resilience fee based on water and sewer bills, which could fund city general obligation bonds; and “District Resilience Improvement” entities that would raise revenue from those who would most benefit from resiliency actions.

Educating people about the costs of not doing anything, or not doing enough soon enough, is key, Levy and others say.

“The problem with investing in resilience is where is the cash flow?” Levy says. “What we’re doing is protecting against future damage, but there’s not a new positive cash flow. You’re not creating new value. You’re protecting against the loss of existing value. One way or another we’ve got to pay for this, and nobody likes that. So there’s going to be a lot of fights.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    In the end, it will probably work out that huge tracts of cities will simply be have to be abandoned. It may not be so much a matter of money as a shortage of resources to build any flood mitigation projects. It is a fact that the world is already running out of sand which would be needed if you wanted to build barriers made of concrete. And truthfully, modern concrete is not as good as Roman concrete and will eventually crumble under the assault of sea water over only decades. Here is an article about how the sand shortage is causing all sorts of problems-


    And it cannot be just any sand to build these barriers with. Readers may remember all those concrete barriers that US forces set up in places like Baghdad for security. Thing is, Iraqi sand did not have the properties needed to make those concrete blast walls so the US found itself importing sand from Saudi Arabia, I kid you not. Again, faced with problems like this, some places will have to be abandoned and unfortunately places like southern Florida are a case in point due to the porous bed of limestone that the city was built on.

    1. Carolinian

      NYC is not going to be allowed to submerge nor should it be allowed. In fact it will be the major cities that are saved while the tiny beach towns go under because trying to turn the entire US coastline into Holland is insane. Arguably much coastal development–particularly in Florida–shouldn’t be there in the first place.

      However should insanity take hold and 500 billion be needed here’s suggesting the Pentagon would be the place to start. That’s less than one year’s Defense budget.

      1. Inode_buddha

        The rest of NY *state* hopes and prays that NYC goes under. However, we could learn a few things from the Dutch — but we won’t because we’re so exceptional.

        1. John

          Read up on the North Sea Flood of 1953. Even the Dutch, who should have known better, ignored the warnings and catastrophe occurred. We will do the same. It takes a catastrophe and sometimes that is not enough.
          I would like Mother Nature to return Palm Beach to being an empty sand bar in a hurricane this autumn. Not kind. I know. But it is going to happen somewhere, so it would have the most beneficial effect if it happened to the empty palaces of the riches.

          1. Synoia

            I was a Child in N Norfolk in the 1953 floods. What are the warnings that you mention were ignored?

            The tide came in, the wind behind, the tide did not go out, the wind continued, and the next tide came in.

            In that part of the world the land is flat, and tidal swing, the change in sea level between the tide being in and out is as much as 40 feet.

            As far as I know this had not happened before, ever, and the local history goes back to before the Norman Conquest.

            We lived 2 miles inland from the sea. The sea came to within one half mile of our house.

        2. wilroncanada

          We could also learn a few things from the Acadians. Maybe from some of their descendants in Cajun country. Nova Scotia still has more than 25000 acres of land in the Annapolis Valley behind dykes built by French settlers who were kicked out almost 250 years ago.

        3. wilroncanada

          To add: the dykes are where tides rise and fall by 40 feet or so, twice a day.

      2. Tomonthebeach

        Although South Florida – especially Miami and the Tampa Bay area down through Coral Springs have long ignored their vulnerability to flooding, not all Florida counties have had their head in the sand. I live on A1A in Central Florida. My county, Brevard, has a routine budget for beach replenishment. We are building up wave mitigation, protecting dunes and ensuring they are covered with green plants to stand up to erosion. Most our houses are concrete and have significant wind mitigation installed. We are also not living at sea level, but are 15 feet above high tide. My point is that the problem must be examined at the municipality level – and paid for at that level as well. If the Dutch can do it, so can we.

        1. ambrit

          The problem with a municipality centred solution scheme to sea level rise is scale. The underlying dynamic is global. Secondly, the ‘local’ focus on remediation and adaptation filters for wealth. It may now be too late for a global solution. In that case, local solutions will be optimal, for smaller population groups. This will probably be a major force driving the world back to regionalism. It will also be a driving force behind a massive human population collapse.
          I wonder what odds Vegas is giving on the Jackpot?

      3. fer

        Florida is build on karst limestone. You could build sea defenses but the water will just go under it. Dollar amount per capita for Florida seems to me unrealistic because of that.

      4. J7915

        NYC needs to consider not wasting resources on the landfilled areas. There have been several interesting graphical picture sequences of how Manhattan was expanded with landfill.

  2. DK

    Undoubtedly rich enclaves fill fight to the last dollar, poor areas on either side will be abandoned. It will look like the Wehrmacht’s hedgehog defense against the Red Army, likely with similar results.

    The best answer to “Who Will Pay for the Huge Costs of Holding Back Rising Seas?” is anyone foolish enough to try. Boston floods regularly now, let alone places like Scituate. And that East Boston neighborhood is where the airport is.

      1. ambrit

        It will suffer the same fate as Berlin in ’45! The Red Tide will overwhelm all before it.
        (Where is the Red Skull when you need him?)

    1. ambrit

      If I remember my history aright, Hitler was the main force driving the implementation of the “Hedgehog” defense on the Eastern Front. Most of the generals privately wanted to withdraw and establish new, better defensive lines. The Rich will fare as well as did the Reich. Fight to the bloody end, but lose anyway.
      Nature takes no prisoners.
      The Black Flag is up.

  3. anon in so cal

    Bookmarked for later.

    Regardless of who will pay for seawalls, there is the separate issue of whether some sea walls should be constructed in the first place.

    California coastline regulations include provisions for public access to the beaches and ocean. Homeowners along the coast continually try to limit public access (ever drive along PCH near Malibu and try to access the beach?). One way in which public access gets limited, and the natural shoreline gets degraded, is through homeowners’ construction of massive sea walls to protect their cliff-top homes.
    (cliffs crumbled in Encinitas, California a few weeks ago, killing three people)

    “Before them, to approve or deny, were two controversial bluff-top projects involving homes built before 1976, when the California Coastal Act changed sea front planning forever. Safety, a key consideration, collided with concerns about blocking natural erosion, and public beach access. The first case involved an old house in Encinitas, 27 feet from the bluff. Homeowners Andre and Jennifer Hurst want to demolish it and build a bigger one, but the 40-foot setback they proposed isn’t safe for the life of a new home. The existing seawall may not last that long. Replace the seawall, too? Just what commissioners are trying to head off: immortal seawalls.

    The second application, on behalf of Bob Trettin, sought permits to build a daunting structure on the public beach and bluff, fronting homes at 235, 241 and 245 Pacific Ave. in Solana Beach. The 150-foot long, 35-foot high seawall would be bolstered by a roughly 45-130 foot wide, 50-foot high geogrid structure on the bluff face. Seawalls alter natural shoreline processes, but the Coastal Act permits them where needed “to serve coastal-dependent uses or to protect existing structures or public beaches in danger from erosion.” But did the homes qualify for such protection? In 2000, the Hurst home was granted an emergency permit for a seawall due to a prior landslide, followed by sloughage that altered the bluff. The 42-foot long concrete wall was built on the beach, along with a below grade, upper bluff retaining system. The Hursts see no need for any setback limit on a new home with the system in place. Twenty-one houses have been approved by the city or the commission on the Encinitas bluffs since certification of the Local Coastal Plan in 1994. The plan, which can be stricter than the Coastal Act, considers all types of slope failure over a time period of 75 years. Staff reports noted that the bluff is currently stable. However, with future sea rise, upper bluff erosion will likely continue “and an upper bluff wall may be requested in the future.”

    That would go against the Coastal Act, said Kaily Wakefield, policy coordinator at Surfrider Foundation. “The existing seawall was put there to protect the previous home. It can’t be used to consider new development. A seawall is not meant to exist in perpetuity.” Wakefield argued that the seawalls prevent landward migration of the beach by natural erosion, a process that actually opens up more beach for everyone.”


  4. Synoia

    Move early, move now.

    The estimates are low. Easily by a factor of 10.

    Rich neighborhoods are as vulnerable as poor, because they all use the same sanitation plant, which by design is mostly lower lying than built up areas.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      aye. my dad lives in clear lake, texas. his house is relatively elevated for the area…at around 6 feet above “sea level”. due to lucky configuration of bayous, ike only came to his doorstep…rita, too. he was an island.
      I’ve advocated for years that he sell the place soon, while there’s still a market(meaning:”folks with money who are unaware/in disbelief about seal level rise”)
      but he likes it down there, so it will be up to my bother and i and our stepbrothers to do it…when the time comes(the latter are climate deniers and rabid trumpies, so i don’t look forward to this endeavor).

      he’s at least aware of the danger…and acknowledges the medium to long term unsustainability of living there(besides boat living, i suppose).
      he says that everyone he knows(which means relatively well off property owners and boat people) is totally against the Ike Dike (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ike_Dike)
      and that they simply believe real hard that things will get back to “normal”, re: hurricanes, and such.

      1. notabanker

        Many years ago I spent a good deal of time on the Carolina’s coast. I still get regular real estate spam from there telling me there’s no better time to buy then now. It amazes me that there is a market at all, and apparently a fairly robust one right now.

    1. ambrit

      Not to mention Bangladesh, and the South China coastal plain with all that rice producing acreage. “Things” are going to be very bad for a century to come. Which leaves out the question of how fast the sea level will rise.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I once met a person who said he was the director of the Vietnamese film, the Buffalo Boy, or Mùa len trâu (2004) – per IMDB, who suggested I watched his film.

        Set in the very southern tip of that nation, Ca Mau peninsula, it was quite beautiful – half of the place is water, it seemed.

        The whole area would probably go underwater very quickly, if not already (15 years since 2004), with global warming.

    2. Off The Street

      No truth to the rumor that Tuvalu financing migration through auctioning of those .tv domains and website licenses?

      When I read of the rising seas I am reminded of how the Sea Peoples once terrorized the Ancient World. Their history is shrouded in those sea mists, living on in some folktales. Get to bed children, lest the Sea Peoples come grab thou and makest thou watch Water World again.

  5. Watt4Bob

    Nearly $800 billion promised to protect us from potential, and mostly imaginary sh*t, and so far nearly nothin’ to protect us from stuff we know for sure is gonna happen.

    That’s American exceptionalism.

  6. JE

    It won’t matter. That which is not sustainable will not be sustained. We will be forced to abandon these areas if we’re still functional as a society. Most likely some destabilizing tipping point will come about and smash any plans before that. For example, Bangladesh being inundated, creating refugee and land crises in the area exciting the nuclear enabled India/Pakistan dipole. Toss in Chinese river diversion projects in the Himalaya for fresh water pressure on the region as well and in just this small part of the world an ending to human global civilization can be easily imagined due to climate pressure. Interesting times.

    1. Anders K

      It does matter, because the people in the richer parts of town will yell, first for the major share of preventative measures, and when those fail, for a government bailout – which at least answers the question raised by that numbskull who proposed that you ought to “just sell your house and move inland” when the sea rises too far.

      For some really “good” reason (probably zoning related), poor people will not have access to the same bailout funds and their areas will of course be assigned the monetary value for keeping the sanitation and lights going as long as it’s useful to their “betters”, which will be “proof” that the government gives money to both rich and poor (I’m guessing actual numbers will be either a state secret or a business one, or why not both?).

      I’m glad to be halfway through my estimated lifespan, at this point, and for living in a society which remembers, if dimly, the social welfare programs of days past (Sweden, if you’re wondering) – although our coastal cities and town will have to be abandoned just as in the US, they will be abandoned a bit closer to when it makes economic and societal sense, and not just when the last rich person finds it convenient to move out.

      1. JE

        Rich, poor, my point is that the walls will not be built en masse. Sure, some of the wealthy, early spots to go under water might have efforts made, but society will collapse before these mitigation efforts get underway in a meaningful way.

  7. Steven

    “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (full title: Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland) is a novel by American author Mary Mapes Dodge…The book is also notable for popularizing the story of the little Dutch boy who plugs a dike with his finger. Americans are apparently very good at conjuring up fantasies about holding back the rising seas. They appear to be willing to do just about anything to avoid realities like the rising sea levels produced by global warming that have been baked in since the Western world’s ‘wealth creators’ with their Industrial Revolution began drawing down “nature’s capital” (i.e. fossil fuels).

    It ain’t gonna happen – particularly if we continue to allow ‘wealth creators’ like the Koch brothers and Exxon to continue turning “nature’s capital” into greenhouse gases free of charge. The world is still governed by physical laws, not those passed in Washington or London. The first step in dealing with the problems caused by global warming is making those who profited most pay for them. A realistic assessment of the costs of climate change mitigation reflected in the price of products and services that use fossil fuels would at a minimum prevent those who realize (increasingly) short term financial gains from making the problem worse.

    But this goes beyond ‘us vs. them’ to a whole culture that would rather continue wars of convenience that kill millions of people – in the process introducing yet more greenhouse gases threatening the lives of billions. It includes those of us more concerned about stranded assets and the dollar value of our portfolio that the viability of the planet for future generations.

    1. Dan

      The story of Hans Brinker putting his finger in the dike was actually banned as “homophobic” in our local school district, obviously by someone who never read it.

    2. Noel Nospamington

      There is no way this will happen, as long as those who profit from polluting for free are able to continue to bribe politicians and influence the media.

      Political and campaign finance reform is a prerequisite in properly dealing with climate change.

  8. Victoria

    The best ideas I’ve seen involve withdrawing from flood zones and replanting them to form natural flood breaks. Turn them into public lands and nature preserves, which if done conscientiously can generate at least some community revenue. Likely? Possibly. We need use cases to convince more areas to be positive and proactive.

    1. FreeMarketApologist

      Yes to this.

      …HUD is developing guidelines to spend $16 billion in block grants supporting mitigation activities, but those funds are focused on places that experienced presidentially declared disasters from 2015 through 2017.

      We should be focusing on migration strategies. For some level of severity, a declared disaster area may ultimately be better off being closed and abandoned.

    2. J. Bob

      It also means that water depletion is reduced, resulting in more stable ground under your feet. Wet ground has more volume the dry.

      That was done along the Mississippi after devastating flooding forced people to move out of the flood plane.

  9. Susan the other`

    So it’s a given that some people are busy estimating what is going to happen when we hit critical mass. When there is no cash flow and there won’t be any because we must deindustrialize to keep the planet from getting too hot – but the oceans still are warming and the lag time is decades long. When no one is entirely sure what the sun is doing or what cosmic particles are doing or how thin the atmosphere is. So it’s impossible to predict the various emergencies with good old capitalist confidence, let alone estimate a ludicrous “cost” for unfeasible proposals. When the obvious top priorities will be agriculture and water, not flooding coastlines, and nobody knows how to secure them either. When we hit critical mass will have to literally recycle shelter from shopping malls to dormitories because we had a mental block about taking any action prematurely – gosh, might spend our money on something pointless, useless. But the chance of becoming pointless is unavoidable already. Why don’t we start a government funded program to deconstruct housing along coastlines and floodplains and move it all to higher ground? That employs millions of people; deconstruction/reconstruction is not that complicated – we pretty much know how to do it; it will save resources (which will otherwise be unavailable); and it won’t let all that material become waterlogged and useless. Deconstruct/Reconstruct. Even the sewer pipes. Manifest destiny in reverse. Let’s get outta here!

    1. ambrit

      You are assuming that government generally acts proactively to disasters and disaster scenarios. To make that change, I fear that a ‘strongperson’ government will be needed. As in, when wealthy property owners block some coastal relocation program, send in the ‘bully boys’ to crack a few heads.
      As it is, many of the poor deplorables are being priced out of living on the coasts. If nothing else, economic forces presently in play will begin the coastal depopulation process. So, I will argue that coastal gentrification is a stealth method of encouraging a population shift inland.

  10. Dan

    I’m involved in the environmental planning process in the SF Bay Area of California, and it’s interesting to see how clear-eyed local planners are about sea level rise. Projects anywhere near the bay are routinely required by planners to raise the grade by 3 feet (~1m) to accommodate sea level rise, which usually involves trucking in fill from somewhere and dumping it on the property in question. Of course this be ineffective on the larger scale, since it will produce a weird patchwork of islands as older developments remain where they always were – not to mention the issue of seawalls and other expensive infrastructure raised above – but it’s striking how routine planning for sea level rise has become, compared to the denial and inaction on the State and Federal levels.

    The irony is that the institutions with the least resources are the most proactive, while those that can make the most difference are starved of funds or forbidden from even talking about the issues. It’s driving me nuts.

    1. Steven

      Does information like this even factor into the planning process: Sea Level Rise!?

      The paleoclimate record shows temperatures over the past 400,000 yrs ranged plus/minus 5°C and CO2 ranged 180 ppm to 280 ppm.

      Today’s CO2 at 410 ppm literally smashes the old record of 280 ppm that stood for 400,000 years. Hmm.

      Over those 400,000 years, 5°C temperature change brought 120 meter (394 feet) sea level changes in its wake. Looked at another way, sea level rise equals 20 meters (60 feet) per 1°C temperature increase. Uh-oh! Earth’s already heated that much. Does this mean 20 meters (60 feet) of sea level rise is already “baked in the cake,” ready to burst forward?

      (emphasis added)

      1. ambrit

        Considering the data coming out of Greenland and Antartica, yes, the 20 metre rise is baked in. Probably more, and much quicker than admitted in public.

        1. susan the other`

          And the thing that keeps Antarctica from melting away as fast as Greenland (look out NYC) is the bitter cold down there. It is cold enough in Antarctica to take the new excess moisture in the atmosphere and turn it into some serious land glaciers. So Antarctica might be our savior. But it’ll have to also gain some serious altitude to prevent anything over 60 feet of ocean rise; it could be touch and go. I do wish Jim Hansen would put his fedora on and give us a little straight talk. So obviously there is another question: could Antarctica get so heavy it messes with the Earth’s wobble? The giant Chinese dam on the Yangtze (or Yellow?) river did alter our wobble, and glacial snow is very heavy. Just curious.

          1. Keith McClary

            “It is cold enough in Antarctica to take the new excess moisture in the atmosphere and turn it into some serious land glaciers. So Antarctica might be our savior. But it’ll have to also gain some serious altitude to prevent anything over 60 feet of ocean rise”

            The problem is, continental ice sheets can only reach a certain volume before they start flowing (due to complicated ice physics). They are already flowing so they are slightly over that volume. Increased snow precipitation will accelerate the flow. The timescale for these processes may be decades or centuries but don’t count on salvation in the long term.

        1. ambrit

          The problem here is that all the estimates are really guesstimates. Isostatic rebound of the formerly glaciated land masses will add some rise. Warming the oceans is already producing thermal expansion of the water itself. Displacement of all the billions of penguins will raise the sea level some measurable amount, etc. etc.

      2. rd

        The total Sea Level Equivalent of Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets is about 65 m (213 ft) of sea level rise. http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/glaciers-and-climate/what-is-the-global-volume-of-land-ice-and-how-is-it-changing/

        That would take a while to happen but is only half the sea level rise that occurred from about 19,000 to 6,000 years ago as the big continental glaciers melted. https://noc.ac.uk/news/global-sea-level-rise-end-last-ice-age

        This averaged about 1 m of sea level rise per century for 13,000 years. It is important to realize that it was not necessarily smooth rise as melt water lakes formed behind ice and bedrock barriers that would then release very rapidly when they ruptured. So sea level rise had some significant spurts where it would suddenly rise in a matter of months due to these ruptures as well as shifts in the general rate due to climatic changes – warmer periods had average sea level rises of 2.5 m/century. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2016/02/millennia-of-sea-level-change/

    2. Liberal Mole

      Anyone taking into account what earthquakes do to homes built on landfill? I would dearly like my Bay Area relatives to move to higher ground while their homes still have an insane valuation. But it won’t happen.

  11. Math is Your Friend

    For the shorter term, maybe the time has come for ‘flood codes’ to go along with ‘fire codes’ and ‘earthquake codes’, requiring all new buildings in threatened areas to be flood-proof.

    That would probably require the first couple of stories to be impervious to water and floating object damage, and an emergency power and water supply.

    While it doesn’t fix the problem, it should significantly mitigate the damage.

    Long term probably means no more buildings in threatened areas, only flood proof replacements, and starting new towns and cities on higher ground.

    The idea of building new neighbourhoods in flood zones kind of boggles the mind, though.

    On the other hand, maybe this opens an opportunity for a New World equivalent of Venice?

  12. Anon

    The implications of sea level rise extends well inland. As the oceans rise so do rivers and streams. How far the inundation progresses depends on the terrain. Since most coastal rivers/streams have constrained width, the flood level can migrate inland for considerable distance. And the height of seawalls can impede the release of flooding coming in the opposite direction (from rainfall).

    The problem with planning for sea level rise is we don’t know “How high?”, or “How soon?”. And as noted in earlier comment, “How to protect essential infrastructure to maintain a functioning community?” Wasting money on failed effort isn’t a solution.

    Here’s a link to an excellent long-form story on the California sea level rise crisis:

  13. ambrit

    Having endured the Katrina Experience first hand, Phyllis and I moved inland to roughly above the maximum sea level after all the ice melts.
    This will be the eventual fate of all those presently living in the low lying areas. These areas are not just along the coast line, but also in the river valleys near the coastal deltas. Look at the sea level rise map of the lower Mississippi River. The flooding goes on up past Baton Rouge.
    My worry, which I have voiced here before, is all the toxic sites in the floodplains. The factories, chemical refineries, gas stations, etc. To keep the newly formed coastal waters from becoming a dead zone for tens of years, if not centuries, all those toxic sites will have to be cleaned up, before or after the flood comes. Not to mention all those atomic powered electricity generating plants so conveniently situated right on the present coastline.
    Basically, all the money in the world will not stop Nature from overwhelming the works of man.

    1. Steve H.

      > all those toxic sites will have to be cleaned up

      That’s the known sites. I know of multiple cases where landowners or liable parties covered up (sometimes with bulldozers) toxic waste to avoid complications. They used to use barrels of PCB oil to damp down the dust in a parking lot about a quarter-mile away.

      Your last line is the most realistic sentence I’ve seen on this page. What’s a few centuries in geologic time?

  14. Skookum Red

    My son started his organic farm this year. He leased some land up by Skagit Airport. He is in a special state and federal funded/operated program run jointly with various agriculture schools in the state (Washington State University and local community colleges). Colloquially they call it the “farm incubator program”. Out of curiosity we looked up the farm on the sea-level rise prediction maps. The moderate and worst case scenarios indicate that area will be under water by the turn of the century, and it will certainly be obvious to most farmers in the area at the half-way point about thirty years from now that there isn’t any “turning this thing around” going to happen. While my son works his farm for the next few years, I am scouting for farm land to buy and I keep that sea-level rise map handy. I also keep the tsunami map as reference for how far in the Cascadia tsunami could go inland. I presume the current tsunami map is NOT adjusted for sea-level rise so using it requires some judgement. Puget Sound isn’t prepared for the Cascadia Earthquake and I keep nudging my son, hey, why not look for land on the other side of the mountains in eastern Washington…

  15. Jerry B

    I have only done some initial reading on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), but isn’t this exactly what MMT is good at i.e. infrastructure projects, at least in the US or any country with sovereign currency??

    In the interview linked below, Stephanie Kelton mentions using MMT for infrastructure and the Green New Deal. Kelton also mentioned John Maynard Keynes book called “How to Pay For the War.” as an example of how to pay for infrastructure projects and climate change projects.


    1. notabanktoadie

      at least in the US or any country with sovereign currency?? Jerry B

      Yes, except the US economy, for instance, does not run on sovereign currency but on bank deposits and the banks themselves create bank deposits when they “lend” (“Bank loans create bank deposits”).

      And those deposits created for the private interests of the banks and the so-called “credit worthy” compete for real resources with sovereign spending for the general welfare and thus use up precious politically acceptable price inflation space.

      Now there’s no preventing banks from creating deposits but government privilege allows them to “safely” create vastly more deposits than they otherwise could.

        1. notabanktoadie

          The economy does not run on bank reserves nor on other sovereign currency (except for mere physical fiat, aka “cash”) but on bank deposits.

          And yes, sovereign spending does create bank deposits (as well as bank reserves) but the banks can also create deposits (“Bank loans create bank deposits”) and those deposits compete for real resources with sovereign spending for the general welfare and thus use up precious politically acceptable price inflation space.

  16. Synoia

    After rising sea level is recognized as an intractable problem, the mass deaths from disease and lack of food will begin.

    How many humans remain on the planet when sea levels finally stabilize is an open question. Any concept of stabilizing in a climate similar to our historical climate is highly unlikely.

    We live in a system of quasi stable equilibria, where small changes revert to our historical equilibrium (our 20th century climate), but large changes move the climate to a new, unknown and not predictable, quasi stable equilibrium.

    Our planet will adapt. What humans become is unknown.

    Personally I suspect that intelligence as we practice it is not a recipe for long term (million of years) success. One point of conformation is our inability to discover any civilization similar to ours with the SETI project. A second is the highly improbable structure of the Earth-Sun-Moon system which has cause life to evolve on this planet, in the tidal belt of the oceans.

    The Dinosaurs appear to have had a longer span of success than Humans.

  17. Anthony G Stegman

    In the SF Bay Area local politicians are pushing for a general tax increase to protect the properties of very wealthy corporations such as Google and Facebook which have lush campuses right on the bay. Never mind that these corporations pay relatively little in taxes. It’s the usual privatizing of profits and socializing of costs that state Democrats are so fond of.

  18. rd

    Three separate thoughts on this:

    1. The article mixes and matches two separate issues: a) sea level rise; and b) rainfall induced flooding (Houston-Hurricane Harvey)

    2. Local governments control land use. They are the entities controlling zoning and building permits. Many local entities are continuing to zone and issue permits for locations that are subject to both sea level rise and rainfall flooding. They should not get federal funding for newly created problems. That should be covered by the local tax base they are creating with the new projects.

    3. There is historic land use in place long before these threats were imagined. Boston is one area that comes to mind. I am much more inclined to accept federal funding for remedies of old areas where it makes sense. However, it needs to come with huge strings attached that reduce future threats (see point 2 above).

  19. A. Nony Mouse

    I thought this would be paid for the same way the current administration promised other construction would be handled. American will build a giant wall (screw the rest of the world’s sea level issues) and Mexico will pay for it!

    That is assuredly what has been happening with the magnificent wall at the southern border because it’s what Fox News says. More importantly my feet becoming soaked in saltwater when walking around Miami streets during a high tide in no way correlates or is caused by so-called global warming because Fox News says that’s a hoax too.

  20. The Rev Kev

    Maybe in the end insurance companies will have the final say about coastal properties. Barry Billionaire may have a great place on the Pacific coastline but his insurance company might just jack up the premiums to eye-watering levels as his place is destined to go underwater. Certainly local governments will have to pull the plug on all they ways that they subsidize those who demand to live on the coast but want other rate payers to pick up the tab for barriers and replacing their beach sand whenever it gets washed away.
    You have to respect the power of the sea. Once upon a time here was an international port on Suffolk, England called Dunwich. In scale it was about the same size as 14th London and would have been a major port today. It’s not there anymore. What happened to it? The sea claimed it back-



    1. rd

      The insurance companies don’t provide flood insurance. The government provides flood insurance.

      It will be the mortgage industry that will change the tide. When they stop issuing (or require much higher interest rates) 30-year mortgages for properties that may be flooded out within 30 years is when the big sea change will occur and house prices will start to drop.

  21. George Phillies

    Key issue: These dollar numbers correspond to how much sea level rise? An inch? A foot? A meter? A fathom? Melting advances faster than some had expected. If both polar caps melt, likely not in most of our lifetimes, the rise is around 300 feet, and no amount of diking will save coastal cities.

  22. J. Bob

    Looking at sea level rise over the past 100+ years, little if any is due to CO2, as shown in the graph below. While CO2 has gone up significantly, sea level keeps rising at almost constant rate, illustrating what little if any effect recent CO2 has on ocean level.


    That is, since the increase in CO2, since the 1960’s, the sea level rise has remained irtually constant about 2 mm/year, This despite the claims of significant ocean heating, (water expands when heated) and increase glacier melt water, sea level rise rate data shows no statistical increase. This contradicts claims that CO2 is responsible for increased ocean temperature, and sea levels rising faster now then 100 years ago.

    Must of the apparent sea level rise is not due to the sea, but coastal water depletion due to ‘development’, The UK Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) data, used in computing global sea level, is GPS compensated for ground based tidal station uplift.

    Hence in many cases, it’s not the sea level is rising faster then before, but the ground is sinking faster then before. That water depletion is where humans are a significant factor.

  23. Bill Wald

    I suspect there is much more land world-wide above 50 ft or a 100 foot elevation than below 100 or 50 ft elevation. In the western US, most of the land between the Cascades and the Rockies is high desert, over 500 or 1,000 feet above sea level.

    There is sufficient time in the US and Canada to remedy the situation by encouraging people to move inland. First step in the US should be to phase out federal flood insurance.

    Old science fiction story about an earthquake submerging the Mississippi River low lands for several hundred miles upstream. As I recall, it formed an American Med. Sea and the people who survived the first few years did fine.

    1. Synoia

      It is about land with water. There are millions of square miles of desert.

      Glaciers regulate water, making it available all year.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      How will 150 million rising sea-level exiles make a living in the deserts of the Basin and Range?

  24. drumlin woodchuckles

    If any country can hold back the sea from genuinely huge areas of its floodable land, it will be China.

    They might very well build the Great Seawall of China.

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