Sea Level Rise Hits Close to Home
Last week the President of Kiribati (pronounced “keer-ee-bas”), a low lying nation of small South Pacific islands, announced that his country was buying 6,000 acres of land in Fiji because climate driven sea level rise is threatening to submerge his country. The plan of last resort is to move the entire population of 103,000 to Fiji.
But as an important new report released today by the independent research organization Climate Central makes clear, U.S. coastal states, especially Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana and California, are facing similar risks. Millions of people, millions of homes and businesses, and vital infrastructure are vulnerable and taxpayers and insurance companies face unprecedented exposure.
The report, Surging Seas, cites greatly increased risk of catastrophic flooding from storm surges, which are becoming more common as the number of climate driven severe weather events increases, a trend scientists believe will continue as the Earth warms. The online version of the report includes interactive maps where you can view the vulnerability of every coastal town, city, county and state in the 48 contiguous states based on varying amounts of sea rise.
It’s not hard to visualize the problem. Nationwide, five million people live in 2.6 million homes less than four feet above sea level. There are 2.4 million Floridians and 1.3 million Florida homes in this group and in just three southeast Florida counties, excluding the most populous (Miami-Dade), an estimated $30 billion in taxable property is below the three-foot line. The Florida Climate Institute has projected a 32-inch sea level rise by 2100 meaning much of this property will be in the water even without a storm surge. “In many places,” says the report, “only inches separate the once-a-decade flood from the once-a-century one; and separate the water level communities have prepared for, from the one no one has seen.”
Florida businesses and homeowners already pay high property insurance premiums because of the increased risk of severe weather, and private insurance companies won’t even write flood insurance in Florida so taxpayers will bear the financial burdens associated with sea level rise. Large insurers know that climate change is increasing their risks and may make some homes and businesses uninsurable at any price, leaving individuals and taxpayers to fend for themselves.
According to Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, “The footprints of climate change are around us and the trend of increasing damage to property and threat to lives is clear.”
“Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami,” says Benjamin Strauss, one of the authors of the Climate Central report, “building force while we do almost nothing.” And even small amounts of sea level rise multiply the risks of catastrophic floods by adding to tides and storm surge. In New Jersey, another highly vulnerable state, Strauss and his colleagues calculate that the risk of a hundred-year flood in the state by 2030 has tripled because of global warming-related sea rise, putting more than quarter million people and 166,000 homes at risk.
It isn’t just exposed populations and residential property that’s threatened, however. Storm surges could also flood normally dry areas affecting critical infrastructure, including farmland, fresh water supplies, roads and bridges. Already several South Florida communities have scrambled to develop new water sources after salt-water intrusion compromised existing community wells. With the Fukushima nuclear disaster fresh in mind, it’s worth noting that more than a dozen U.S. nuclear power plants sit in low-lying coastal areas, too.
We are past the point where we can prevent climate change; the question now is how to mitigate the risks and the dire and predictable economic and social disruption that will inevitably follow. The answer isn’t a mystery: we need a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. DC policymakers need to stop fiddling while the invisible tsunami builds just off our shores.
Cynthia McHale is insurance program director at Ceres, an advocate for sustainability leadership that mobilizes a powerful coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate and expand the adoption of sustainable business practices and solutions to build a healthy global economy.