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Image: Climate Central

With global warming expected to contribute to continued sea level rise in the coming century, the New York Times asks a pretty good question: How are we going to decide which coastal communities we'll protect, and which ones we'll give up on? Ideally, if we can actually pass the Green New Deal and find the political will to spend the necessary money, we can avoid the very worst damage by the end of the century, but even so, hard choices are on the way, and soon, according to new research from the Center for Climate Integrity.


By 2040, simply providing basic storm-surge protection in the form of sea walls for all coastal cities with more than 25,000 residents will require at least $42 billion [...] Expanding the list to include communities smaller than 25,000 people would increase that cost to more than $400 billion.

"Once you get into it, you realize we're just not going to protect a lot of these places," said Richard Wiles, the center's executive director. "This is the next wave of climate denial — denying the costs that we're all facing."

Now, the research only looks at one aspect of protecting coastal communities, the cost of building seawalls, which are only one way of building resilience against sea level rise. In some places, it might be more practical to just move homes and businesses to higher ground, or to provide rising waters less damaging places to go -- like unused toxic dumps, let's say. Also, the Times notes,

The figures also don't include the additional and costlier steps that will be required even with sea walls, such as revamping sewers, storm water and drinking water infrastructure.

But the Center for Climate Integrity's figures at least provide a useful starting point for comparisons. You can enter a location in a tool on the study's homepage and get a snapshot of how much protecting it might cost. (My tiny hometown on the Oregon coast is gonna be toast -- with a current population of only about 4,000 people, it would require $18.6 million to protect. Bummer.)

Currently, preparing for climate change has mostly been left up to state and local governments, and some are already on it.

In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a $10 billion project to protect a slice of Lower Manhattan from flooding, asking the federal government to pay for it [...] In May, officials in Charleston held a public meeting on where to find the estimated $2 billion the city needs to prepare its drainage and water infrastructure for climate change.

We bet North Carolina is feeling pretty smug by comparison, since in 2012, the state lege outlawed planning that considers sea level rise due to climate change, so there. And then there's New Orleans, which we're sorry to say is fucked:

In April, the Army Corps of Engineers said the levee system around New Orleans, upgraded after Hurricane Katrina at a cost of $14 billion, is sinking, and could become inadequate in as little as four years.

The coastal cities and states that get a head start on planning for sea level rise are set to be winners, according to insurance honcho Eric Smith of reinsurance outfit Swiss Re, who says those communities will "attract the jobs and the factories of the future [...] There's going to be communities that I think will be left way, way behind."

So how do we do the cost-benefit analysis and decide who gets seawalls (or other climate disaster mitigation funds) and who doesn't? The Times article discussed the possibilities with several experts, like Craig Fugate, the former FEMA director under Barack Obama.

"The way I would do it is, how much risk avoidance do I get for every dollar I invest?" Mr. Fugate said.

He acknowledged that Congress would probably object to that approach, since it would likely mean FEMA would concentrate its resilient-infrastructure funds in just a handful of states.

"Which then immediately runs into, 'Well, what about my state?'," Mr. Fugate said. "My sense is, knowing how the Senate works, they're going to have to give every state something."

We suppose that's not an altogether horrible option, since it might result in, say, Colorado getting support for drought mitigation in return for supporting seawalls in coastal areas. Other experts suggest we may need to go straight to some kind of triage planning for coastal areas:

Another option would be for the federal government to distribute climate protection money based on a city's property value, its historical and cultural importance, and how much it contributes to the national economy, said Harriet Tregoning, who was in charge of the housing department's Office of Community Planning and Development during the Obama administration.

Cities could increase their chances of getting money by reducing their exposure to disasters, perhaps by retrofitting their buildings, implementing aggressive building codes and zoning restrictions, and helping residents leave the most vulnerable neighborhoods, Ms. Tregoning said. And there could be extra points for cities that take in people forced to flee other parts of the country.

Another technocratic approach, suggested by Western Carolina University prof Robert Young, who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, envisions a commission that would draw up a list of the most and least defensible areas, and then putting it to an up-or-down vote by Congress, as with military base closings. He acknowledges that may be a little too "Cold Equations" for most people, though:

"To be able to sensibly make these kinds of decisions in an organized fashion, using data?" Mr. Young said. "That's a gigantic assumption, in my opinion."

If this all sounds a bit like science fiction, then son of a gun, here we are in the future, huh?

And where are we with federal planning? The Times notes that at least FEMA is asking a wide range of stakeholders for feedback on a new "Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities" grant program, to "reduce the vulnerability of communities and public infrastructure before a disaster strikes," according to spokesperson Abigail Dennis, who agrees that "increasing frequency, impact and cost of disasters demands that we invest in mitigation" in advance. Not noted in the Times story? The request for feedback on the grant program doesn't mention "climate" at all. We gotta be prepared, but ain't nobody at FEMA saying what exactly we have to prepare for. Just "disasters." Which will "increase," for some reason.

That sure adds weight to the warning from the reinsurance guy, Eric Smith, who told the Times,

"The challenge is, we're fighting about whether or not there's climate change," Mr. Smith said. "They don't want to embrace what's right in front of us."

Smith was referring to local governments specifically, but might just as well have included the Trump administration. Which, oh, yes, has just rolled out the final version of its "affordable clean energy" rule, which is aimed at keeping the coal industry tottering along. If the rule survives the many lawsuits it's likely to face, it will eliminate the Obama administration's national climate goals. But just imagine what a beautiful seawall will be built around Mar-a-Lago.

[NYT / Center for Climate Integrity / MIT Technology Review / Image by Nickolay Lamm, Climate Central. Used by permission]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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