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No One Wants This Climate Change Conversation

Black and white cityscape from the ocean

Soon we will have to decide which communities we will save

In the very near future, global warming will force us to decide which communities we abandon and those we save. Millions of residents in affected areas may be the last to know if their region will win or lose the debate.
Ultimately, it may be big money that chooses. Real estate developers and insurance carriers might determine whether we keep Grand Isle or Gulfport and Savannah or Sarasota. It’s not a clear cut choice as you might imagine, but it is a decision that should be made only after considering the implications.
Rising sea levels will affect more than the lines on a map. It will likely displace metro population centers from coastal regions, interrupt the supply chain, and require an enormous outlay of funds to restore infrastructure after extreme weather events or sea-level rise.


It’s already occurring in Florida and Louisiana


While entire regions may be abandoned, some places will require federal intervention to build and maintain sea walls and levees at taxpayer expense. The alternative of allowing these areas to be reclaimed by the rising waters may create a far greater crisis for the rest of the nation. The loss of our coastal communities may hamper our ability to recover from other extreme weather events further inland.We may have to determine if it is wise to rebuild disaster prone regions only to risk further devastation from the next hurricane or flooding. Do we invest money and effort to resettle populations outside of the region and relocate infrastructure to more stable areas? Should we save any communities and simply accept our fate? As refugees flee affected areas, we can expect further destabilization of real estate markets creating more problems with housing.
And who decides which cities receive an infusion of federal funds? Who pays? More and more, it looks as if the taxpayer will pick up the tab. The public may be expected to rebuild forever because the financial risk is deemed too great to allow rich corporations to fail.
The lack of planning for this inevitable crisis is worrisome since these questions have persisted since the beginning of the climate change debate. Little has been done to create a clear a path to the future — a future which looks more and more dystopian.
Ideally, political leaders should immediately work out resettlement of at-risk populations and the relocation of crucial infrastructure before a crisis strikes. It will be easier to address now than when a region is under water. But little progress is being made. Instead, government is taking the “business as usual” approach of foisting responsibility onto each community. It is a continuation of ignoring the problem of climate change.
According to the Washington Post, one-third of Americans live in an area declared a disaster in the past three months.

Even cities under water may have to be saved.


From an economic perspective, we may be forced to save the least viable communities in order to keep commerce moving. And that means allowing others to fail.
Port communities are the lifeblood of a nation’s economic activity as they connect sea and land transport. Without these, imports cannot reach their destination. Currently, 65 container ships are stuck in California waiting to offload cargo — a result of disruptions in the supply chain and further exacerbating the problem.
There has been significant investment in port communities, sometimes spanning longer than a century, along with the development of infrastructure to support commerce. Any point of contact in this network will be difficult to relocate elsewhere. And the funds — as well as the political wherewithal — may not be available to facilitate a move. It may be impossible.
Just because areas are impacted by rising waters doesn’t mean we can abandon the region.
Coastal communities were rarely planned. They sprung up around sea ports in locations that were suited for a wharf, where ships could dock, load and unload passengers and goods. Some grew from need, local geography, and fate.
The world’s busiest, the Port of Miami, was the result of a hurricane in 1835 which opened a waterway in the barrier islands around Biscayne Bay. To surrender the port to rising sea levels would mean relocating much of the city along with all support infrastructure. The costs would be staggering.
Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan economic think tank, has deemed Miami the most vulnerable major coastal city due to global warming. Experts predict “The Magic City” will experience “100-year” floods every few years, also warning that sea-level rise threatens $145 billion of real estate.
While it seems logical to allow the sea to reclaim places like downtown Miami, chalking it up to an unlucky location, there are bigger forces at play.
Unofficially, Miami has been deemed too critical to fail as the Army Corp of Engineers plans to build a 20-foot sea wall to protect downtown. At a cost of $6 billion, this may leave the land habitable, but it doesn’t mean the infrastructure and surrounding communities will be protected. This proposal is not a long term solution either, but we may have little choice but to apply a band-aid to the problem.


Lessons from Ida


Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm and one of the strongest to ever make landfall in Louisiana, left 1,500 miles of destruction in her wake. Weeks later, many residents are still without power.

It should come as no surprise as the state had not fully recovered from Hurricane Laura in 2020, or three previous storms. The region never completed rebuilding in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005, a devastating storm that struck exactly 16 years before Ida.
Louisiana serves as an example of systemic failure spanning more than a dozen years.
The damage may never be fixed as the cost to rebuild is estimated to be 30% higher and take months or years to recover, leaving the area in a state of disrepair when the next storm makes landfall. The most recent example is Tropical Storm Nicholas which dropped heavy rain on Texas and Louisiana; hampering recovery efforts to restore power in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
And yet we continue to rebuild in places like Louisiana, running full speed into climate collapse despite the public questioning this policy long before Katrina.
In light of predictions of stronger hurricanes slamming into the Gulf coast, shouldn’t we decide whether it makes sense to try to rebuild at all?

FEMA to the rescue?


In places like Pointe-aux-Chênes, where nobody has power or running water, residents are already questioning if staying is worth it. Some 80% of houses have been deemed uninhabitable. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering residents an opportunity to relocate through a grant program to buy and demolish their homes.
Soon we may see similar programs for commercial real estate in some of the priciest coastal zip codes. But perhaps we should be forcing that issue now.
Pointe-aux-Chênes is but one small community already making tough decisions about the future due to climate change. Larger cities may not have it so easy. Civic leaders seeking to abandon coastlines and resettle residents will likely meet with great resistance from the populace. No doubt locals will pressure officials to “do something” especially when wealthy landowners see property values plummet in response to the federal government declaring a future disaster area.

It’s clear most communities are on their own.Rather than preparing the public for the inevitability that some regions may be permanently uninhabitable, FEMA is relying on local civic leaders to become disaster experts and deal with the problem themselves.The agency is focusing efforts on guiding cities in developing a Hazard Mitigation Plan, a program addressing issues such as zoning and development that should have been implemented 30 years ago. Vulnerable regions should move from the planning stage to implementation by actively resettling communities and relocating infrastructure. Without accepting the region may be a complete loss, thousands of communities will have adopted different plans and competing approaches to deal with climate hazards.
And that’s a big problem for the nation. Because our system of moving goods about the country depends on every part working perfectly.For example, when a tornado rips through Missouri, and another blizzard ravages Texas, the machinery, metals, wood, and parts to rebuild aren’t stockpiled in some warehouse. These needed goods will be imported and will likely flow through Miami as it is the closest deep water port to the Panama Canal. A system of shipping, rails, barges, and trucking delivers the needed supplies to disaster areas — assuming all the parts keep moving.
Hurricane Ida created a backup in the US inland waterways system, about 12,000 miles of commercially navigable channels serving 38 states. That one storm created delays well into September that negatively impacted domestic manufacturing output.Imagine how the system will break down when hundreds of communities grapple with multiple weather events in a region of cobbled together disaster plans while the supply chain grinds to a halt. Now think about how well the system will function when some critical junction has no power, while the nearest neighboring region is flooded.
What used to be the plot of disaster movies is now a likely scenario. And no one is planning for it.
What is needed is a comprehensive national plan to identify which areas will be abandoned and then act on it. This way we can mitigate the worst effects instead of reacting to the problem after a crisis.
While civic leaders don’t want to be responsible for telling 180,000 people in Fort Lauderdale no one will bail them out “next time”, perhaps the smart move is for the federal government to help locals take their losses now and relocate elsewhere in a planned and controlled effort.
Political leaders will have to answer the question of whether each community has enough value to warrant such herculean efforts while justifying the cost to taxpayers suffering from crisis fatigue. Those conversations should be happening long before the next disaster strikes and collapse becomes a way of life for many.
If we don’t, we risk catastrophic failure of our system that moves food, medicine, machines, and people through the nation and creates waves refugees who could have been resettled.
We can’t save every coastal community. Perhaps the best approach would be identify the losers and begin moving people and infrastructure elsewhere.

  • This article originally appeared on Medium. Author Shelly Fagan makes complicated subjects accessible, including politics, basic income and philosophy.

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