Climate change: Rising seas threaten coastal towns

Built on infilled marshland, Norfolk, Va. watches the rising sea level and seeks ways to adapt.

Ross Taylor / The Virginian Pilot / AP / File
In Norfolk, Va., a car sits, partially submerged, while a distant truck tries to push through the water, on Nov. 12, after relentless rain triggered coastal flooding from North Carolina to Long Island. Coastal cities like Norfolk are already having to adapt to rising seas.

Norfolk, Virginia is facing more flooding risk these days. Whether climate change is the cause of this problem remains an open question. But, FEMA is spending over $20,000 per home to raise them to protect them from the next flood.

"We are the front lines of climate change,” said Jim Schultz, a science and technology writer who lives on Richmond Crescent near Ms. Peck. “No one who has a house here is a skeptic.”

Politics aside, the city of Norfolk is tackling the sea-rise problem head on. In August, the Public Works Department briefed the City Council on the seriousness of the situation, and Mayor Paul D. Fraim has acknowledged that if the sea continues rising, the city might actually have to create “retreat” zones.
Kristen Lentz, the acting director of public works, prefers to think of these contingency plans as new zoning opportunities.

“If we plan land use in a way that understands certain areas are prone to flooding,” Ms. Lentz said, “we can put parks in those areas. It would make the areas adjacent to the coast available to more people. It could be a win-win for the environment and community at large and makes smart use of our coastline.”
Ms. Lentz believes that if Norfolk can manage the flooding well, it will have a first-mover advantage and be able to market its expertise to other communities as they face similar problems."

This is a smart article and it highlights the adaptive responses that I claimed in my new book Climatopolis that coastal areas would engage in when faced with a real threat.

Now, for the land owners who own the land that people "retreat from" they would lose out. What does society owe them? If they have flood insurance , then these contracts should be honored but I'm not convinced that general tax payer $ should be used by FEMA to defend private homes. If people want to make these investments for themselves then they are welcome to do so. If Federal tax payer $ will be used to defend the coasts, then this actually will have a moral hazard effect (and a cross-subsidy effect) of encouraging more people to live in dangerous zones and when the inevitable shocks do occur -- there will be more loss of life. Note that government intervention , not capitalism, causes this problem.


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