As Waters Rise, Should Seaside Communities Retreat?

Whatever the decision, action is needed—and sooner rather than later.

June 29, 2018
Vehicles in heavily flooded streets in Miami Beach, Florida

Lynne Sladky/AP

Sea levels are rising. This is a scientifically verifiable fact, an observation that is beyond question.

But there’s a lot we don’t know. How much will the sea rise before the end of the century? By the half-century mark? How much damage will it do during this time, and what will the damage look like? Can we minimize or slow it? If so, how?

Now a newly published report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is pushing yet another question to the forefront of our national discourse on climate change, a question few want to ask: Is it irresponsible to keep building—or even to keep living—by the shore?

The report, Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for U.S. Coastal Real Estate, makes clear that avoiding this question any longer is foolish. Among its sobering findings:  

  • More than 300,000 homes along our nation’s coastlines, currently valued at more than $117 billion and housing 550,000 people, are at risk of being destroyed by 2045.
  • By century’s end, the number of destroyed homes could be as many 2.4 million, valued today at $912 billion and currently housing 4.7 million people.
  • Some states will be hit much harder than others. Florida, in particular, could lose up to a million homes—more than 10 percent of its current residential properties—by 2100.

We’re accustomed to talking about sea level rise in inches, but another staggering takeaway from the report is that scientists are measuring the predicted rise by the end of the century not in inches but in feet. Models employ three different climate-change scenarios, which result in sea level rises of either 1.6 feet, 4 feet, or 6.5 feet. In none of the scenarios do we get away with no damage whatsoever—not even in the mildest of the three, which assumes that we could somehow limit global warming in the 21st century to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the goal set by the Paris climate agreement. Under this assumption, we would still see plenty of flooding, property damage, infrastructural strain, and business collapse.  

A number of Floridians are so worried that they have begun to wonder if the concept of resilience must also, necessarily, include some version of retreat. Writing for The Invading Sea, a joint journalistic endeavor of several of the state’s major media outlets, Jeff Goodell, the author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and Remaking of the Civilized World, notes:

[T]here is no easy fix for what’s coming. Rising seas are not just an engineering problem; they are an existential risk to life as we know it in South Florida. Even in the most modest scenarios . . . [t]axes will increase. Insurance rates will skyrocket. Lawsuits will proliferate. Salt water will corrode your car. Trees will die. New waterborne diseases will emerge. Biscayne Bay will go murky from the increased runoff and pollution. Racial and class tensions will arise over who gets protected from the flooding and who doesn’t.

If the report’s low scenario presages dysfunction, the high scenario presages dystopia. King tides, annual tidal surges that cause Miami Beach to flood every autumn, are already forcing the city to install pumps to send water back into Biscayne Bay. City planners are taking more extreme resiliency measures as well, such as literally raising the roads in certain neighborhoods, some by as much as two feet. Were the waters to rise six feet, or even half that amount, the city would cease to exist in its current form. As Goodell told one reporter from Business Insider: “Miami as we know it today—there’s virtually no scenario under which you can imagine it existing at the end of the century.”

The predicament facing our coasts is elegantly, achingly presented in Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore, a beautiful yet deeply melancholy new book by Elizabeth Rush that looks beyond all the charts and models and numbers in an attempt to calculate the human, spiritual cost of sea level rise. In her travels to vulnerable seaside communities, including several in South Florida, Rush interviews locals who have already been affected by massive flooding events, and she eventually acknowledges that very same question no one wants to ask.

We can move out of the way by choice or else the weather events that we have constructed, are continuing to construct, will make the decision for us. I am not talking about abandoning our lives along the water’s edge, or the wholesale demolition of every seaside property. But I do think the time has come for us to look at the history of our coastal communities and to ask ourselves if rebuilding or continuing to develop in the absolute lowest-lying areas has stopped making sense.

Here’s the cruel catch: While we ponder retreat, we must also, simultaneously, be doing everything we can to save these communities. Even if we doubt our ability to stave off the rising sea, even if we know we can’t do it, we have to continue to act as though it’s possible. In its report, the Union of Concerned Scientists paints anything but a rosy picture of the future. Sea level rise, its authors stipulate, will inevitably alter our coastal cities. But they don’t recommend abandoning these places—or abandoning hope, for that matter. They call for carbon reduction. They call for clean energy. And they call, yes, for resilience.

In other words, they call for us to keep fighting. “There is no simple solution,” they write, “but we do still have opportunities to limit the harms. Whether we react to this threat by implementing science-based, coordinated, and equitable solutions—or walk, eyes open, toward a crisis—is up to us right now.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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