Half a trillion needed over the next 20 years as a base down payment to defend vulnerable infrastructure on portions of shoreline that could be at least 15% underwater by 2040

The study by the engineering firm, Resilient Analytics, High Tide Tax: The Price to Protect Coastal Communities from Rising Seas reveals the baseline costs communities will have to pay to protect themselves from sea-level rise by 2040. It is the first large scale accounting of the costs states, counties, congressional districts, and cities in the U.S. face to adapt to climate change in the short term. The billions involved will represent just a fraction of adaptation efforts governments in coastal states will have to fund if they do not want to simply retreat.

Time is short to slow accelerating climate impacts, with perhaps 15 years or less remaining to stabilize climate change before self-reinforcing feedbacks and irreversible tipping points increase impacts to catastrophic and perhaps even existential proportions.

By Emily Holden in Washington for The Guardian, 20 June 2019Rising Seas Defense Sea Walls Report

Defending against rising seas could cost US communities $416bn in the next 20 years, according to a new report.

Spending on seawalls alone could total almost as much as the initial investment in the interstate highway system, the authors said. And the billions involved will represent just a fraction of adaptation efforts governments in coastal states will have to fund if they do not want to simply retreat.

“I don’t think anybody’s thought about the magnitude of this one small portion of overall adaptation costs and it’s a huge number,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), which published the report.

Estimates of how much sea-level rise will cost often focus on impacts by 2100, Wiles said, adding that people will be paying for the climate crisis much earlier.

“You’re looking at close to half a trillion spent over the next 20 years and no one has thought about that. So the question is, who’s going to pay for that? Is it really going to be taxpayers? The current position of climate polluters is that they should pay nothing, and that’s just not tenable.”

According to the report, Florida faces the highest costs, $76bn by 2040. Louisiana comes in second at $38bn and North Carolina third at $35bn. For cities, Jacksonville, Florida, New York and Virginia Beach could spend the most: $3.5bn, $2bn and $1.7bn, respectively.

Many places are starting to pay such bills. Staten Island in New York, for example, is planning a $615m, five-mile seawall to withstand a 300-year storm. The federal government will pay $400m.

As the planet heats up and land-based ice melts, the average global sea level has risen seven or eight inches since 1900, with about 3 in of that rise occurring since 1993, according to a US government report. Half the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere currently heating our planet have been emitted in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, governments knew and fossil fuel companies knew. Exxon, Chevron and BP made biggest contributions to climate change of any private company in history, apparently knew three decades ago we were about to cook our planet, and then lit the fire.

The CCI published the report with analysis by lead scientist Paul Chinowksy, director of the environmental design program at the University of Colorado Boulder and chief executive of the firm Resilient Analytics.

The cost figures in the CCI report are based on localized projections for sea-level rise under the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario for moderate levels of pollution. In that scenario, called RCP 4.5, emissions would peak around 2040 and then begin to decline.

The projections in the report were calculated by the climate science and news organization Climate Central.

The CCI report considered how much communities in the contiguous US would pay locally to build sea walls to protect against the storm surge expected in a given year, Wiles said, although many would spend more to build even stronger defenses.

Other communities might vanish rather than pay for new infrastructure. If so their governments could then be vulnerable to lawsuits from residents, Wiles argued.

Some communities examined would have to spend $1m a person on needed defenses, the assessment found. For example, Fire Island, a barrier island off the mainland of Long Island in New York, would face $1.5bn in investment to protect a few hundred ocean-front homes.

The group studied thousands of miles of coastline to determine where roads might be submerged. Researchers estimated the cost of defending vulnerable infrastructure within portions of shoreline that could be at least 15% underwater by 2040.

From the Center for Climate Integrity:

Even if the U.S. and all the other Paris parties fully implement their voluntary pledges under the agreement, which is not likely, the world would not come close to staying within the 2°C warming target, let alone the more prudent 1.5°C—neither of which can guarantee climate safety given the impacts the world is already suffering today at 1°C of warming above pre-Industrial levels, and the impacts associated with today’s concentration of carbon dioxide, which include the possibility of 10 to 20 meters of sea level rise.

Current climate policy is inadequate, and opposition from major fossil fuel companies is a key reason. Judicial enforcement of the “polluter pays” principle against the companies whose products are the central cause of global warming addresses both:

  • the need to deal fairly with the consequences of their past conduct and
  • the need to encourage fossil fuel companies to change their behavior going forward.