Rising Seas Could Force 13 Million Americans to Move

Climate change, rising sea levels, risk management, Leon Kaye, Alaska
Cape Charles, Virginia, is one of many coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census and other government agency estimates, almost 40 percent of Americans live in counties along a coastline. Economic opportunities in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, along with many citizens’ desires to live in a warm Southern climate, could see that proportion increase by another 8 percent by the end of this decade. About half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a shoreline, and why wouldn’t that be the case? The coasts are integral to commerce, recreation and, for millions, an incredible quality of life.

So, even if only a few of the suggested risks associated with climate change come true this century, the results will cause huge headaches for real estate companies, insurers, municipal governments and, of course, many citizens. In fact, a new study released by the journal Nature suggests that in a worst-case scenario, as many as 13 million people will be seriously affected by rising sea levels due to climate change by the end of this century. The data revealed in this study adds to what has been a very long wake-up call: Politicians who balk at climate adaption costs for a threat of which they are still not convinced leave the potential for an even larger and more expensive mess for the next generation.

Even a conservative sea-level rise of three feet could wreak havoc on rural and crowded urban areas alike. North Carolina’s Tyrrell County, the state’s least populous county with only 4,400 residents, has the highest percentage of people who would be potentially at risk from rising seas. The Nature study, led by University of Georgia Ph.D. candidate Mathew Hauer, also demonstrates the potential for future tension between wealthier regions such as the Bay Area and Houston against remote areas like North Carolina’s Outer Banks or Virginia’s Eastern Shore. When federal, state and regional governments finally start becoming serious about climate adaptation and mitigation, will poorer areas lose out on funding compared to the wealthier and more politically influential cities? Or will citizens in these less affluent counties just be told to move? And for a state such as Florida, which by far could see itself in a massive crisis with at least 3.5 million future residents under threat, what can be done when the highest point in the state is only 345 feet above sea level?

Such disputes are already underway in Alaska’s Arctic coastal areas, where residents say the effects of climate change are clearly evident. Newtok, a small village home to about 350 people, voted to move nine miles away to higher ground as far back as 1996. Melting permafrost and erosion have made life in the western Alaskan outpost nearly impossible, so local leaders negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move to another location in exchange for allowing their current home to become a wildlife refuge. But as the Atlantic explained, nothing has happened since the arrangement was agreed upon in 2003. Another village, Kivalina, could find itself under water as soon as 2025. The most daunting challenge these communities face is that U.S. disaster relief policy is overwhelmingly reactive; federal agencies such as FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) are quick to arrive after a catastrophe. The will to prepare and avert a potential disaster such as in Newtok or Kivalina, however, does not exist: Leaders do not want to be on the hook for massive infrastructure projects related to something they see as nebulous as climate change.

Some states, including California, are trying to get ahead of the curve. California has invested in its fair share research outlining future risks the state’s coast confronts. The issue, however, is that such information available to the public tends to go far beyond policy wonk-speak and does not resonate with residents and the business community.

In the meantime, business and government really have no choice but to find ways in which they can work together to adapt to, if not mitigate, what will be a very different environment in the coming decades. But as long as companies stifle any discussion of climate change, politics continue to get in the way of long-term planning and climate action is seen more as an indulgence and less as risk management, watch for these costs — and human misery — to rise even more.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).