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Leon Kaye headshot

Sea Level Rise Could Cause $1 Trillion in U.S. Real Estate Losses

By Leon Kaye

We do not hear much about climate change from the real estate industry, but this month Zillow spoke out about the risk to coastal properties nationwide. The online property database company issued a report this week that suggested sea-level rise could cause almost $1 trillion in property losses by the end of this century.

Zillow’s estimates are based on a March 2016 article in the journal Nature. In the peer-reviewed article, authors Robert DeConto and David Pollard challenged previous assumptions about climate change risks and their impacts on sea levels worldwide. DeConto and Pollard posit that the melting of Antarctica’s ice sheet will contribute even more to sea-level rise than previously estimated. The hydrofracturing of the continent’s ice shelves, along with the structural collapse of ice cliffs at its shore’s edge, is hastening sea-level rise -- and unabated emissions are not helping.

In layperson’s terms, Antarctica’s ice shelves are breaking down faster than previously thought, and this process will accelerate if the world’s countries cannot agree on a plan to stall climate change. The result could be an additional 1 meter (3.3 feet) of additional sea-level rise from Antarctica alone by 2100. DeConto and Pollard’s study concludes that the world’s oceans could rise at a rate double that of what most scientists concluded in recent years.

If these trends hold true, coastal states will suffer massive infrastructure and financial losses. According to Zillow’s Krishna Rao, 36 coastal cities would be wiped off the map, and another 300 cities would lose their homes. The result is what Zillow estimates as a total value of $882 billion in homes at risk.

And that figure should be even higher considering the heated real estate market in much of the coastal U.S. The continued shift to the sunbelt and desire to be on the coast are trends that will not subside any time soon.

States with the reputation for year-round sun will suffer the most. Almost half of the total value of losses could occur in Florida, with over $400 billion in current housing value gone, according to Zillow’s projections. Florida could lose 1 in 8 homes; in Hawaii, 1 in 10 homes could be at risk. Rao suggests that, in total, almost 1.9 million homes could be lost -- and almost half of those are in Florida alone.

And any cities should become laboratories for smart cities’ technology and design, then Miami and Honolulu are the prime places to start. Cities that are booming due to their economic might -- such as Seattle, Boston, San Diego and, of course, New York -- are highly vulnerable. Cities that attract retirees, including Jacksonville and Virginia Beach, also face huge long-term risks.

When companies such as Zillow start a discussion about climate change risks, that should be a signal for insurance companies to evaluate how they are going to underwrite policies for commercial and residential real estate in the long run.

So far, however, most insurers have been silent or oblivious to this challenge. The business sustainability advocacy group Ceres has long implored insurers to become more proactive on how climate change risks factor into their businesses. Municipal governments also need to think about the impact on their annual and long-term budgets. Rising sea levels also could affect public health.

In sum, business needs to work with policymakers to plan for this scenario now. Infrastructure built today, along with approaches such as a carbon tax that can reduce emissions, will make cities more livable now while preventing anything close to the doomsday landscape that Zillow predicts for the future.

Image credit: Gary Bembridge/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye