When do we get serious about sea level rise?


Based on my last blog, his inquiry came to me.  And I think I actually have an answer:  when bakers and insurance companies decide there is real exposure.  Let’s see why it will take these agencies.  There is very little chance, regardless of good faith efforts, significant expertise, or conscientious bureaucrats to stop growth and development.  The lobby is simply too strong and local officials are looking for ways to raise more revenues.  Development is the easiest way to increase your tax base.  As long as there are no limits placed on develop-ability of properties (and I don’t mean like zoning or concurrency), development will continue.  But let’s see how this plays out.  Say you are in an area that is likely to have the street inundated permanently with water as a result of sea level rise (it could be inland groundwater, not just coastal saltwater).  For a time public works infrastructure can deal with the problem, but ultimately the roadways will not be able to be cleared.  Or say you are located on the coast, and repeated storm events have damaged property.  In both cases the insurance companies will do one of three things:  Refuse to insure the property, insure the property (existing) only for replacement value (i.e. you get the value to replace) but no ability to get replacement insurance, or the premiums will be ridiculous.  We partially have this issue in Florida right now.  Citizen’s is the major insurer.  It’s an insurance pool created by the state to deal with the fact that along the coast, you cannot get commercial insurance.  So Citizens steps in.  The state has limited premiums, and while able to meet its obligations, in a catastrophic storm would be underfunded (of course in theory is should have paid out very little since 2006 since no major hurricanes have hit the state, but that’s another story). 

As the risk increases, Citizens and FEMA, the federal insurer, have a decision to make.  Rebuilding where repeated impacts are likely to happen is a poor use of resources and unlikely to continue.  Beaches and barrier islands will be altered as a result.  The need will be to move people out of these areas, so the option above that will be selected will be to pay to replace (move inland or somewhere else).  Then the banks will sit up.  The banks will see that the value of these properties will not increase.  In fact they will decline almost immediately if the insurance agencies say we pay only to relocate.  That means that if the borrowers refuse to pay, the bank may not be able to get its money out of the deal on a resale.  We have seen the impact on banks from the loss of property values as a result of bad loans.  We are unlikely to see banks engage in similar risks in the future and unlikely to see the federal insurers (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) or commercial re-insurers like AIG be willing to underwrite these risks.   So where insurance is restricted, borrowing will be limited and borrowing time reduced.  That will have a drastic impact on development.  The question is what local officials will do about it?

There are options to adapt to sea level rise, and both banking and insurance industries will be paying close attention in future years.  Local agencies will need a sea level rise adaptation plan, including policies restricting development, a plan to adapt to changing sea and ground water levels including pumping systems to create soil storage capacity, moving water and sewer systems, abandoning roadways, and the like, and hardening vulnerable treatment plants.  Few local agencies have these plans in place.  Many local officials along the Gulf states refuse to acknowledge the risk.  What does that say about their prospects?  Those who plan ahead will benefit.  Southeast Florid a is one of those regions that is planning, but it is slow process and we are only in the early stages.

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