A Gradual Atlantis


Among researchers who study the potential effects of rising sea levels, and among the city planners in coastal areas who are actively trying to come up with viable plans for their communities, the idea of retreat is catching on. The alternative is to build physical defenses—costly sea walls, levees, or flood gates that might not do the job. In extreme cases, retreat might mean relocating existing critical infrastructure; more often, though, it simply means avoiding building new things in vulnerable areas so that buildings, roads, or entire communities don’t end up in a future floodplain. That might seem like common sense, but those waterfront areas are often the most desirable real estate in the city.

In the UK, the National Trust, which is responsible for hundreds of miles of coastal property, has been advocating a policy of retreat or “rolling back.” The country needs to abandon its “Churchillian” attitude of “holding the line,” the organization says, and consider letting some areas go. These policies are outlined in the Trust’s report “Shifting Shores,” available here.

It turns out, though, that people have strong emotional responses to the word “retreat.” As detailed in this article, some scientists—even those whose own term for their field of study is “climate migration”—choose to avoid the word altogether when talking to the public. It implies that we’re losing the battle, and even if the scientists themselves believe that is exactly what’s happening, they don’t want to alienate their audience. If the situation seems hopeless, their thinking goes, people will avoid doing anything about it at all.

Others, such as Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, use the word often and deliberately in an attempt to make people understand the scope of the problems we’re facing. He says New York City’s time is limited, at least in its present form, and that it will become “a gradual Atlantis.” Yet waterfront development in New York is booming. As one real estate agent says, “Everybody’s going to build wherever they can, every inch. Unless we are permanently underwater, I don’t think there will be much change.”  

There’s a similar trend in San Francisco: Officials believe that by the end of the century permanent flooding will be 3 feet above the current high tide level, and as high as 8 feet above current high tide level during severe storms. But even while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been developing those models, the city has approved development on 50 waterfront parcels, representing billions of dollars of investment. According to the article, “The city seems to be doubling down on San Francisco’s southeastern waterfront as the place for a massive amount of new development. The Southern Bayfront Strategy encourages developers to build 20,000 new homes and up to 5 million square feet of offices on open space…on the city’s eastern waterfront.”

Karen O’Neill of Rutgers University—one of those scientists who avoids using the word retreat—says a better solution is for cities to develop attractive inland spaces that make people want to move away from the water. That seems eminently reasonable and also highly unlikely, given most people’s focus on the near term and the popularity of the shore. What do you think—does the terminology matter? Should we be limiting near-shore development or letting it continue? If we let it continue, should the National Flood Insurance Program cover it? Leave a comment below. SW_bug_web

  • I personally don’t think we should allow the development, because whether they are covered under the National Flood Insurance Program or not they will still request to declare a state of emergency during major events and the country will end of paying for their poor decisions.

    • Liz Feinberg.

      Agree with the comment – limit near-shore development – if not limited, when flooding occurs we will all incur the cost.

  • Rick Laughlin, APLD.

    Interesting how builders continue to build in flood/storm ravaged areas knowing full well what is going to happen…it defies imagination!

  • Kevin Zak.

    It is all about moral hazard. Not unlike having banks that are too big to fail.
    Backing these developments with a parachute like Nation Flood Insurance is like giving a credit card to a Freshman in College. If they build it’s at their own risk. It’s like musical chairs. The developers will be long gone before their development is under water. Short term gain. Long term consequence. Buyer beware. There is now too much science and information for someone to naively say: ” I had no idea we could have been flooded. Please help me pay for my damages.”

    • David Wilson.

      Unfortunately, most people think that if the city or country gives a permit for a development then the development must be safe. It is up to local officials to to stand strong. They have the information about flood plains and predicted flood levels. If they permit development in risky areas, they should share the risk…

  • Joseph Schilli.

    Where is the hard data showing the rise in the ocean levels? If there is any, what is the rise?

  • Kevin Zak.

    This argument is getting tiring. Unfortunately money will push the issue and politicians looking to tax dollars “now” and the next election instead of the future will back-up where the money is now. That is, build now, worry about the future in the future. The book The Art of Japanese Management contrasted the losing American Management style and showed why Ford and GM almost lost the war. We only thought of short term profits while Japanese corporation’s looked to gain market share over time and that’s why we have so many Honda’s and Toyota’s here today and why American car manufactures almost self destructed.
    Economic externalities are always left out of the equation for profit and/or convenience. In this case every tax paying American is the 3rd party.

  • We all live with risk. Every day. The response above regarding the liability is spot on. Anything built in the flood plain or flood prone areas need to be self insured. It is inappropriate for others who have built responsibly out of the flood prone areas to be expected to pay for those who are in harms way. Make it law that any real estate transaction for a property in the flood plain be self insured and the owners cannot say that they didn’t know that they could lose everything and then be responsible for paying to replace everything. Let them live there, but let them assume that risk, not the rest of the population.

    • Gem Bingol.

      The idea of requiring self-insurance sounds like a very reasonable approach, though those who are already there would howl. To help ease the way it could be implemented prospectively at a minimum. How would it work–through local ordinance or State regulation? If local, it might be easier in home rule versus Dillon Rule states.

  • Rob McCoy.

    From an east coast perspective, good stewardship requires that there be no development in front of the Primary Dune. Unfortunately, this has not been observed. I agree, they can live there is they choose to, but they need to be the responsible party when flooding issues arise.

  • Rosemary Sutherland.

    In NSW Australia 1870 just 30 years after the farming land on the South Coast of Sydney was opened up the worst flood on record hit the region. The farmers had to start again. Everywhere around the countryside houses are built on mounds. They were wiser than us.
    With affluence has come a disposable attitude. Multi-million dollar homes grace the low lying coastline. Anyone with a history book doesn’t need global change warnings to know the floods and high tides will come again. These new homeowners don’t care, they have insurance and the council reaps the reward of their annual rates. They are also so financially sound that they will demand the sea walls be built.

  • Ricardo López-Torrijos.

    In the U.K. an insurance scheme closer to self-insurance than our National Flood Insurance Program has been active for many years. Still, the need for longer term strategies, as their National Trust report shows, is needed. So we need both a medium term and longer term strategies. In the medium term we need to gradually move the actuarial risk from taxpayers to policy payers. Longer term we need to promote the change of culture by feeding the discussion on ‘water front’ vs. ‘wet’ property, on resilient vs fragile investments, on wise vs opportunistic. Now we only have a short term strategy: maximize short term return on development investments. No surprise then that the regular taxpayers has to underwrite all of it.


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