Who pays to move people away from rising seas? No answer yet

By Anne C. Mulkern | 09/20/2017 07:41 AM EDT

Determining who must move because of sea-level rise, where they’ll go and who will foot the bill is among the most pressing questions of our era, experts said yesterday at Stanford University.

Determining who must move because of sea-level rise, where they’ll go and who will foot the bill is among the most pressing questions of our era, experts said yesterday at Stanford University.

People already are relocating as tides swallow up land along the U.S. Gulf Coast and in Alaska, the experts said at a daylong conference titled "Building Coastal Resilience: U.S. Risks and Preparedness." Stanford held it in the wake of hurricanes that devastated parts of Texas and Florida.

It will cost $80 million to $100 million to move the Newtok Native village in Alaska, said Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. The Native village of Shishmaref, located on an island in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, voted last year to resettle, a move that is expected to cost $200 million.


"Who’s going to pay for that?" Ulmer said, adding that Newtok has started to move itself incrementally.

"These questions of who decides who pays, and how to make it happen, may be playing out right now in places like a Louisiana community or an Alaska community," she said. "It may be playing out in the Pacific on islands that have already reached the point where they cannot live there anymore. How does that work with San Francisco or Miami Beach or New Orleans?"

The United States’ democratic governance "is not very well-suited" to dealing with problems that are expensive when there’s a political inclination to go with the status quo and say, "Somehow it will all be all right," Ulmer said.

The conference featured experts on the effect of melting ice caps, ocean health and how the San Francisco Bay Area is preparing for sea-level rise. Locations throughout the Golden State already are seeing flooding, chunks of bluffs falling to shore and the disappearance of sandy beaches (Climatewire, July 31).

It comes as California is updating its policies on higher oceans. The latest version is supposed to have more "teeth" for local agencies compared with an earlier version, said David Behar, climate program director with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Some local communities aren’t willing to wait for state guidance "that suddenly becomes more knowledgeable than it ever has been or the federal government to suddenly step up when it never has," said Len Materman, executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority. It is looking at raising levees and restoring salt marshes in a region that includes the headquarters of Facebook and Google (Climatewire, Dec. 20, 2012).

The immediate threat to California is the combination of sea-level rise and an extreme event such as a tsunami or a major storm, said John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. A former mayor of coastal Santa Cruz, he said he’s seen the ocean move farther inland over the years.

The challenge now is to "bring the public along" and help people understand what’s happening now and that "this is really coming," Laird said of sea-level rise and other climate impacts.

"The public probably wasn’t paying attention until they had the three hurricanes, when everything’s been going on for years leading up to it," he said.

California is working to make ocean protection eligible for funding from revenues generated by the state’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, Laird said. Typically, funded programs must show a link to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Natural Resources Agency has funded scientific research on how sea grass can sequester carbon and combat ocean acidification.

How far from water is safe?

Some of the most provocative issues came up during question-and-answer sessions.

It’s not clear where relocated communities should go to remain safe, said Steven Bingler, president of Concordia, an urban planning group. He’s working with Louisiana officials on moving people off Isle de Jean Charles, a Gulf Coast community that he said has lost 90 percent of its landmass to water in the last 40 years.

Louisiana is looking at a 600-acre parcel located 35 miles north of Isle de Jean Charles, Bingler said.

"Theoretically, it’s good for 50 years," he said, before wondering, "Can we design cities on a 50-year time frame?"

"I’m also an architect," he said. "If we have to calculate a column using steel, even as much as we know about steel, we have to add a two-point safety factor. So, as planners, should we be taking all of the sea-level rise predictions and doubling them?"

Dustin Schroeder, an assistant professor in the Department of Geophysics at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, said it’s hard to give a number when there are different possibilities for what will happen with the melting polar ice caps.

Greenland is above sea level and has "a maximum speed limit," he said. West Antarctica is changing quickly but mostly is below sea level, and "it doesn’t have a maximum speed limit the way Greenland does."

Benjamin Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central, told Bingler that if the Isle de Jean Charles community moves to a parcel that’s threatened, then "with high likelihood, at some point, it will need to move again."

"So the questions are, how long do the people want to feel assured they can be in their new place?" Strauss added. "How far are they willing to move because they love that place?

Jane McKee Smith, senior research scientist for hydrodynamic phenomenon at the Army Corps of Engineers, said building should be done in a way that naturally accepts some flooding without destroying a city, or that plans for continued recess.

"It’s really a complicated, hard problem, and we can’t just look at 50 years," McKee Smith said.