Sea levels will continue to rise over the next century as a result of climate change, and this could drastically alter the lives of the 127 million people in the U.S. who live in coastal areas.
“We do need to back away from the coast,” Christian Braneon, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said at Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit (video above). “And I think what we need to do is actually proactively set up areas with affordable housing before the real estate market catches up and kind of fully understands the risk on the coast. Too many human beings living on the coast right now are exposed to just exorbitant amounts of climate risk.”
The risks that coastal communities face include threats of "sunny day flooding" and storm surges that will be both more frequent and more extreme. And a higher prevalence of flooding not only displaces residents, but also incurs high economic costs to rebuild.
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The extent of sea level rise depends on how quickly nations can reduce and sequester greenhouse gas emissions that cause polar ice to melt and waters to swell through thermal expansion.
Under low greenhouse gas emissions scenarios — the hope guiding the COP26 climate conference currently underway — sea levels will rise between 1 and 2 feet by 2100, according to the UN's report on climate science. Those levels increase to 2 to 3 feet under high emissions scenarios. Most alarming was that scientists were not able to rule out sea levels exceeding 6 feet by 2100, which would be catastrophic.
“We are all at risk,” Katherine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, said. “And we know that cutting emissions is absolutely essential to avoid the even more dangerous impacts if we don't.”
‘An uncomfortable conversation’ about climate change
For Braneon, who grew up in Houston and has family living in New Orleans, the issue of rising sea levels is personal.
“I've been encouraging my family in New Orleans to move for many years,” Braneon said. “But like many people, they're attached to their communities. They're attached to their homes. They're really invested in staying where they are.”
He add that "I think we need to give people the opportunity to leave. I think we need to give them options and have community-led retreat where we give both options over a period of time. And maybe in 10 years, they're not ready to move. But maybe in 20 years, they may be.”
One thing that Braneon and Hayhoe both stressed is that extreme weather events will impact communities differently in terms of displacement, resilience, and rebuilding after natural disasters. These challenges present an “uncomfortable conversation that we are going to have to have more and more,” Hayhoe said.
Part of that conversation entails evaluating how federal disaster aid can be distributed more equitably, Braneon explained.
“A lot of this allocation of aid is based on cost-benefit calculations that are meant to minimize taxpayer risk,” he said. “But this can actually allow rich people to get richer, and poor people to stay poor. And really, low-income folks are going to come back after disaster in a different way than wealthy folks.”
Braneon stressed that this means "we need to be a little bit preemptive."
“Before everyone catches on, think about encouraging development that's inland, encouraging development with meaningfully affordable housing, not affordable housing that's based on some algorithm, but affordable housing that means that folks that are low income can actually afford it," he said.
Meanwhile, the continued development in areas prone to flooding and sea level rise adds another layer of complexity to the situation. According to a 2019 report by Zillow and Climate Central, the states with the most homes newly built in 10-year flood zones are New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Delaware.
“It's as if we are a frog in water that is heating up slowly,” Hayhoe said. “If we just wait until everybody catches on, it's going to be too late. And that's why the time to act is now.”
Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance.