Mitigating Climate Change Damages: Managed Retreat?

About 40 percent of the US population lives in counties located on a coastline. What will happen to property values along the coast as rising ocean levels and extreme climate events put more and more homes in danger of being flooded, collapsing along eroding shoreline bluffs, swept out to sea in high tide/hurricane events, or just flooded regularly by being below the new mean higher high water line?

1_Ocean Flooding Cartoon.jpg

I’ve thought (and written) that the key is what the property insurance industry will do. Will they abandon coastal properties entirely? Will they raise insurance premiums to levels that only the wealthiest can afford? Will flood maps be revised in time to alert home buyers and their agents to potential flooding hazards? Will state governments step up to backstop the insurance companies, putting all taxpayers at risk for the foolishness of a few?

All said, this may NOT be a good time to buy coastal property, including luxury condominiums still being built all along the US coastline. It’s probably instead a good time to SELL such properties to the remaining few foolish, naïve or reckless buyers, people who will take out 30-year mortgages on properties unlikely to survive past 2050, “until the sea shall free them.”

Nearer to home, just north of San Diego, the small coastal town of Del Mar is a wealthy enclave full of expensive homes built right alongside the Pacific Ocean. The state of California requires all coastal communities to create plans for managing these properties in the face of the expected rise of three to six feet in average sea level over the next several decades. One viable and (for the rest of the town) cost-effective option: managed retreat, i.e., simply abandoning the properties and moving the town inland to higher elevations.

Other cities in the US have carried out “managed retreats” when threatened by repeated flooding from rivers that run through or alongside them, e.g., Grand Forks, North Dakota on the Red River of the North. In 1997, the Red River completely inundated downtown areas on both sides of the river so badly that they were just abandoned and converted to a floodplain greenway, with the destroyed homes and businesses relocated permanently to higher ground.

Grand Forks ND - Red River Flood of 1997

Grand Forks ND - Red River Flood of 1997

In Del Mar, wealthy seaside property owners pressured the City Council to avoid any mention of a “managed retreat” in the City’s mitigation plan, fearing immediate devaluation of their property values. The alternatives are much more costly: replenishing sand eroded from the beaches, building sea walls, etc., and the taxpayers will pick up the tab.

My prediction: this same debate and response is  going to happen in city after city as people begin to face up to the reality that “mitigation” of climate change damages might very well mean “abandonment” of settled areas, leaving them to face the elements. We’re going to see the same thing happening also with new development in areas of the Southwest and California regularly prone to wildfires, mudslides and floods. The public and their elected representatives are going to get tired of spending tens of billions to bail out homeowners and businesses that rebuild in areas devastated by mud, fire and flood.

A few hundred years from now, we’ll have little memory of these towns and places, as abandonment or “managed retreat” starts to appeal to the public as a reasonable, ecologically sensible, and cost-effective response to dealing with the climate change realities we’ve created. But we will make more work for intrepid archeologists who will find newer, more recent ruins to discover and write about, along with wondering, “what were they thinking?”

Are you in favor of “managed retreat” and creating larger buffer areas along the oceans, rivers and flood plains of our beautiful country, as a mitigation strategy for climate change?