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Planning for climate change

HAVE YOU heard of The Fall Line? If you’ve been in the Southeast long enough, you should have. If you grew up in Georgia, it’s part of the 8th grade state history curriculum.

Here’s a reminder:

The Fall Line is a region several miles across that marks the prehistoric shoreline. Land to the north of the line is higher in elevation than that to the south, causing rivers to pick up speed as they travel. This zone was instrumental in the early development of the state because of river travel and water power.

Let that sink in – the prehistoric shoreline. In other words, the reason that the Georgia shoreline doesn’t presently run from Columbus, to Macon, to Augusta, is because there’s a lot of water locked up in the icecaps, and to a lesser degree in glaciers.

These icecaps and glaciers are slowly starting to melt. Not so slowly in some cases. The Atlantic Ocean wants the coastal plain back.

I bring up The Fall Line to offer a little perspective. Our immediate predicament with coastal development is caused by sea level change measured in inches.

That’s a drop in the bucket considering there’s enough water on this planet to move the coast almost 200 miles inland from our present location. Add to that the strengthening of hurricanes. It’s time to start taking coastal adaptation seriously. It’s time to start playing the long game.

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, September 20th, 2017 on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria:

The longer we delay, the more - I worry we might not be able to recover from this, because our greatest cities are on the oceans and water’s edges historically, for commerce and transportation, and as storms kick in, as water levels rise they are the first to go and we don’t have a system, we don’t have a civilization with the capacity to pick up a city and move it inland 20 miles. This is happening faster than our ability to respond. That could have huge economic consequences.

Do we not have the capacity? Or have we just not tried it yet? We have allies that we might look to for pointers on resettling large numbers of people (especially considering the size of the country) – the Israelis.

I bring up the Israelis not to make any political statement about the occupation, but to draw attention to the feasibility of government-directed programs to create new towns and cities from scratch to house massive numbers of people, under adverse conditions.

In Israel’s case it is to settle citizens (many of them new immigrants) on disputed territory. In our case it would be to accomplish what is increasingly being referred to as “managed retreat” – getting the most vulnerable, those living in flood zones, out of harm’s way before the next big storm, and onto higher ground that should be safe for the foreseeable future (we can argue about where that is later).

Think Israel is a bad comparison? Let’s look at the numbers and the timeline.

Since taking the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights in 1967’s Six-Day War, the Israeli government has created about 120 new cities, towns, and villages therein, housing between 721,000 and 771,000 citizens.

Between 280,000 and 330,000 of these were placed just since 2004. That’s as many as 1/3 of a million people in 13 years, in cost-efficient, compact developments where safety and evacuation are of the utmost concern.

Israel has about 8.5 million citizens and another 2.7 million non-citizen inhabitants of the Occupied Territories (yes, Palestinians). That’s 11.2 million people. Georgia has a population of 10.3 million, with about 650,000 of those living in the coastal counties.

Not all coastal dwellers need to be relocated (at least not yet) and we have A LOT more land to work with. We can do this.

Of course, people won’t like it. They’ll hate it. There will be a great deal of resistance. But the alternative is to carry on “as normal,” rebuilding as before, behaving as before, until what happened in Barbuda and Puerto Rico happens on the Georgia sea islands, and other similarly vulnerable areas that we should no longer be inhabiting.

I’m not saying that people need to be removed against their will, but government support for doomed settlement patterns needs to start being scaled back - no more big investments in new infrastructure improvements.

Keep it to maintenance only, which will also have to cease at some point in the future. Sorry, Tybee, no new bridge improving access to the island. Resources need to be shifted inland, as does your population.

I’m not saying this as some callous inlander that doesn’t understand coastal living. I was brought to a home on a bayou off the Gulf Coast, after being born in a hospital that was (and still is) on a bayou. My parents remain in that bayou house, and it is insured under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

But the NFIP is one of our biggest problems, allowing people to live in dangerous areas without paying the true cost for their level of risk, and paying them to rebuild in the same spot when damage is incurred. The NFIP encourages unsustainable development. And the risks to flood zones are becoming worse. Look at Houston.

(I highly recommend the Bloomberg article by Stephen Mihm on this subject: “America’s Self-defeating Cycle of Floods and Federal Aid.”)

But as the government takes away with one hand (flood insurance and coastal infrastructure) it should give with the other – buyouts of endangered properties and subsidies for those agreeing to move inland to new developments (Israel subsidizes rents in settlements, by the way).

Those who spurn these offers and instead choose to pull a Lieutenant Dan (“Blow, you son-of-a-bitch!!”) should be allowed to stay as long as they like, but with the understanding that there will be no further help from the public sector.

If you fail to see the need to change behaviors in the face of changing threats, if you place attachment to prior convention over common sense, I have a book recommendation for you. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, is about the advantages that allowed some civilizations to succeed over others. The follow-up is about the opposite side of the coin – civilizations that couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to changing circumstances.

Its title is Collapse.