“The struggle with coastal storms is mainly about water that gets uppity. And the main reason houses fall to the tide and waters swallow wetlands is that the sea level is creeping up. If the sea level were falling, people who’d bought waterfront homes would have to keep extending their path to the beach. Instead, the surf grabs walkways and wooden stairs and hurls them down the shore. Like a toddler getting better at walking, it reaches for things it couldn’t have before.
Several big insurance companies have stopped writing new home insurance policies here. They’ve considered the science about storms intensified by warming ocean waters, analyzed how future storm surges may inundate homes, calculated property values, tallied recent payouts — and gotten scared. Or rather, smart. Smart enough to pull away from tidewater. Because my home’s a hundred paces from the present high-tide line, I find this unsettling.
The last time our planet was completely free of polar ice, about forty million years ago (following high greenhouse-gas concentrations resulting from high volcanic activity of the times), the sea level was about two hundred feet higher than it is today. It’s taking a lot less than that to scare my neighbors. Three neighbors on the seaward side of my road recently sold their cottages. Seeing the beach incised so deeply must surely have been on their minds.
Because the only road to our houses borders a wide marsh, exceptionally high tides can actually trap us. And in this morning’s nasty weather, the marsh is gone. What had been marsh looks like open bay. The tide has annexed the road, and bay water is streaming across the pavement. In the swarming puddles I need to get through, the saltwater is deep enough to resist my car, which throws a boat-like wake as I move forward. I’ll pay for this in the price of new brakes in a few weeks, when the mechanic asks, ‘Were you driving through saltwater or anything like that?’
Who else pays for the rising sea level? If you live miles inland, you likely don’t drive through saltwater, you know that the sea won’t flood your neighborhood, and you’re probably not very concerned about the answer to that question. But the joke’s on you, because the answer is: you pay. You pay to pump eroded sand back onto beaches from here to Florida. And — thank you very much — you pay most of my flood insurance. Yes, while many private insurers are too smart to write a policy on my vulnerable little beach house, you pay for my taxpayer- subsidized federal flood insurance. I appreciate it, but I wish you’d stop. Your hard-earned dollars help wealthy people build seashore McMansions where they otherwise wouldn’t build, because the cost — or unavailability — of private insurance would make such risky self-aggrandizement prohibitive. Only consider the politics. People lean on their coastal congressional representatives, the congressional reps demand pork-fed subsidies, and deals are made. As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘Poor people have capitalism; the rich have socialism.’ And I have flood insurance. But I’d rather see the program axed. It’s selfish for grown-ups who decide to live in high-risk, flood-prone areas to spread their own risks to everyone else. Those of us who would take our chances could still take our chances — and you wouldn’t have to be involved.
But even if environmentalists succeed in eliminating the federal flood insurance subsidy, we’ll all pay for the rise in the sea level eventually, because we’re all netted by an increasingly globalized economy with increasingly shared risks. I suppose that’s fair enough, because we all help cause the sea-level rise. If we shirk the responsibility, we simply shift the cost to someone, somewhere, someday — but what goes around usually comes back around.
So part of what’s on my mind is mere sea level, but that connects to energy, economics, and how we value things. The wind has these topics swirling around in my neighborhood and in my head.”
“The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year In An Unnatural World”
Photo credit: Patricia Paladines. Carl Safina in Lazy Point, Long Island.
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