Bangkok, Shanghai, the Florida Keys, Fire Island, Kitty Hawk, swaths of Italy’s northeastern coast; much of Alexandria and Amsterdam—by 2050, these places (and many more) are projected to be below the annual flood line. Within our lifetimes, we will see more and more cities harmed by rising tides. Will we be prepared when those cities start to disappear?
The scientific community has come to the consensus that sea level rise is largely attributed to melting ice sheets and the absorption of more thermal energy into the ocean, both of which are caused by global warming. The best defense against rising tides would be drastic, immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by going net zero emissions to “stabilize” global warming. But until that happens, public policy must be dedicated to creating programs and legislation that can help mitigate the human toll of rising seas.
While local protective measures such as seawalls and levees can serve as short-term defenses against flooding, there’s a serious need to begin crafting long-term solutions, as The New York Times reports. For one, projections estimate around 1.4 billion people will be displaced by climate change by 2060. Currently, the U.S. definition of a refugee eligible for resettlement in the U.S. only includes those fleeing or fearing persecution. That excludes the millions who will soon be fleeing sea level rise, which will likely present itself in the form of natural disasters. By expanding the definition of a refugee and streamlining the refugee process for these migrants, the U.S. can take accountability for its own role as the second largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. Of course, this initiative needs to be paired with a dedication to a social safety net of assistance programs that can ensure these new residents have access to the quality of life they deserve.
America is a nation fortunate enough to have a number of so-called “climate havens” on its landmass—cities and regions where global warming’s impact is surprisingly minimal. These include a number of rust-belt cities like Buffalo and Cincinnati, which have also seen declining populations and job markets. These cities could develop programs like New York’s 43North, which uses state funding to incentivize startups to move to Buffalo, drawing employers to the region to improve job growth. Although these cities currently tend to have low rents, “climate gentrification” is already expected to increase housing costs. Thus, it would be essential for potential haven cities to focus on creating a high quality of life and low cost of living for these new residents.
“Climate haven” city governments can also make efforts to increase their own resilience and sustainability, such as by dedicating vacant lots to community gardens and greenspaces that can decrease food insecurity while reducing heat island effects.
Expansions of public transportation, both on a national and local level, can facilitate the many short and long journeys that will need to be made in the coming years. Whether people are moving across neighborhoods or states, cheap and efficient public transportation can make traveling more appealing. Additionally, it aids in decreasing the carbon footprint, since private vehicles contribute much more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than bus and rail transit.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but people’s homes will be lost to the sea very soon, and there are some locations that simply won’t be habitable. We need to create a stronger, more cohesive and forward-looking system of flood disclosure laws in order to allow buyers and renters to be informed of the flooding risk of certain properties. In addition, reforming the National Flood Insurance Program to increase spending on home buyouts rather than rebuilds can help make it affordable for Americans to leave the most at-risk zones.
There are still many unknowns about what the world will look like in 2050, and much can change depending on whether we double down or cut back our emissions. But what we do know, even now, is that many people’s homes will be underwater in their lifetimes, and America needs to act on sea level rise policy today in order to give these people a chance in 2050.
Molly Brind'Amour is a first year MPP from Rochester, NY with a degree in Journalism and PPEL from University of Richmond. She enjoys bringing her passion for writing and creative storytelling to the policy narratives of VPR.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.