Real estate industry fights sea-level rise
Lobbyists in U.S. try to block public release of predictions to avoid impact on planning
NAGS HEAD, N.C.— All along the coast of the southeast United States, the real estate industry confronts a hurricane. Not the kind that swirls in the Atlantic, but a storm of scientific information about sea-level rise that threatens the most lucrative, commission-boosting properties.
These studies warn that Florida, the Carolinas and other southeastern states face the nation’s fastestgrowing rates of sea-level rise and coastal erosion — as much as three feet by the year 2100, depending on how quickly Antarctic ice sheets melt. In a recent report, researchers for Zillow estimated that nearly two million U.S. homes could be literally underwater by 2100, if worst-case projections become reality.
This is not good news for people who market and build waterfront houses. But real estate lobbyists aren’t going down without a fight. Some are teaming up with climatechange skeptics and small government advocates to block public release of sea-level rise predictions and ensure that coastal planning is not based on them.
“This is very concerning,” said Willo Kelly, who represents both the Outer Banks Home Builders Association and the Outer Banks Association of Realtors and led a six-year battle against state sea-level-rise mapping in North Carolina. “There’s afear that some think tank is going to come in here and tell us what to do.”
The flooding and destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Harvey has again highlighted the risks of owning shoreline property. But coastal real estate development remains lucrative, and in recent months and years, the industry has successfully blocked coastal planning policies based on ever-higher oceans.
Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure, such as highways, levees and floodwalls. Trump’s move came after lobbying from the National Association of Home Build- ers, which called the Obama directive “an overreaching environmental rule that needlessly hurt housing affordability.”
In North Carolina, Kelly teamed up with homebuilders and realtors to pass state legislation in 2012 that prevented coastal planners from basing policies on a benchmark of a 39-inch sea-level rise by 2100.
The legislation, authored by Republican Rep. Pat McElraft, a coastal realtor, banned the state from using scientific projections of future sealevel rise for a period of four years. It resulted in the state later adopting a 30-year forecast, which projects the sea rising a mere eight inches.
Stan Riggs, a geologist who served on the North Carolina science panel that recommended the 39-inch benchmark, said the 2012 legislation was a blow for long-term coastal planning.
“The state is completely not dealing with this,” said Riggs, a professor of geology at East Carolina University and author of The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast. “They are approaching climate change with sand bags and pumping sand onto beaches, which is just a short-term answer.”
Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, agrees the state is not doing enough to prepare for climate change. But he says the power play by builders and real estate agents may have backfired, drawing national attention — including being spoofed by Stephen Colbert — to an otherwise obscure policy document.
“The controversy did more to educate people about climate issues than if the report had just been quietly released and kept on the shelves,” said Miller, who heads an environmental organization of 15,000 members.
In Texas, a similar attempt to sideline climate-change science also triggered blowback. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), then under the administration of Gov. Rick Perry, attempted to remove references to climate in a chapter in “State of the Bay,” a report on the ecological health of Galveston Bay.
The chapter, written by Rice University oceanographer John B. Anderson, analyzed the expected impacts of sea-level rise and described rising seas as “one of the main impacts of global climate change.” When TCEQ officials attempted to edit out such references, Anderson and other scientists objected.
“The whole story went viral,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Since that time, Texas officials haven’t interfered in other scientific reports, Anderson said, but neither have they consulted with academics on how to manage rising seas, erosion and the prospect of stronger storms.
“Texas is pretty much in a state of climate-change denial,” Anderson said. “There’s very little outreach to the research community to address the challenges we face.”
Anderson’s lament is one shared by other scientists in the Southeast, where Republicans control nearly all state houses and are generally dismissive of the scientific consensus on climate change.
In Florida, where Republican Rick Scott is governor, state environmental employees have been told not to use terms such as “climate change” or “global warming” in official communications, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. In South Carolina, the state Department of Natural Resources in 2013 was accused of keeping secret a draft report on climate-change impacts. In Texas, the 2016 platform of the state Republican Party states that climate change “is a political agenda promoted to control every aspect of our lives.”
Anderson said it is surprising that sea-level rise is sparking controversy because, in his view, it is the leastcontested aspect of climate-change science.
It’s well accepted, he said, that global temperatures are rising, and that as they rise, water molecules in the oceans expand, a process called “thermal expansion.” Melting glaciers and ice sheets also contribute to rising sea levels, as does coastal subsidence caused by natural forces and man-made activities, such as excessive groundwater extraction.