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We have no system to deal with escalating climate damages. It’s time to build one.

The devastation hurricanes have brought to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico will only make it clearer still.

This Sept. 6, 2017 photo shows storm damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in St. Martin. Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees. Significant damage was (Jonathan Falwell via AP)

On Monday, the New York Times ran a story noting that the regular disasters striking Florida — and the forecasts of worse to come — have done nothing to dent the ongoing land rush packing more and more people into the state, including on the coasts and in ecologically sensitive wetlands. Vulnerability to disasters is rising right alongside the severity of disasters.

As Michael Grunwald points out at Politico, Florida was never particularly amenable to human habitation. It was made habitable on a large scale by settlers battling back the water, draining the wetlands and filling in the swamps. (Oh, and air conditioning.) But the water never gave up, and it’s going to win in the end, especially as climate change bites.

Back in April, Chris Flavelle wrote a prescient story in Bloomberg on the “nightmare scenario” for South Florida homeowners. The nightmare, in so many words, is that real estate markets will catch on to climate change ... and tank.

We know that flooding is already a problem in many parts of Southern Florida and that the rise of population, loss of mangroves and wetlands, and spread of impermeable surfaces will only make it worse.

On top of that, sea levels are rising:

Relative sea levels in South Florida are roughly four inches higher now than in 1992. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts sea levels will rise as much as three feet in Miami by 2060. By the end of the century, according to projections by Zillow, some 934,000 existing Florida properties, worth more than $400 billion, are at risk of being submerged.

Right now, relatively few homeowners are selling in response to this worry — “pessimists are selling to optimists,” as one source tells Flavelle. And home values only seem to be going up. Miami’s economy is booming.

But it’s becoming clearer, and more public, that some of these markets are doomed. It’s not a matter of if, but when. (For an in-depth look at Miami’s grim fate, read Jeff Goodell’s piece in Rolling Stone.) The devastation Hurricane Irma wrought will only make it clearer.

Pluralistic ignorance: we don’t know that we all know about climate change

What’s going on right now in South Florida real estate (and many other high-risk coastal areas) is a case of what sociologists call “pluralistic ignorance” — when members of a group adopt a norm, belief, or habit because they mistakenly believe other members of the group share it.

For example, research has found that most college freshmen don’t particularly want to drink heavily, but they do it because they think all the other college freshmen want to do it. Surveys during the civil rights era found that many white people supported desegregation privately but opposed it publicly, because they thought all the other white people opposed it.

Pluralistic ignorance is, roughly speaking, when we are mistaken about what we believe.

south miami beach
What could go wrong?

So it is with climate change and real estate. More and more people see the flooding, read the stories about sea levels, and worry privately — but everyone else seems to be going along as if nothing was wrong, so they go along too. All those people paying high prices for coastal property in Miami must know something. They can’t all be wrong. Right?

Thus, you get results like this, from a new study: “The riskiest 20 percent of U.S. counties have the most homes, the highest average home values, and the greatest price appreciation in recent years.” We’re not going to stop herding into vulnerable areas until other people stop (and they’re not going to stop until we stop).

The thing about pluralistic ignorance is, when it collapses, it can collapse quick. And that, in a nutshell, is the nightmare scenario for South Florida homeowners — that people stop buying, which makes other people stop buying, and the next thing you know, you’ve got billions in stranded assets. Albert Slap of Coastal Risk Consulting calls the potential collapse of real estate values “the next black swan,” but that’s not quite right. Black swans are, by definition, unexpected. We know this is coming!

We have not begun to think through how to deal with South Florida and places like it

We know that South Florida is slowly, incrementally going to become uninhabitable. (Puerto Rico may get there sooner.) We know that as that process continues, the region will experience economic and social convulsions. How will governments deal with that, and with similar processes to come in other coastal areas and in the hotter, drier areas of the Southwest?

We ... have no idea. To date, the best we’ve been able to do is occasionally and inconsistently dump money on victims. This darkly funny passage from Flavelle’s story gives a flavor:

There is as yet no federal policy on buying out properties that will be lost to sea-level rise. Last January, President Barack Obama’s administration awarded $48 million to relocate a small Louisiana town sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, the first such project funded by the federal government. But the administration made clear the project wasn’t intended to be a precedent, and it rejected a request from an Alaska village in the same situation.

South Florida has likewise failed to get federal help for more modest relocations. In 2013, officials in Miami-Dade County requested $2.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a project that included buying out a handful of homes in a low-income neighborhood called Arch Creek, far from the glamor—and tax base—of Miami Beach.

“Most of those homes had 8 to 10 inches in the house,” said Terry Parker, the county official in charge of the request. The plan was to tear them down and let the land revert to creek bed. But the county never got the money and hasn’t asked for a federal buyout since.

On Tuesday, Stanford held a conference on "Building Coastal Resilience: U.S. Risks and Preparedness." Steven Bingler of Concordia, an urban planning group, has been helping Louisiana officials move people from Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost the vast majority of its land mass to the ocean in recent decades. He said the state is looking at a 600-acre parcel about 35 miles north of the island. But that land will likely be under water too in 50 years.

"Can we design cities on a 50-year time frame?" he asked.

Good question!

Fran Ulmer of the US Arctic Research Commission noted that moving small native villages in Alaska that are sinking under the waves will cost on the order of $100 million to $200 million apiece:

"Who's going to pay for that?" Ulmer said, adding that [the native village] Newtok has started to move itself incrementally.

"These questions of who decides who pays, and how to make it happen, may be playing out right now in places like a Louisiana community or an Alaska community," she said. "It may be playing out in the Pacific on islands that have already reached the point where they cannot live there anymore. How does that work with San Francisco or Miami Beach or New Orleans?"

More good questions!

We have no answers. We have not begun to develop any kind of systemic approach or understanding of how to deal with escalating climate damages. And that is unfortunate — the questions South Florida is beginning to face today are questions many other places will face in decades to come.

BURBANK, CA - SEPTEMBER 02: Firefighters use hoses and helicopters to fight the La Tuna Fire on September 2, 2017 near Burbank, California. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference that officials believe the fire, which is at 5,000 acres
Evacuations in LA as the La Tuna fire rages.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Here are just a few of those questions, off the top of my head:

  • Who decides which properties will be allowed to rebuild?
  • Who will pay for rebuilding and subsequent insurance?
  • Who decides which cities or areas will be defended — by sea walls, dredging projects, canals — and which will be abandoned?
  • If people must relocate, who decides when, and which people?
  • Who pays for relocation?
  • Which communities take in the relocated?
  • Who decides on compensation for the relocated?
  • What are the legal rights of the relocated? Who is legally liable for foreseeable damage to coastal property?
  • What is the value of nonmonetary attachment to a home or place? Is sentiment counted? Who decides on its value?
  • Should these decisions be made by lawmakers and technocrats or popular votes and referenda? Ad hoc or planned in advance? Determined by market forces or by some collective judgment of fairness?
  • If, as seems inevitable, the poor suffer first and worst from the impacts of extreme weather, what role should equity play in decisions about relocation?

All these questions are going to come up, in Florida and elsewhere. To date, they have been rare (we still see weather disasters as unusual anomalies) and decided on a distributed, ad hoc basis. Such decisions are often driven by emotion and whim — the sympathy and fellow-feeling that follow a disaster and the inevitable loss of interest and attention as time passes. (You can read this Vox piece by three Stanford researchers about their research on “strategic retreat” in 22 countries.)

That’s how decisions were made in the wake of Katrina and Sandy. It’s probably how decisions will be made in the wake of Harvey, Irma, Maria, and this season’s apocalyptic Western wildfires.

But we can’t keep making decisions like that forever. As David Wallace-Wells puts it, we have been “engineering, first in ignorance and then in denial, a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.” That’s a rather vivid way of putting it, but yes, climate-related disasters and other impacts will grow more frequent and severe.

We won’t be able to just dump sympathy money on each victim and move on. As Philip Stoddard, mayor of South Miami, said of the prospect of bailouts for homeowners who wait too long to sell: “There isn’t enough money.” Sympathy will only go so far, with “500-year floods” happening every three years and the West burning every summer.

Sooner or later, instinctively parochial instincts will impose themselves. People will start to resent sending money to beleaguered areas over and over again. People will want more money for their own cities and states, less for others. “Fiscal conservatism” will be deployed as a tool to deny remediation funds to disfavored areas or groups. Ad-hoc-ery will lead to injustice, as it so often does.

The more we talk about this stuff and try to make good plans and decisions in advance, the less likely it is that decisions will be made hastily, emotionally, and inequitably. My grim prediction is that decisions in South Florida in the wake of Irma and Texas in the wake of Harvey will be a case study in the wrong way to do it.

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