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Protecting U.S. coastal communities from sea level rise will cost $400 billion

By Brooks Hays
Protecting U.S. coastal communities from sea level rise will cost $400 billion
Coastal communities will need to spend at least $400 billion to protect themselves from rising sea levels. Photo courtesy NOAA

June 21 (UPI) -- To protect themselves from the inevitable threat of rising sea levels, coastal communities in the United States will have to shell out more than $400 billion, according to a new report released by the Center for Climate Integrity.

Authors of the new report estimate 50,000 miles of coastal barriers will need to be built across 22 states over the next two decades. The report, compiled with the help of engineering firm Resilient Analytics, organizes the costs by city, county, congressional district and state.

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Not surprisingly, researchers with the Center for Climate Integrity expect Florida to pay the steepest price -- more than $75 billion -- to protect its coastal communities from rising seas.

For the report, researchers relied on moderate sea-level rise projections and expected yearly storm surge. Should sea levels rise more quickly than expected, governments will be forced to spend more and build more quickly.

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Recent surveys of melting patterns in Antarctica and Greenland suggest Earth's biggest ice sheets are increasingly unstable, with melt rates accelerating as a result of warmer air and ocean temperatures. Climate scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels and increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases is to blame for rising global temperatures and sea level rise.

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In addition to accelerating sea level rise, climate change is also harming the providers of vital ecosystem services. Coral reefs, made increasingly vulnerable by global warming, save humans billions of dollars every year by mitigating the damage caused by storms and sea level rise.

Coral and other natural barriers won't be able to hold off the rising tides for much longer.

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"Our collective failure to come to grips with the massive costs of climate adaptation is the latest, and most delusional form of climate denial," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity.

Securing the capital for the necessary infrastructure will be challenging for large cities, but according to the new report, financing the adaptations needed to protect smaller communities will be impossible.

"For hundreds of small coastal and tidal communities identified in the report, the costs will far outstrip their ability to pay, making retreat and abandonment the only viable option unless enormous amounts of financing emerge in a very short period of time," according to a news release published by the Center for Climate Integrity. "As just one example of the scope and gravity of this problem, in 178 small communities the cost of building basic coastal defenses is more than $100,000 per person."

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The findings follow previous studies that suggest climate change will have the greatest impact on already vulnerable communities.

Authors of the report suggest the costs outlined represent only minimal adaptations.

"The cost estimates presented here are just a small portion of the total adaptation costs these local and state governments will be forced to finance," said Paul Chinowsky, lead engineer on the project.

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The Center for Climate Integrity, an initiative by the Institute for Government and Sustainable Development, is pushing for oil and gas companies -- companies that have made millions off the extraction and burning of fossil fuels -- to cover the costs of climate change mitigation efforts like the construction of coastal barriers.

"The companies that made and promoted the products that they knew would irrevocably and radically alter the global climate, and then denied it, must pay their fair share to help communities adapt to it," said Wiles. "Failing to hold polluters to this basic responsibility would be to knowingly bankrupt hundreds of communities, standing idly by as they are slowly and inexorably swallowed up by the sea."

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