This week was for me a culmination in my ten-year journey as a student in the matter of Climate Change. Having entered this journey as a tangent to a coastal land use study project, I have endeavored to ensure that what we learned in a workshop of 2004, November 19 translated into policies and actions that might protect us from unnecessary risk, and still allow us to exploit the limited opportunities of possible advantage.
When I emerged from that workshop ten years ago, I perceived two distinct threats. The first was the array of threats posed by natural forces, aided and accelerated by contributing human actions of unintended consequences; i.e. our destabilizing of the environment’s carbon component with collateral environmental and economic consequences.
The second and more troubling threat was the prospect that the human response, the managed response, to this natural challenge would be as muddled and incompetent as we have too often witnessed in execution of our wars, our economies and our political institutions.
In my small parcel of this planet, in the matter of community planning for storm resilience and sea level rise sustainability…that second threat has now been realized in the essence of a Resilience Plan that is little more, in my opinion, than a thinly disguised fig leaf of protection for business as usual with no credible plan for substantive action, but a veiled accommodation for continued investment in vulnerable shoreline property that is pouring long-term money into the sea in pursuit of short-term profits and another hit of shoreline tax revenue, for which the cost of withdrawal will likely be greater than the near-term benefit.
The attendance for the meeting was large at about 100, compared to prior efforts. The presentation of the plan was classic bureaucratic bilge. Our Skeptic in Chief regaled the audience with our wonderful accomplishments to date and the fact that we are revered by other communities and our region for our progressiveness, which in truth is comparing the little we’ve done over ten years to the nothing that others have done. In truth, we’ve done a lot of planning, but very little implementation. And of the action we’ve taken over those ten years, eighty percent of it occurred since Storms Irene and Sandy when Mother Nature slapped us into some measure of reality, taking hypotheticals to ground zero.
Then followed the presentation of the report. In fairness, the report contains much useful information about policy options and present and future conditions to which they might apply. But it lacks the critical elements of a plan: a list of specific actions, timelines for implementation, critical trigger points and criteria for contingent actions, and the defining objectives that the preceding are intended to achieve. In other words, it is not a ‘plan to act’. Though the Plan’s horizon looks out to the end of the century, which many assume to be a long, long way away, the conditions that it anticipates addressing need concerted attention beginning now.
The most glaring faults in the report, and the reveal of its true intent can be found in two hypothetical illustrations of future action in two areas of town that will be subject to eventual inundation. One is an industrial area in which the report suggests in one breath that current industrial uses, including fuel storage, may need to be relocated eventually due to threats of storm surge and eventual sea level rise. But in the next breath, it proposes replacing industrial use with possible new residential construction in an area with no particular aesthetic appeal, and the same risks facing industry. Short form: we need to protect business property, but it’s o.k. to put people at risk. Who would benefit from this cerebral methane emission? Developers who would take their profits up front, if someone was dumb enough to buy these houses, and leave the risks for the buyers to realize and lament at some future time. And the Town can brag about added tax revenue, until the costs come in down the road in some future administration.
The other proposal doubled down on absurdity. It addressed a road where approximately thirty houses will be subject to probable surface inundation by 2050, and a remaining nineteen may survive under tenuous terms of storm risk on bad days and sustainability of livable conditions on good days. For this area, the authors applied their prescriptive magic to suggest retreat in stages that would expend resources unwisely to sustain the ultimately unsustainable for as long as possible. Call it Denial-to-Resignation strategy.
But then, the end result of this three stage retreat to reality is to create on land abutting the now undefendable yet another area of new construction that will be equally undefendable and put new people and new capital at exactly the same risks of human loss and premature decline as sea level rise continues to progress. Einstein’s definition of insanity in action.
It’s not as if the flaws of this strategy are in any way hypothetical. While this report was in development, and the implications for this particular street were well-known (in fact, have been for seven years), a local developer has bought three existing houses on this street for tear-down and new construction. One has been completed and is now on the market….for $1.4 million. Lovely house. Wonderful water views. Quality construction. It should retain economic value for 100 years under normal conditions, passing value from one owner to another during that period. But if projections are correct and the area floods regularly by 2050 at the latest, or possibly as early as 2030, the value of that property is likely to drop like a stone. Added to that is the cost during the interim of insurance at painful premiums, even recognizing that it is built to today’s FEMA NFIP standards, which are inadequate going forward as sea level rise progresses, and irrelevant to sea level rise.
So who benefits? The developer, if he can find a sucker (uninformed buyer) to purchase the property. He takes his profits and walks away, leaving the buyer, and possibly the Town holding the long-term bag of risks.
That is totally possible because the developer is not required to disclose future events that have not happened. The realtor is not obliged to do due diligence in disclosure about anything but historical events, and rightfully so as assertions about future climatic events are beyond a realtor’s professional scope of competence and obligation. It is the Town government’s obligation, knowing what it now knows about future possibilities, to place relevant disclosures with appropriate caveats about what future conditions this parcel may be subject to, and what contingent government actions might result, such as condemnation in the event that the property becomes uninhabitable and a risk to human health and safety.
Protections for home buyers of vulnerable property should be no different in principle than protections for car buyers and consumers of prescription drugs. But builders are not subject to lemon laws. In the case of property, protection against abuse, where regulation exists at all, should be with the local or county government and at the very least in the form of a warning label, like prescription drugs, that advises of possible ill effects to your well-being under certain conditions of use.
But The Plan does not propose such a procedure to begin avoiding knowable future risks, nor does our local leadership appear remotely willing to bite that bullet. What should happen is that the government should institute a disclosure requirement in the property record that clearly states the risks to prospective buyers and lets them make their own informed decisions.
Instead, the government prefers to align itself with the interests of developers and sellers and its own myopic pursuit of near-term tax revenue. Its bigger fear should be of the unsuspecting buyer who later discovers what the government knew but has refused to disclose. This is worse than concerted ignorance on the part of government. Possibly, in my opinion, worse than criminal negligence. If allowed to continue, it will have severe repercussions.
So, we will see if this first installment of institutional idiocy finds a market, and the next two properties in queue follow. Caveat emptor.
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Next came public comments. The discussion was diverse in point of view with some preponderance of skepticism about the seriousness of the threat. Our chief denier in residence, who I call Mr. Sunspots, delivered his usual assault on the theory of climate change. A more reasoned citizen questioned the scientific basis for the report and its lack of citation in the plan. Ironically, when asked by the moderator if the chief scientific advisor on the panel would like to defend or explain the science, he demurred. Not helpful.
The more troubling moment for me came when a resident of the street subject to probable inundation stated that he had purchased his property on that street five months ago without full knowledge of risks and the prospect of a possible future condemnation. Members of the report panel vigorously denied that the report was recommending condemnation. I was astonished. The report explicitly notes abandonment of certain roads as a possibility. It specifically notes that failure to sustain acceptable quality water and waste management may be conditions for condemnation when sea level rise threatens the sustainability of the property. It’s there in the policy definition of the report. The three stage exhibit of accommodation strategies for that particular road make it the poster child for the strategies. To deny the obvious was stunning.
This speaks to the ultimate problem of moving climate change adaptation strategies forward with a largely skeptical public. If the government is unable or unwilling to justify and defend its science, to put forth unflinchingly the steps it is preparing to take based on that science, and to speak unequivocally to the possibilities we face, then we have no prayer of addressing this critical issue in a timely and effective and optimal, or even minimally sufficient, manner. We are dooming ourselves by our own willful stupidity and cowardice.
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We recently learned this week of the success of the European Rosetta mission to a comet. It determined that such interstellar cosmic vehicles do carry organic material which might spawn life on other space rocks like ours.
There have been growing exhortations among the cognoscenti (Stephen Hawking) and technorati (Elon Musk) that we must resume our interplanetary exploration of near space and prepare to colonize on other planets in order to preserve our species from a possible catastrophic cosmic hit on the Home Rock. I agree that we are destined for destruction, but I am comfortable with the prospect that we can do it to ourselves far quicker than the prospects of getting slammed by a high velocity space snowball.
Allow me to entertain the fantasy that there is indeed extraterrestrial intelligence out there, monitoring our every move as diligently as the NSA and Google, and possibly reading this blog. This is my message: Quarantine Earthlings until we are cured of our idiocy. Don’t allow us to infect the rest of our solar system with our toxic, contagious culture of self-destructive values. Don’t let us off Home Base until we prove that we can manage ourselves. And if by chance we should get whacked first? Well, I guess that contains the problem by other means.
Unless, of course, we get cue-balled into a trillion pieces; in which case all bets are off.
Prior postings of possible interest: