By John A. Miller, P.E., CFM, CSM (MES 2018)
December 10, 2019
I had the distinct pleasure of moderating author Gilbert (Gil) Gaul at the Princeton Free Library on October 17th during his book tour introducing The Geography of Risk. A couple weeks earlier, the Wharton Risk Center hosted Gil for a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania. Gil’s book is making waves in the broad sense, and specifically in the floodplain management and adaptation professions, and has prompted me to ponder what is ahead pertaining to sea level rise – it is looking to me like a big hurt.
The Geography of Risk gives a synopsis of the political, policy and regulatory conditions that occurred through time that resulted in the substantial coastal exposure existing today. To date there has been a large transfer of private risk to the public, with the most obvious physical example being the cost of beach nourishment, and more concealed, for example, the unloading of liability of vulnerable mortgages to government-sponsored enterprises. Despite the increasing prevalence of climate-change related risks like sea level rise and higher precipitation, I question whether there is the political will to modify our risk-taking habits that are entrenched since World War II. Residents tend to support post-disaster funding of rebuilding and not for taking preventative measures. So far this has generally worked out for real estate interests and for the communities highly dependent on property tax revenue, with much recovery help from Federal taxpayers. In some New Jersey coastal municipalities, the tax base is greater now than in 2012 pre-Hurricane Sandy, due in part to the construction of larger dwellings where damaged homes were razed. In the decades ahead, and consistent with Gil’s book, I expect changes to be led not by policymakers; instead, I expect markets to drive adaptation.
In my Capstone for my Penn Masters of Environmental Studies (MES) degree, I examined how sea level rise will influence local governments’ credit rating and how I expected this to be a motivator to communities. I continue to believe that institutional investors ultimately will act to shape adaptation of coastal locales, with recent evidence that credit rating agencies will develop increased skill at assessing the risk over the term of the bond. Lenders and reinsurance companies will also play a strong role in coastal adaptation. In a paper released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Michael D. Berman, having served as a fellow at the Penn Institute for Urban Research, speaks of observed declining property value due to chronic flooding. He coins the term “blue-lining” where lenders will not offer standard 30-year term mortgages in areas of chronic flooding due to the risk of borrower loan default. As sea level rise continues to manifest along the coast, market signals will get further pronounced.
We have seen the Federal response to acute events, like hurricanes, and there is a predictable pattern in supplemental appropriations that drive a large recovery. In the United States we have little experience with a chronic threat like sea level rise – case studies are limited, so far, as to how the nation will respond to a growing all-tidal coast vulnerability. The vulnerability is not limited to structures. Society, such as functioning schools, churches, and small businesses, and systems that support community functions, such as utilities, transportation and commerce, will be exposed.
As I am quoted in Gil’s book, I am now calling the approaching consequence the “Big Hurt.” At the time home values drop and revenue declines, more capital will be needed for civil works protective measures and non-structure mitigation, all while credit ratings are dropping which will cause higher borrowing costs. A failure cycle will be created. Unlike prior housing market corrections, properties that lose value due to sea level rise will not see that value restored as the inundation of land increases through time. High risk areas will be out of bounds for lenders and insurers. That too will cause property values to plunge adding to the cycle.
Yes, this is serious and deeply concerning, but I share my hope that we will indeed adapt, even in the midst of pain. In addition to climate change mitigation (reducing carbon emissions) we can prepare for what is ahead with rising seas. Governments and private partners can lessen the hurt by aggressively planning and implementing adaptation practices and land use practices, ones that consider not only our generations, but many in the future. I call this the “no regret policy” where we anticipate additive solutions through time and avoid dead ends of diminished short-term gain – it will take creativity. We must listen to the signals and engage the markets. Let us encourage finance, lender and insurance representative participation in our planning for sea level rise. A controlled and systematic adaptation, or abrupt failure to future conditions, is up to all of us.
John A. Miller, previously a practicing water resources engineer, is currently the FEMA Region II Mitigation Liaison detailed to the state of New Jersey, dedicated to assisting the state in increasing its resiliency to natural hazards. He received his Master of Environmental Studies – Environmental Policy degree in 2018 while concurrently interning at the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2016 targeting flood risk and climate change, and working as a Fellow in the U.S. Senate in 2017 on National Flood Insurance Program reform. Views expressed herein are his own.