The Opportunity of rising seas

The Federal Coastal Property Purchase Program

As oceans rise and weather becomes more extreme, we face two choices. Like every civilization before us, we can deny the environmental changes and watch our world collapse from inaction. Or unlike any civilization before us, we can see these extreme environmental changes as an opportunity to start building a better, happier, sustainable civilization as we gracefully move to higher ground. At 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere today, at least thirty feet of sea-level-rise is unstoppable no matter what we do - THAT is an indisputable fact. How we deal with that fact is our choice.

Yes, the entire Lowcountry - nearly all of the 1st Congressional district of South Carolina - will be underwater at high tide before this century closes, perhaps before you, reading this, will die from old age. Yes, with a thirty foot sea-rise, most of the major historical sites of our civilization will be underwater. And yes, there is nothing we can do to stop the oceans from rising. So I suggest we make the most of this slow-moving disaster and see it as an opportunity to use all we know to build the civilization we’ve always wanted.  

To do that gracefully, I propose a federal Coastal Property Purchase Program (CP3) that offers a good price for the land and buildings of people living barely above sea level today. Purchased buildings are then dismantled, some historical buildings moved piece-by-piece to higher ground, but all adding the remaining empty land - lot-by-lot - to the growing national seashore, and employing thousands of people while doing so.

Here’s the catch, and the opportunity. People who choose to be bought-out will have their home sale funds placed in an escrow account usable ONLY for the purchase of other property more than one hundred feet above sea level. If you CP3 your house on Sullivans Island, you can’t buy another one anywhere near the shore.
The result? In a few decades, millions of us will have gracefully migrated from what will soon be ocean bottom, preventing the world’s largest refugee crisis, and ensuring no one gets rich off the misfortune of climate refugees.

Afraid your home on Folly Beach will be destroyed by the next hurricane? Afraid you’ll never be able to sell your Edisto beach house? Opt into the CP3 and get a fair price for your home. Your mortgage is paid off, you get some moving expenses, the rest of the dollars stay in escrow until you’re ready to buy a house in Orangeburg or Branchville, Denver or Atlanta, or anywhere else in the world more than a hundred feet above today’s high-tide line.

Every year, the number of people eligible for the program increases as the oceans continue to rise. Every year, more houses are dismantled that would have been destroyed in the next hurricane, littering our coastlines with toxic debris. Every year more coastal land goes back to nature, ready to go underwater in the coming decades. Every year more people move to newly-built cities away from rising seas to live more comfortable and fulfilling lives.

I expect a few people living less than three feet above sea level would take this deal today. I expect many thousands more will take this deal just before next year’s hurricane threatens their homes. I expect many millions more will take it a decade from now when sunny-day high-tide flooding becomes a weekly occurrence, flood insurance is no longer available, and FEMA stops paying for storm-destroyed homes in coastal flood zones.

Forty years from now, Folly and Edisto, Hilton Head and Hunting Islands may have just a few die-hards living in their off-grid houses. Town services would have ended years before as the sewage lines flooded, the drinking water went salty, and the cost of maintaining electric lines got too high. A few hardy and wealthy souls would remain, surrounded by the increasing wilderness of ever-shrinking barrier islands, unconcerned about the costs of moving should their houses become destroyed in the next hurricane, unconcerned that boats are the only way to get to and from their homes.

How could Holly Hill or Orangeburg or any of the other South Carolina towns a hundred feet above sea-level today handle the new influx of thousands, then millions of climate refugees in the coming decades?

Another component of the CP3 would provide federal funds to build the infrastructure for new cities that incorporate all we know about urban planning and sustainability to make better, more people-centric and fossil fuel-free lifestyles. Imagine hundreds of new human-scaled cities all over the country, all over the world, designed for people, not cars, all a hundred feet or more above today’s high-tide line.

New Charleston could grow in the fields north of Holly Hill, overlooking the Santee Bay that used to be Lake Marion. Nuo New York could grow in the highlands above the Palisades, Nuovo Boston in the Blue Hills of Quincy, Nuevo Miami in the cattle pastures south of Cypress Gardens. This could be a grand second phase of human civilization, an acceptance of our place on this planet and the beginning of a new epoch as we finally become good stewards of this earth.

If we get completely off fossil fuels in the next decades, we might be able to keep the oceans from rising more than a hundred feet. Maybe two hundred years from now our descendants will gradually move back to the edge of the beachless oceans fifty feet below New Charleston. Maybe five hundred years from now, new beaches will be big enough to give our descendents an idea of what our lives were like before the great floods of the 21st century, unable to comprehend how we almost destroyed the world.