Sea level rise is not ‘climate fear porn’ — it’s a threat to all of California

Poor California.

As if wildfires, mudslides, droughts and the threat of the Big One aren’t enough, now sea level rise is on the list of California disasters that will make life more risky — and far more costly — in the future.

On Friday, three people died when a huge chunk of a limestone cliff collapsed onto a beach in Encinitas, located north of San Diego.

That danger will grow; in Southern California, sea level rise could cause cliff erosion rates to double the historical rate by 2100, according to U.S. Geological Survey researchers.

Another example: Under the worst-worst-case scenario of a 10-foot sea level rise and major flooding, San Luis Obispo County could lose 1,178 homes, valued at $392 million, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit science and news organization.

Statewide, nearly 900,000 people could be displaced and 364,686 homes lost, along with 451 schools, 130 medical facilities and 116 fire stations. Total property loss: $180.7 billion.

And it won’t just affect coastal communities.

If we stand by and do nothing, California’s transportation network will be disrupted, its economy will be jeopardized as tech, manufacturing, tourism and ag industries falter, sandy beaches lost, and coastal residents will be forced to relocate, putting a strain on resources in inland communities.

Yet many Californians have been treating sea level rise as a distant worry, and some climate change deniers have pounced on warnings of possible consequences as “climate fear porn.”

This is so not porn.

Attempting to deny that oceans are warming and, as a result, expanding, that ice sheets and glaciers are melting much more rapidly than expected, and that seas are rising is as obtuse as pretending that earthquakes or wildfires or hurricanes don’t happen.

Slow response

Communities already grappling with rising seas — like Pacifica, where some apartment buildings have already been lost and clifftop homes are in serious jeopardy — have been taking action.

Responses in places that aren’t yet affected have been slower, even lackadaisical in some cases. That’s not likely to change, as long we’re under the impression that we have plenty of time to act. Most estimates are long-range, keyed to the year 2100 and beyond. A state Coastal Commission report, for example, includes estimates of sea level rise ranging from 2.4 feet to 6.9 feet by 2100 — and even going all the way up to 10.2 feet under the “extreme scenario” of rapid ice loss.

The town of Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, is ground zero for the issue of coastal erosion. On January 20-21, 2019, the combination of ocean surge and a king tide caused high waves. Some homes and apartment buildings have already been lost to the forces of nature. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Carolyn Cole TNS

The huge disparity in estimates doesn’t add to the sense of urgency, since it’s hard to know exactly what will be in jeopardy and when.

In the face of so much uncertainty, it’s hard to see a way forward. Gavin Newsom made that clear a couple of years ago, saying, “This is all interesting, but what the hell do we do about it?”

What can be done?

1. For starters, maintain efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cutting emissions won’t have any immediate effects on sea level rise but could make a significant difference toward the end of the century — benefiting our kids and grandkids.

2. Conduct a statewide inventory of vulnerable private and public properties, including vacant parcels.

Several regional and city studies have been done, but every community in jeopardy — including inland areas near deltas and rivers affected by sea level rise — needs one.

At the very least, an inventory would help local agencies decide where to build — or rebuild — critical infrastructure, such as highways, sewers and fire stations. It would also guide planning agencies considering new developments.

The state should approach this in the same way it approached seismic safety, when it required every jurisdiction in a seismic zone to inventory buildings (private residences were exempt) and notify owners of potential hazards.

3. Provide some policy direction.

Building seawalls is one of the quickest and dirtiest ways to protect coastal properties, but it’s also frowned upon by policy makers.

The California Coastal Commission has been especially down on seawalls.

“They’re trying to find every opportunity to dismantle seawalls on private property,” said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs a committee of coastal counties that’s been studying the issue of sea level rise.

High surf from storms in the north Pacific pummels Faria Beach homes north of Ventura, Calif., at sunrise on January 10, 2019. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Al Seib TNS

The Coastal Commission supports less intrusive remedies, such as living shorelines — barriers created with vegetation, shell mounds, rocks, and other natural materials — and “managed retreat,” a euphemistic term that essentially means moving people inland and letting the sea takeover.

Gibson’s group — together with a similar organization of coastal cities — is hoping to come to an agreement with the Coastal Commission, to allow for more flexibility. They also want guidance on “when it’s necessary to protect certain portions of the coast and when it isn’t,” according to a paper they recently presented to the Coastal Commission.

4. Develop local action plans.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Whether it’s installing seawalls, hauling in sand and boulders to shore up beaches, creating living shorelines or buying out doomed properties, affected communities should have as much discretion as possible, along with state and federal disaster support.

5. Develop cost estimates and look for funding.

Some local governments are trying to hold oil companies companies liable; San Francisco and Oakland sued five oil companies, using the argument that the production of massive amounts of fossil fuel caused climate change that led to sea level rise. The lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge, but that ruling has been appealed.

San Francisco also is tapping taxpayers; last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a $425 million bond measure to strengthen the Embarcadero seawall.

On a statewide level, there’s a bill pending in the Legislature that would direct a portion of the state’s oil revenues to climate adaptation projects in the coastal zone, and there are grants available for studies and projects, such as creating living shorelines.

It’s going to take a lot more than that, especially if entire communities are displaced.

Managed retreat

The most drastic option for coping with sea level rise — managed retreat — is by far the most devastating.

In Pacifica, it caused such a furor among homeowners that city officials replaced the words “managed retreat” with “adaption strategies,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The walkway to an apartment building that fell off the cliff on Esplanade Avenue in Pacifica, Calif., on January 21, 2019. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Carolyn Cole TNS

And it isn’t just homes that may have to retreat; vital public facilities like highways, railroads, sewer plants and emergency service buildings could be lost as well.

That’s already happening.

In the city of Morro Bay, officials decided to build a new sewer plant further inland, rather than rebuild at the current site near the ocean. While there were other reasons for the decision, a big factor was the vulnerability to flooding at the old location.

Similar decisions face other communities; just up the road from Morro Bay, San Simeon must relocate its sewer plant farther inland within 20 years, according to Gibson. And a stretch of Highway 1 was recently relocated away from crumbling cliffs near Piedras Blancas.

Moving down the coast, in Santa Barbara, the El Estero wastewater treatment plant will be in trouble starting in 2060 and “permanently inoperable” by 2100, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. The cost to replace the plant: $250 million.

There’s no comprehensive cost estimate of what it would take to replace all the public infrastructure in harm’s way, to move people out of homes in danger of toppling into the ocean, or to build whatever seawalls the Coastal Commission is willing to allow.

Whatever it is, it will be staggering — far greater than the cost of responding to the worst wildfires.

It’s certain that local jurisdictions — many already struggling to pay down pension debt while they keep their roads paved and their offices staffed — won’t be able to foot the bill alone. Nor can taxpayers be expected to bear such a heavy burden.

Sacramento must get its act together, and prod local communities to do the same.

We need to keep hammering the need for greenhouse gas reductions.

We need comprehensive policies and programs developed at the state level that can apply to all affected local jurisdictions, not just to urban centers or to communities already feeling the brunt of sea level rise.

We need a major commitment of funds.

And we need readily accessible, up-to-date information.

To answer Newsom’s question — “What the hell to we do about it?” — this is what we need to do, and fast, while there’s still time.

This was updated to include information about Friday’s cliff collapse in Encinitas.

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