On September 16th, Governor Baker signed Executive Order 569, which lays out plans both for fighting climate change and preparing the Commonwealth for unavoidable impacts such as sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme heat. Similar Senate-passed legislation on climate change adaptation was blocked in the Massachusetts House of Representatives over the past two sessions, due largely to the vocal objections of the commercial real estate lobby who feared that climate-smart regulations would hurt, rather than help, the businesses they represent.
But a recent report published by online real estate database Zillow presents a more accurate picture of the risks facing the real estate industry. According to the report, nearly $1 trillion worth of real estate nationally is at risk due to expected sea level rise, with more than $700 billion worth of coastal property potentially below predicted mean sea levels and more than $730 billion of additional property at risk during high tide. Referencing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s latest flood maps, Zillow estimates that if sea levels rose by 6 feet over the coming century around 18 percent of Boston’s housing stock (about 22,000 homes) would be underwater. Statewide, Massachusetts is projected to lose around 62,000 properties, which represents more than 3% of total housing stock and $51 billion in property value.
These numbers are especially troubling given that climate-related real estate risks don’t end at property boundaries. Flooding and storm surge can turn infrastructure to rubble, collapsing streets, tunnels, parking lots, subway, IT, sewer and power lines. During Hurricane Sandy entire neighborhoods were devastated and became dependent on massive influxes of federal funds and other support to restore basic services and begin cleanup efforts. Dramatic flooding events are becoming more common, and none among us can legitimately claim ignorance to this growing threat.
Talking about climate change risks is a tough business; policy makers by necessity often must deal very much in the present, forced to pick and choose priorities to focus on over the course of a two-year election cycle. Cities and towns are cash strapped and often lack the technical expertise to plan for future flooding impacts. Federal legislation has no hope of making it past congressional committees busy attacking the scientists, NGOs and government leaders actively working to fight climate change.
Rising sea levels and flooding will impact thousands of residential and commercial properties, and it is the taxpayer who will be left footing the bill for lack of preparedness. Governor Baker’s Executive Order on climate change preparedness is an important first step to addressing climate risks, but legislative leaders on Beacon Hill must add a solid foundation by statutorily requiring a statewide climate adaptation plan that functions beyond the Governor’s term in office.
Karen Heymann is Legislative Director