Tag Archives: sea level rise

Executive Order Puts Coastal Areas at Risk

Last week, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) aimed at streamlining environmental permitting regulations for major infrastructure projects such as highways and utility corridors. The EO included a revocation of a national standard requiring that federally-funded projects built in floodplains take into consideration future flood risk.

Environmental review is a major component of transportation and other infrastructure projects, which require multiple federal and state permits and reviews. These environmental reviews were borne out of public concern over destructive highway projects across the nation that damaged environmental and cultural resources. Over the past decades, federal agencies have been tasked with making the environmental review process efficient and timely (see here and here).  It is unclear the extent to which President Trump’s EO will clash with existing laws, policies, and regulations; however, it is clear that it prioritizes industry over the health and safety of citizens.

Photo credit: Aislinn Dewey

The now-repealed federal standard – known as the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, or FFRMS – ensured that federally-funded projects built in floodplains would live out their intended lifespan while protecting public health and safety. The FFRMS encouraged the use of nature-based approaches to addressing flood risks by promoting green infrastructure (systems and features engineered to mimic natural processes) as a viable tool in mitigating flood risk and building resilience. It gave flexibility to project proponents, allowing them to choose from a suite of options in order to meet the requirements of the new standard.

For many coastal cities grappling with the impacts of coastal flooding this action ignores the reality of climate change and leaves millions – including Massachusetts residents — at risk. This backslide at the federal level makes it more important than ever for the Massachusetts legislature to pass our comprehensive adaptation management plan bill.

A Sea Change for our Coasts

By Karen Heymann

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.

Coastal properties like these will be more vulnerable to sea level rise if climate change continues as current rates. Photo credit: John Phelan

Coastal properties like these will be more vulnerable to sea level rise if climate change continues as current rates. Photo credit: John Phelan

But a recent report published by online real estate database Zillow[1] 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.

The Charles River Esplanade is among the many areas mapped by NOAA expected to feel the impacts of sea level rise. Photo credit: Daderot

The Charles River Esplanade is among the many areas mapped by NOAA expected to feel the impacts of sea level rise. Photo credit: Daderot

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

[1] http://www.zillow.com/research/climate-change-underwater-homes-12890/