NORTH TOPSAIL BEACH, N.C. — The calm ocean view seems to lull Todd Putney into a trance as gentle waves wash over his feet and a rising tide slowly consumes his fold-up chair.
It’s a hypnotizing sight, one of the reasons Putney decided last year to purchase a beachfront property here. Interest rates were low, prices were reasonable. The timing was right.
“I always wanted a beach house,” said Putney. “At my age, I figured I couldn’t find a better opportunity.”
Yet the ocean’s powerful allure masks a reality that has put this tiny coastal community — and others like it around the world — at considerable risk. Accelerated sea-level rise and growing storm intensity, two widely studied effects of climate change, are giving the oceans a powerful edge in the age-old battle against continental shorelines.
Days after Hurricane Joaquin terrorized the Atlantic, the evidence is all around. Joaquin never got close to the North Carolina coast, but it still contributed to a storm surge that combined with unusually high tides, strong winds and heavy rain to hammer Topsail.
Staircases connecting properties to the beach were ripped away, or left dangling in mid-air. In some places, water breached the dune that protects the waterfront, flooding the main road and several inland properties. Damage and debris can be seen all around.
A study last year by the Risky Business Project, led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, estimated that annual economic costs related to sea level rise and climate-fuelled hurricane activity could increase by up to $10.8 billion (U.S.) within only 15 years along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico.
That may be just scratching the surface. If Florida — where 75 per cent of the population lives on the coast — is any indication, the threat has largely been ignored by financial markets. Routinely flooded roads and basements and warnings from scientists have yet to suck air from Miami’s $35 billion real estate bubble.
“This is the biggest challenge we’re probably going to face in the physical world,” said oceanographer John Englander, author of High Tide on Main Street, which warned of the coastal crisis a week before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey shores.
Englander expects that within a decade, perhaps as early as five years from now, awareness of sea level impacts on coastal real estate will spook the marketplace. Insurance premiums will spike, making mortgages unattainable for some. Property values will plunge, along with local tax revenues, making it harder for communities to adapt to new realities.
“People think this is an environmental issue, but it’s not. It’s an economic issue,” he said. “The people who own lots of real estate and finance it, they haven’t really thought this through yet.”
Those that have are quietly selling, Englander added. “They don’t want to make noise because they want to protect their property values. They want to sell high before the market notices.”
In North Topsail, officials have pegged the cost of Hurricane Joaquin’s destructive pass-by at $15.5 million (U.S.), though the final tally is likely to be more. The town is hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pick up the tab.
Robert Young, who studies coastal development as a geosciences professor at Western Carolina University, is offended that public funds are routinely granted to bail out private property owners.
“These folks are interested in leveraging as much public money as they can so they don’t have to put their own money into it,” said Young. “It’s creating this giant moral hazard, where we’re using public funds to encourage people to keep doing the wrong thing.”
FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, which subsidizes insurance for properties in flood-prone areas, is more than $24 billion (U.S.) in debt thanks to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 was an attempt to phase in premium increases so they better reflected the risks, but Congress neutered the law two years later.
Young said American tax and insurance payers are supporting real estate values for relatively few beachfront properties. At the local level, communities like North Topsail shovel municipal dollars from general revenue into never-ending beach restoration projects.
“Mark my words,” said Young. “North Topsail officials are going to drive that community into default. They’re borrowing money to pay for beach projects, yet they won’t raise taxes on themselves because, Good Lord, this is America and nobody wants to pay taxes anymore.”
A 2010 report from North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) warned that sea levels could rise by one metre within 100 years, which is in line with mainstream climate research. Worried such a forecast would hurt property values and raise construction costs, coastal developers and property owners convinced state legislators to ban use of the research in policy.
Comedian Stephen Colbert responded with mockery on his late-night show. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal.”
The CRC was forced to redo its report, this time looking only 30 years out and warning of a less menacing 20-centimetre rise. New CRC member Larry Baldwin, one of the original report’s biggest critics, said it’s “up for debate” whether climate change is fuelling sea-level rise.
The projections aren’t consistent with historical data, he added. “What if you’re wrong? Then you’ve devastated the local economy.” Scientists point out that historical data doesn’t capture the accelerated melting of Greenland and Antarctic, or ocean warming.
Back on the beach, Tom Putney is still relaxing in his red beach chair. He said climate risks didn’t influence his decision to purchase property in North Topsail, even though his first home was destroyed 26 years ago when Hurricane Hugo swept through South Carolina.
The view is great, he said, adding that the $3,000 a week he earns from renting during vacation season easily covers his $11,000 a year insurance premium.
“I don’t mind paying for the risk,” said Putney. “My bet is that I won’t have to rebuild (if disaster hits). But if that happens, it happens.”
– This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.