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For Atlantic Coast states, sea level politics are rising fast

The dangers of insufficient setback. High tide now laps at the foundations of these houses. (photo by Dirk Frankenberg)

By Tom Baxter

Last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster became the latest in a rising tide of politicians united in their denial of, well, the rising tide.

McMaster weighed in on the side of developers and beachfront homeowners who oppose the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s new beach development restrictions, calling for a delay in the implementation of a new baseline set to go into effect in December. New development could not take place on the seaward side of this baseline, and existing structures couldn’t be replaced if they were damaged in storms.

In 2016, the South Carolina legislature set the end of this year as the deadline for establishing the new baseline, but McMaster said last week the 30-day comment period following the announcement of the baseline was “inadequate for a decision that may dramatically and negatively impact our state’s economy.” Delaying the decision would give the legislature time to come back into session and change the law.

Thousands of beachfront property owners find that at least part of their property is on the seaward side of the baseline and a lot of development money is involved, so it’s easy to see the political motivation for delay. But the unsettling reality is that any baseline the state imposes may be temporary at best.

Politics along the coast is evolving into a seesaw between the human impulse to put off the inevitable and the coming competition for money once the inevitable arrives.

North Carolina makes South Carolina look progressive. It passed a law in 2012 which explicitly directed coastal communities to ignore information regarding global warming and a changing sea level in their planning for development. This drew national ridicule, and a watered-down (unavoidable pun) coastal plan which does anticipate a changing sea level has been making its way toward passage.

In Florida, state environmental officials have been banned from using the term “climate change.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the seesaw, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg recently told a group of environmentalists that he had little time to focus on any of their problems aside from improving drainage and protecting against sea level rise.

Charleston has adopted a plan which assumes the sea level will rise 2 1/2 feet in the next 50 years, and is investing $250 million in a drainage system, as the city’s historic district is already seeing the effects of effects of persistent low-level flooding.

Environmentalist Orrin H. Pilkey wrote recently in the Charleston Post-Courier that the city has been wise in aggressively seeking money to address its sea level problems.

“When Charleston is in real trouble with a big sea level rise, the city will be competing for funding with such major municipalities as New York, Boston, Miami, St. Petersburg and San Francisco. The competition for support will be intense,” Pilkey wrote.

While this all has to do with the big global issue of climate change, it’s a particular problem for the East Coast. Models for how a warming climate would affect sea levels predict that the Atlantic Ocean will rise three to four times faster than the Pacific Ocean. The Atlantic Coast states, including Georgia, are on course to feel the first political effects of rising sea levels, as well.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing spending $1.8 billion on a system of floodwalls, surge protectors and tidal gates to protect Norfolk, Va., and its vital naval station. This can only be the beginning of a lot of billions.

At some point the seesaw has to come down and either the problem or its deniers go away. This might not be for some time, however. For some on the coast, the sea level is rising faster than it is for others.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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1 Comment

  1. Marti Breen October 31, 2017 9:57 am

    How much longer can politicians bury their heads in the sand before the rising sea water drowns them? You’d think the cost of the recent hurricane clean up would prompt some action…Report


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