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Rhode Island senator visits Georgia coast, reminds voters of sea level rise

By David Pendered

A Rhode Island senator is back in Georgia today to share one message with Georgia voters. “Think about the coast as you cast your vote,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat.

Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse

In a Monday morning conversation with SaportaReport, Whitehouse emphasized points for which he’s become well known: The climate is changing; sea level is rising and forecasts show it will continue to rise; and the financial impacts of flooding of coastal lands will cross party lines and harm entire communities.

That last point is a big one, he said.

“This isn’t just environmental,” Whitehouse said. “This is economic. Financial. There are real warnings of risk … not just for immediate property owners, but the whole economy.”

Whitehouse said he’s in Georgia on his own dime, paid for by his campaign fund, for the purpose of asking for help in protecting Rhode Island from rising sea level. Rhode Island and Georgia face similar threats from rising sea level, he said.

“I’ve got a state to defend and I need Georgia to help me defend it,” Whitehouse said. “I can’t defend my state if you can’t defend yours, at least not in Congress.”

The barrier islands off Savannah’s coast would be inundated by a 4-foot tidal inundation that is all but guaranteed in coming years, as portrayed in the lower image. The forecast and images were released by climatescience.org. Credit: Climate Science via Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

Whitehouse said Georgians can support efforts to address climate change by voting into office the two Democratic candidates in the Senate runoff election – the Rev. Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – and ousting the two Republican incumbents – senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

For most of the conversation, Whitehouse focused on the potential consequences of climate change and the need to address it. He frequently returned to the financial implications of the inundations of houses and commercial properties – and the taxes they provide local governments to provide local services.

“Think about sea level change not as an environmental issue, but as a property issue,” Whitehouse said. “An awful lot of property is going to be lost and more is to have its values crushed.”

Whitehouse noted that property tax collections could drop significantly in local communities that are affected by rising sea levels. Values of residences and commercial properties will drop as the sea encroaches. Lenders will balk at requests to finance structures that may be under water before the loan is paid off, he said. These points have been raised for years in reports including:

  • The federal mortgage lender Freddie Mac is warning that sea level rise will affect flood risk insurance requirements;
  • Climate change could mark the end of low credit rates for Georgia’s state and local governments if their plans to recover from natural disasters are deemed inadequate by Wall Street analysts, Moody’s Investors Service reported in 2017.
yow, savannah map

To help with emergency preparedness in a time of rising sea level, two Georgia Tech interns helped establish a community profile and emergency response plan for Hudson Hill, a historically Black community in Savannah. File/Credit: sealevelsensors.org

Whitehouse cited potential initiatives to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. He said he prefers a fee approach, in which fees would be collected on fossil fuels at the point of extraction or at the point of entering the country. President-elect Joe Biden has said climate change issues will be a focus of his administration.

In addition to the macro issue of reducing fossil fuel emissions, Whitehouse said initiatives of a smaller scale are important for local communities. Examples include federal funding for local governments to pay for threat analyses and potential responses to rising sea level, he said.

This type of analysis is at the heart of a project conducted this summer by Georgia Tech scientists and engineers. They started work on the Smart Sea Level Sensors Project, which is to help manage risk from sea level rise in Chatham County that could inundate an historic Black neighborhood, among others.

Whitehouse’s current trip and message are part of his personal quest for the U.S. to address climate change. He’s delivered 278 of his Time to Wake Up reports on climate change on the floor of the Senate, focusing on topics related to global warming that include fatal wildfires in the West and sea level rise in the East.



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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