Monday numbers: Climate change likely to cost NC $34.8 billion – and that’s just for seawalls

By: - June 24, 2019 5:00 am
A neighborhood in Jacksonville shortly after Hurricane Florence hit in 2018. It would cost the city an estimated $382 million over the next 20 years to build just 70 miles of seawall, according to a study by the Center for Climate Integrity. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

In 2018, Hurricane Florence moved so slowly – more like a mosey, instead of a sprint – that it emptied trillions of gallons of rain over the same places for hours, even days. “At times I could have outrun” the storm, said scientist  Jessica Whitehead, chief resilience officer for the state’s Office of Resilience and Recovery, at a climate change summit in Havelock earlier this month. “And I’m not a fast runner.” 

On the heels of the sobering state summit, a national study has analyzed the potential financial costs of combating sea level rise in the US: upward of $400 billion just to build seawalls in vulnerable areas in the Lower 48 states. (The study did not include Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico or other ocean-locked US territories, which are even more vulnerable.)

The Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, just released “High Tide Tax: The Price to Protect Coastal Communities from Rising Seas.”  The report includes rankings of the estimated costs to adapt to sea level rise by state, city, county, and congressional district.

The center collaborated with Resilient Analytics and the University of Colorado in using moderate (not worst-case) sea-level rise projections for the year 2040 and storm surge expected to be seen every year. Using that data, the Center then estimated the costs of building seawalls in each location – inland and coastal – to protect people and public property from rising ocean levels.

The analysis doesn’t include the costs of addressing public health, heat waves, drought and severe storms associated with climate change.

However, for some communities, seawalls aren’t suitable for structural or environmental reasons. In those situations, policymakers will have to devise different methods of thwarting the destruction from sea level rise.

It could cost $28 billion to build seawalls in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity.

Unfortunately, eastern North Carolina appeared often on the list of high-cost, highly vulnerable locations. The 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of the coastal counties, ranked first in the nation in costs to build hundreds of miles of sea walls: $28 billion.

At the climate change summit in Havelock, Whitehead advised North Carolinians to brace for the effects of climate change, many of which are already occurring: extreme temperature and precipitation swings, so-called “sunny day flooding,” and shifting bird and animal migration patterns.

“Yesterday’s extreme is today’s normal,” Whitehead said. “Today’s extreme is tomorrow’s normal.” Here are just a few of the cost estimates for vulnerable North Carolina communities.

3 – North Carolina’s ranking among Lower 48 states, projected costs to build seawalls

$34.8 billion – Projected cost, North Carolina 

9 – Dare County’s ranking among 312 US counties

$5.47 billion – Projected costs, Dare County

555  – Miles of sea walls in Dare County that would be required to protect areas from rising ocean levels

17  – Carteret County ranking among 312 US counties

$3.9 billion – Projected costs, Carteret County

650 – Miles of sea walls projected for Carteret County

17 – North Topsail Beach’s ranking among 1,902 cities 

$724 million – Costs to North Topsail Beach 

56 – Miles of sea walls projected for North Topsail Beach

Source: Center for Climate Integrity

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.