Who will pay to keep the sea at bay?

Last modified: 12/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
In a recent series of reports about climate change and the threats posed by rising sea levels, reporter Leslie Kaufman of the New York Times outlined the steps that Norfolk, Va., is taking to cope with rising sea levels, and the controversy those steps have provoked. At high tide, some Norfolk streets disappear under several feet of water.

Plans are under way to raise one oft-flooded street by 18 inches and to enlarge storm drains, but residents on higher ground are balking at paying. Given projections of further sea level rise, most believe that raising streets is a short-term fix and a waste of money. Meanwhile, 200 miles north in Washington, D.C., climate change skeptics and Republican opponents of environmental regulations are ascendant.

It's only a matter of time before New Hampshire will have to take arms against a rising sea. Winter temperatures in Antarctica have risen by a remarkable 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Polar sea ice is melting. And Greenland's glaciers are melting at a rate that's stunned glaciologists. The state, and Seacoast communities must begin now to decide how they will respond and how to pay for that response.

Last year, New Hampshire's Climate Change Policy Task Force told Seacoast communities and regional planning commissions to assume a 1½-foot rise in sea levels by 2050 and an increase of three to five feet by the end of the century. Some estimates peg the maximum rise at 6 feet or more. Communities, the task force said, should take immediate action to prepare for rising sea levels.

In 2007, a Maine regional planning study said communities will have to consider raising roads, enlarging culverts, relocating municipal facilities and purchasing property destined to be flooded or lost to erosion. Planners were warned that building expansions and new construction in areas beyond historic flood zones will have to be limited or prohibited.

If the sea level along the New Hampshire coast rises by five feet, U.S. Geological Service maps show more than half the structures in Hampton Beach underwater during flood tides. In some places, only a narrow strip between the wetlands and the sea would remain dry. Presumably, the dry land will include roads recently repaired at a cost of $12 million and the state's new $14.5 million oceanfront hatch shell.

Raising roads, relocating buildings, building seawalls, replenishing sand and taking other mitigation measures will be enormously expensive. In many communities, the task will be beyond the ability of local taxpayers. If the federal government doesn't pay, will the state? Seacoast lawmakers shouldn't wait until the water's around their ankles before they ask their legislative colleagues.

In Congress, James Sensenbrenner, the senior Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, recently announced that the committee's December meeting would be its last. The committee will be abolished because, in his view, it has been used to promote the Democrats' "job-killing" efforts to control carbon emissions.

This week, the Obama administration and the EPA, under pressure from Republicans, announced a delay in the imposition of tough new rules slated to go into effect this month to reduce smog and toxic emissions from industry and utilities. The move raised fears that the administration will similarly delay upcoming measures to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, contributors to global warming.

Meanwhile, scientists told representatives of the 194 nations gathered by the United Nations in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss global warming that sea levels could rise by 6½ feet by the end of the century, displacing 260,000 people and drowning hundreds of tourist resorts that drive island economies. And that's nothing compared with the threat faced by poor, low-lying nations like Bangladesh or Pacific islands that could disappear under the waves while politicians argue.


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