Key West

The first likely climate change refugees from the continental US were featured in an article in the NYTimes today. With the headline, “Florida Keys Deliver a Hard Message: As Seas Rise, Some Places Can’t Be Saved,” the article showed the painful cost of delay in confronting this threat. A new study done for the Florida Keys showed that the cost of protecting a three-mile stretch of road serving about two dozen homes would be so much that it could not be justified. Given present estimates of ocean rise, the cost of raising this short stretch would be about $75 million to avoid inundation in 2025, $128 million in 2045, and $181 million in 2060.

Those home owners are, naturally, quite upset.

Asked how she expected residents would respond, Mayor Carruthers said she expects pushback. “I’m sure that some of them will be very irate, and we’ll probably face some lawsuits,” she said. “But we can’t completely keep the water away.”

The view from the higher ground is also fraught because the obligation of the local government to protect the homes and their occupants is fuzzy.

The law generally requires local governments to maintain roads and other infrastructure, because failure to do so will reduce the property value of surrounding homes, according to Erin Deady, a lawyer who specializes in climate and land-use law and is a consultant to the county on adapting to rising seas. But local officials retain the right to decide whether or not to upgrade or enhance that infrastructure. . . What’s unclear, Ms. Deady said, is whether raising a road to prevent it from going underwater is more akin to maintaining or upgrading. That’s because no court has yet ruled on the issue.

While this particular situation only involves a handful of people, it serves notice to all coastal communities that our failure to act expeditiously to slow climate change and all its consequent threats is going to present excruciating pain to everyone involved. The practice of raising coastal homes on stilts, something some of the families in the Keys had already done, may avoid being swept away, but still be left inaccessible as the access roads become inundated.

The number of people expected to be displaced by 2050 has been estimated at around 300,000,000. I suspect the estimate is going to be even larger as scientists get even better at predicting the future effects of our continuing failure to control the emission of greenhouse gases. I will leave it to your imagination, say, based on this story of a microcosm of that future world to contemplate the myriad of crises that it will spawn. Can you think for a moment that you can continue to live was you have in the past?

(Image: Key West scene)