NAGS HEAD, N.C. All along the coast of the southeast United States, the real estate industry confronts a hurricane. Not the kind that swirls in the Atlantic, but a storm of scientific information about sea-level rise that threatens the most lucrative, commission-boosting properties.
These studies warn that Florida, the Carolinas and other southeastern states face the nation’s fastest-growing rates of sea level rise and coastal erosion — as much as 3 feet by the year 2100, depending on how quickly Antarctic ice sheets melt. In a recent report, researchers for Zillow estimated that nearly 2 million U.S. homes could be literally underwater by 2100, if worst-case projections become reality.
This is not good news for people who market and build waterfront houses. But real estate lobbyists aren’t going down without a fight. Some are teaming up with climate change skeptics and small government advocates to block public release of sea-level rise predictions and ensure that coastal planning is not based on them.
“This is very concerning,” said Willo Kelly, who represents both the Outer Banks Home Builders Association and the Outer Banks Association of Realtors and led a six-year battle against state sea-level-rise mapping in North Carolina. “There’s a fear that some think tank is going to come in here and tell us what to do.”
The flooding and destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey has again highlighted the risks of owning shoreline property. But coastal real estate development remains lucrative, and in recent months and years, the industry has successfully blocked coastal planning policies based on ever-higher oceans.
Last month, President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order that required the federal government to account for climate change and sea level rise when building infrastructure, such as highways, levees and floodwalls. Trump’s move came after lobbying from the National Association of Home Builders, which called the Obama directive “an overreaching environmental rule that needlessly hurt housing affordability.”
In North Carolina, Kelly teamed up with homebuilders and Realtors to pass state legislation in 2012 that prevented coastal planners from basing policies on a benchmark of a 39-inch sea-level rise by 2100.
There’s a fear that some think tank is going to come in here and tell us what to do.
Willo Kelly, government affairs liaison for Realtors and home builders on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
The legislation, authored by Republican Rep. Pat McElraft, a coastal Realtor, banned the state from using scientific projections of future sea level rise for a period of four years. It resulted in the state later adopting a 30-year forecast, which projects the sea rising a mere 8 inches.
Stan Riggs, a geologist who served on the North Carolina science panel that recommended the 39-inch benchmark, said the 2012 legislation was a blow for long-term coastal planning.
“The state is completely not dealing with this,” said Riggs, a professor of geology at East Carolina University and author of The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast. “They are approaching climate change with sand bags and pumping sand onto beaches, which is just a short-term answer.”
Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, agrees the state is not doing enough to prepare for climate change. But he says the power play by builders and real estate agents may have backfired, drawing national attention — including being spoofed by Stephen Colbert — to an otherwise obscure policy document.
“The controversy did more to educate people about climate issues than if the report had just been quietly released and kept on the shelves,” said Miller, who heads an environmental organization of 15,000 members.
In Texas, a similar attempt to sideline climate change science also triggered blowback. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, then under the administration of Gov. Rick Perry, attempted to remove references to climate in a chapter in “State of the Bay,” a report on the ecological health of Galveston Bay.
The chapter, written by Rice University oceanographer John B. Anderson, analyzed the expected impacts of sea-level rise and described rising seas as “one of the main impacts of global climate change.” When TCEQ officials attempted to edit out such references, Anderson and other scientists objected.
“The whole story went viral,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Then they backed off.”
Since that time, Texas officials haven’t interfered in other scientific reports, said Anderson, but neither have they consulted with academics on how to manage rising seas, erosion and the prospect of stronger storms.
“Texas is pretty much in a state of climate change denial,” Anderson said. “There’s very little outreach to the research community to address the challenges we face.”
Texas is pretty much in a state of climate change denial.
John B. Anderson, oceanographer at Rice University in Houston
Anderson’s lament is one shared by other scientists in the Southeast, where Republicans control nearly all state houses and are generally dismissive of the scientific consensus on climate change.
In Florida, where Republican Rick Scott is governor, state environmental employees have been told not to use terms such as “climate change” or “global warming” in official communications, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
In South Carolina, the state Department of Natural Resources in 2013 was accused of keeping secret a draft report on climate change impacts. In Texas, the 2016 platform of the state Republican Party states that climate change “is a political agenda promoted to control every aspect of our lives.”
Anderson said its surprising that sea level rise is sparking controversy because, in his view, it is the least-contested aspect of climate change science.
It’s well accepted, he said, that global temperatures are rising, and that as they rise, water molecules in the oceans expand, a process called “thermal expansion.” Melting glaciers and ice sheets also contribute to rising sea levels, as does coastal subsidence caused by natural forces and manmade activities, such as excessive groundwater extraction.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, sea level has risen along most of the U.S. coast the past 50 years, with some areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts seeing increases of more than 8 inches. By 2100, average sea levels are expected to rise 1.6 to 3.3 feet, with some studies showing 6 feet of rise, according to the NAS.
Last year, Zillow matched up its database of 110 million homes nationwide with maps prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing a projected sea level rise of 6 feet by the end of the century.
Zillow found that, without efforts to mitigate against sea level rise — such as building floodwalls or elevating structures — some 1.9 million homes were at risk, worth $882 billion. This included 934,000 houses in Florida, 83,000 in South Carolina, 57,000 in North Carolina and 46,800 in Texas.
“This isn’t just an academic issue,” said Svenja Gudell, chief economist for Zillow, noting that some climate skeptics pushed back against the report, but public response was largely positive. “This can have a really big impact on people and their homes and livelihoods.”
With more than 3,600 miles of coastline, tidal shoreline and white-sand beaches, Eastern North Carolina is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. It also supports a burgeoning real estate industry, serving retirees and vacationers who want to be near the water.
In 2010, a group called NC-20 — named for the 20 coastal counties of North Carolina — was formed to advocate for this industry and others in the region. It originally protested new state stormwater rules. Then it took aim at projections of a one-meter sea level rise, calling it “a myth promoted by man-made global warming advocates on expectations of melting ice.”
Kelly, the group’s current president, said NC-20 was alarmed by a 2010 state document that said the 39-inch benchmark should be used “for land use planning and to assist in designing development and conservation projects.” The coalition also feared it could lead to a state website where prospective home buyers could research future water levels.
“That is nothing more than a SimCity video game,” Kelly fumed during a recent interview at the Outer Banks Home Builders Association office near Nags Head. “It all depends on the inputs you put into it.”
With little state guidance on climate change and flooding threats, some local governments are taking matters into their own hands. In Florida, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council produced a report this year on the multi-billion-dollar impacts of a projected 3-foot sea level rise by 2060.
In Eastern North Carolina, geologist Riggs resigned from the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission’s science panel in 2016, citing legislative interference. He has since teamed up with local governments on the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds to address problems of flooding, windblown tides and saltwater intrusion, a threat to local farming.
John Trent, chair of the Bertie County Commission, said that he has been collaborating with Riggs on a range of projects to prevent flooding in Windsor, the county seat. Three severe floods have hit Windsor since 1999, and Trent says he is wary about what sea-level rise could bring over the long term.
“Absolutely it concerns us,” said Trent, a transplant from Florida who moved to the county in 2000. “We are the lowest of the low in this region.”
Further east, the Hyde County town of Swan Quarter has built a 17-mile dike around homes and farms to protect $62 million in flood-threatened property. The dike helped prevent windblown flooding during recent storms, but county officials have some concerns about the future.
“In Hyde County, you’d likely get a consensus that sea-level rise is real and that it is happening,” said Daniel Brinn, a resource specialist with the Hyde County Soil and Water District. “You might get an argument on why it is happening, but that is about it.”
Anderson, the Rice University oceanographer, said that coastal homeowners nationwide should pay attention to sea-level rise projections, even if they live in a home that has never flooded before.
During Hurricane Harvey, Anderson’s home in Houston was inundated with roughly a foot of water, the first time that had ever happened. “Given what I’ve been through in recent weeks, I am acutely aware of how important one foot can be,” he said.
Corrected: In an earlier version of this story, the final paragraph referenced the wrong hurricane.