January 29, 2019

Time To Wake Up: There’s No Place Like (an Underwater) Home

As-prepared for delivery

Madam President, I’m fortunate to be joined today by my colleague from New Hampshire, Senator Hassan, to talk about the risks to our New England coastal communities from the climate changes coming our way. 

Despite really dirty efforts of the fossil fuel industry to keep the truth at bay, the tide of public understanding is turning.  A recent survey by Yale and George Mason Universities found that 73 percent of Americans now see global warming happening.  That number is up 10 percentage points just since 2015.  Similarly, the percentage of Americans who consider global warming an “important” issue rose from 63 to 72 percent in the past ten years.  In just the past year, the number of Americans who say they are “worried” about global warming jumped from 61 to 69 percent.

One author of the study explained its results to The New York Times this way [1]: “People are beginning to understand that climate change is here in the United States, here in my state, in my community, affecting the people and places I care about, and now.  This isn’t happening in 50 years, 100 years from now.”

Dr. Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University echoed these sentiments, saying, “Today, nearly everyone can point to a way that they are personally witnessing and are being personally affected by the impacts of a changing climate in the places where they live.”

Perhaps nowhere is this more true, Madam President, than along our coasts, where manmade climate change is already flooding towns, driving fisheries away from traditional fishing grounds, and bringing ashore stronger storms riding on higher seas.

Last Tuesday, I picked up my home state paper, The Providence Journal, and saw this headline splashed across the front page: “Washed Away: Rising water in R.I. begins to erode worth of coastal homes.”  There’s a study I’ve mentioned here before from the First Street Foundation and researchers at Columbia University that looks at what escalating flood risk is doing to housing markets.  That study has gone up the Atlantic Coast and reached my state’s coastal communities.

The First Street study looked at coastal properties in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, and found that they lost a total of $403 million in expected value between 2005 and 2017 due to increased tidal flooding risks.[2]  Just between 2005 and 2017, Rhode Island coastal properties lost nearly $45 million in expected value.  The study called out these three particular properties in Warren, RI that lost over a third of their value during that timeframe.  Rhode Islanders in the town of Warwick lost over $4 million in home value due to the threat of climate-change-driven sea level rise. 

Several studies warned how climate changes will affect coastal property values.  The First Street Foundation is the “first to demonstrate value loss that has already occurred.”  A Columbia University researcher who worked on the First Street study said, “Each time we analyze a new state we see the same phenomenon.  Increased tidal flooding leads to a loss in home value appreciation.  As sea level rise accelerates, we expect the corresponding loss in relative home value to accelerate as well.”  That hits home.

The latest scientific evidence shows sea levels rising at a greater pace than expected.  NOAA data shows that Greenland lost around 280 billion tons of ice per year from 2002 to 2016.[3]  A National Geographic article covering the study noted that “[t]he Greenland ice sheet is 10,000 feet thick in places and contains enough ice to raise sea levels 23 feet.”  Another study shows that the Antarctic ice sheet has lost around 252 billion tons of ice per year over the last ten years.  According to National Geographic, full melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would mean nearly 187 feet of sea level rise.

In Rhode Island, our Coastal Resources Management Council has been a long-time leader in modeling flooding and sea level rise risks for Rhode Island’s coastal businesses, communities, and decision-makers.

Earlier this month, CRMC partnered with the University of Rhode Island to release a series of highly-detailed risk maps for several coastal Rhode Island towns.  These maps provide a total damage assessment for individual structures due to flooding and storm waves.  For homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure (like the Warren wastewater treatment plant in this map that will be almost totally wiped out), CRMC’s maps turn the risks facing our communities from a hazy sketch to a vivid, living-color, 3-D picture. 

And that picture is grim.

Rhode Island officials are currently preparing for a worst-case scenario of more than nine feet of sea level rise overtaking our 400 miles of coastline by the end of the century.  This map is from CRMC’s interactive STORMTOOLS application, which overlays sea level rise on our current topography.  The blue is what 10 feet of sea level rise will look like; the green is 12 feet.  These areas, the homes and businesses of my constituents, will be permanently underwater.  A 2017 report from real estate database company Zillow identified over 4,800 homes in Rhode Island, valued at nearly $3 billion, that would be underwater by 2100, using an optimistic estimate of only six feet of sea level rise. 

In this snapshot from Upper Narragansett Bay, you can see some of Rhode Island’s larger coastal communities stranded as a scattered series of new islands, transforming Rhode Island into an archipelago.  Today’s map of Rhode Island, the map we have known since our founding, will become unrecognizable as Warwick Neck breaks off to become its own island, Newport splits, and Bristol comes apart. 

A recent report from Climate Central and Zillow looked at new homes built in risky coastal areas—that is, locations expected to suffer from annual floods by 2050 under a moderate greenhouse gas emissions model—and showed that Rhode Island has seen more growth in risk areas than in safe zones.  Obviously, if emissions don’t meet these moderate goals, the results will be even worse. 

Well before water actually overtakes our roads, homes, shops, and infrastructure, will come the economic effects of rising oceans.  They will be big.  In 2017, GAO reported that coastal areas face particularly high financial risks, and that annual coastal property losses from sea level rise and increased storms will run into the billions of dollars every year in the short run, and over $50 billion every year by late century.  EPA has estimated “$5.0 trillion in economic costs to coastal property from climate change through 2100.”  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, sea level rise will double the number of coastal communities facing “chronic inundations and possible retreat” by 2035.

The market is awakening to these risks.  Moody’s has begun evaluating the bonds of coastal communities with an eye to this risk.  Banks, mortgagors, insurance companies, and appraisers are starting to incorporate these risks into their work.  A recent issue of the Appraisal Institute’s Valuation magazine quoted Rhode Island appraiser Brad Hevenor, warning that homes that receive a 30-year mortgage this year “might be completely different types of property [by the end of their mortgage] than they are today.”  Good luck getting a 30-year mortgage on a property that will be “completely different” by the end of the mortgage.

The coastal housing market is on the precipice of a dangerous financial cliff.  First Street, Zillow, NOAA, GAO, EPA, Climate Central, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others all make the same warning.  Federal home mortgage giant Freddie Mac cautions, “The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”

The editor of the insurance industry trade publication Risk & Insurance had this to say: “Continually rising seas will damage coastal residential and commercial property values to the point that property owners will flee those markets in droves, thus precipitating a mortgage value collapse that could equal or exceed the mortgage crisis that rocked the global economy in 2008.”

But here in Congress, these warnings fall on deaf ears; ears plugged deaf by the fossil fuel industry’s mischief.  We have to get serious about our duty to our constituents.  Polling shows millions of them would like to see us face up to this threat, safeguard theircoastal property, and curb the carbon pollution that is distorting our Earth’s climate.

It’s time to wake up.  I yield the floor.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/climate/americans-global-warming-poll.html

[2] https://assets.floodiq.com/2019/01/a22bd29b00a7a783c7d3fa7f5c4531c9a-ne-homevalue-loss-slr.pdf

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/greeland-ice-melting-four-times-faster-than-thought-raising-sea-level/