How to Help Climate Change Losers?

Came across an article about how the threat of coastal land being declared undevelopable seems to drive a number of people towards “climate change denial.” This is a bit of a misreading of the response, I think (it seems this is partially a response based on fear of an asset suddenly becoming worthless, partially a response of hoping for the better end of an uncertain future, and partially a distrust of government intervention as much as any disagreement over science).  Anyways, the response has caused the state to mandate that they cannot plan long term for any sea level rise, which is unfortunate in a state where serious economic harm might come about from such an event.

This is not the first time that an attempt at a science-based warning upset a real estate market, which came back to curtail the scientific warning.  In the early 1980s, the USGS was prepared to issue a volcano advisory for Mammoth Lakes, California.  This was leaked to the L.A. Times and among other effects led to a change in the procedures for issuing such advisories. Real estate prices suffered for awhile before rebounding some years later.  (The good news–aside from there being no eruption–was that the town of Mammoth Lakes was forced to make an all-season evacuation route, termed, with the best Chamber of Commerce whitewash, the Mammoth Scenic Loop). The lesson was that you simply don’t just toss out a warning that a bunch of land might be unlivable without anticipating how to mitigate the harm.

So what could be done here?  People today in coastal areas are heavily invested in their land, which is presently quite valuable.  That asset is expect to decline in value to zero sometime in the future. You know what, we already have a means of dealing with an asset that will decrease in value over time: it is called depreciation. If your business uses a car, you can deduct part of the car’s price over a fixed amount of time.  It isn’t as though we are certain the car will fail at the end of that time; it is an estimate with considerable uncertainty, just as the inundation of parts of the coast carries uncertainty. Why not have a coastal depreciation allowance? Each year over, say, the next 100 years the owner of the land gets to claim some credit equal to 1/100th the present value of the land.  So if in 50 years the owner sells the land but of course cannot get a 2010 price, they have already been compensated for that loss.  This allows for more sensible planning, rights an economic wrong (those coastal residents did no more than those of us well above sea level in causing sea level to rise), and removes an incentive to put on blinders to the future.  Real legislation would probably look a bit different (you might, for instance, revisit the values and times allowed every 5 or 10 years to see if the outlook used before made sense, and you might make the depreciation accelerate towards the time of expected inundation as, for instance, a beach property expected to stay above sea level for 70 years might command the same price as one that will be around 100 years), but you get the idea.

Of course that money comes out of everybody else’s pocket; is that fair?  GG isn’t fond of making coastal landowners whole when their beach abode gets obliterated by hurricanes in places like barrier islands where we know (and have known for a long time) that such obliteration was only a matter of time.  But in this case, where recognition that sea level rise from human activity is a new risk, one we all have shared in creating, it makes sense for all of us to share in the cost.

One thing this would do is make extremely apparent the cost of not addressing climate change (and mind, there are other potential losers out there who might also want some aid, from farmers who may face heat-stressed crops to vacation destinations that will no longer be attractive).  And as there is evidence that we will see sea level rise from the destabilized parts of the Antarctic ice sheet regardless of our ability to rein in global warming, this might be an effect we cannot hope to avoid but can only adapt to.

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