, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 39-58

Greenhouse effect and coastal wetland policy: How Americans could abandon an area the size of Massachusetts at minimum cost

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Abstract

Climatologists generally expect an anthropogenic global warming that could raise sea level 30–150 cm in the next century and more thereafter. One of the impacts would be the loss of coastal wetlands. Although the inundation of adjacent dryland would enable new wetlands to form, much of this land is or will soon be developed. If developed areas are protected, wetlands will be squeezed between an advancing sea and the land being protected, which has already happened in China and the Netherlands, where people have built dikes for centuries.

Unlike those countries, the United States has enough land to accommodate the landward migration of wetlands; but governments lack the funds to purchase all the coastal lowlands that might be inundated and the legal authority to prohibit their development.

We propose a third approach: allowing property owners to use coastal lowlands today as they choose, but setting up a legal mechanism to ensure that the land is abandoned if and when sea level rises enough to inundate it. Although compensation may be required, this approach would cost less than 1% as much as purchasing the land, and would be (1) economically efficient by enabling real estate markets to incorporate expectations of future sea level rise; (2) constitutional by compensating property owners; and (3) politically feasible by pleasing people who care about the long-term fate of the coastal environment without disturbing people who either are unconcerned about the distant future or do not believe sea level will rise.

This article demonstrates that it would be irrational to delay policy formulation until sea level rise projections are more precise. The cost will be small if we act now but great if we wait, and sea level is already rising along most coasts. The US government should develop a strategy in the next three years.

The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of EPA and no official endorsement should be inferred.