Donald Trump Goes to the Beach
November 9, 2016
On November 9th the unthinkable happened. Donald Trump won the Presidency. It was like climate change; everyone knew it was coming, nobody did anything about it, and now it was too late.
But the election got me thinking. There is a strictly conservative way to deal with erosion and a strictly liberal way to deal with erosion.
The liberal way is to basically do what we are doing now, provide federal flood insurance to homeowners and federal assistance to rebuild things like sand dunes and infrastructure after a storm passes. The strictly conservative way to deal with erosion would be to have private companies insure homeowners and let markets solve the problem. This is what was happening until private insurance companies started getting out of the business in the Nineties because it was getting too risky.
Just to make matters even more confusing, there is also a strict constructionist way to deal with erosion; that is to require that if a state passes a regulation that lowers the value of someone’s home the state will have to reimburse the owner under a strict reading of the takings clause of the 5th amendment to the Constitution.
But now the reason that the problem is so confusing is that so many wealthy people live on the shore. Even though they might not want the government to give money to other people in need, they are more than happy to take government money themselves.
The problem with the 5th amendment is that it was written for land that doesn’t move. It provided much needed protection against the police powers of the state under those circumstances. It was only when the Supreme Court extended the amendment to coastal areas that it became a conundrum.
During the Seventies states passed regulations that discouraged people from building on places like barrier beaches because scientists had discovered that such beaches had to be able to move in response to the rising seas. But developers started challenging the laws. By 1992, Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastal Council had worked its way up to the Supreme Court where the justices ruled that if a state passed a law that lowered the value of someone’s property it would have to compensate the owner.
This takings ruling threw a monkey wrench into states’ abilities to protect both the coasts and homeowners from on building on beaches that were destined to wash away. It was a festering problem when the seas were only rising a foot every century in the Seventies. But now we know the seas will rise three feet higher in twenty-five years and nine feet higher in fifty years, so it has become an acute problem. This amount of sea level rise will put millions of homes worth billions of dollars in jeopardy, and states will be unable to save people from risking their life savings on such dubious investments.
If Hilary Clinton had been elected President she might have been able to put forth enough liberal Supreme Court justices to overturn Lucas vs. South Carolina. Now it will take eight years, or a few more quick storms in succession, to see if President Trump can adapt the safeguards of our liberal democracy to deal with the realities of our rapidly changing environment. You won’t see me holding my breath.
So if it is clear that nothing substantial will be done about climate change for at least the next four years what should individuals and small groups do to deal with the effects of that global warming?
For one thing we have our own barrier beach that protects the communities of Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley and Ipswich. We have started to make progress in educating people to think like coastal geologists. A coastal geologist would look at Plum Island and say that the island is eroding in the middle but growing at both ends, so you should discourage people from rebuilding homes in the center of the island, but help the island continue to grow on its north and south ends.
That educational process has started and new groups like Storm Surge and the Plum Island Point Preservation organization should continue to work with older groups like the MRBA, PITA and the Plum Island Foundation to search for better, more local ways to deal with erosion on our all important barrier beach island.
Education has always been the Massachusetts way. Who knows in four years the Feds might look toward Massachusetts as a model for how to deal with the effects of erosion and sea level rise.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 2016, is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.