On the Rise: The Surging Threat to Coastal Communities
November 23, 2021

“Once I had a happy family at Vendar Village of Sukh Char Union Parishad in Hatiya upazila of Noakhali district. But, riverbank erosion grabbed our home and all the belongings as Hatiya is located at the mouth of the Meghna River in the Bay of Bengal.” Mosharraf Hossaion and his family were forced to desert their riverside community in Bangladesh, leaving behind their homestead land, house, crops, cattle, many belongings, and the life they had always known.

Coastal communities across the globe have been invaded by water that previously was never a threat, detrimentally impacting Hossaion and millions of others worldwide. 

The 20th century saw an unprecedented increase in global mean sea level (GMSL), rising faster than any prior century for 33 millennia. This inflation of the GMSL was caused by global warming, brought on by the industrial practices of the 20th century. Global warming causes sea level rise in two ways: it melts glaciers and it causes thermal expansion of the water. Aside from inducing floods and coastal erosion, GMSL rise also increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These fiercer storms result in contamination of freshwater supplies and can cause irreparable damage to ecosystems if toxic-waste sites, landfills, energy facilities, or other sensitive infrastructure is compromised. Sea level rise is currently striking low-lying communities the hardest, but will eventually affect 90% of all coastal areas. The GMSL increased .2 meters (7.84 inches) from 1901-2018, but the rate of change is swiftly on the rise and seas will remain elevated for thousands of years due to the continued loss of ice-mass in the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets. 

Sea level rise is currently striking low-lying communities the hardest, but will eventually affect 90% of all coastal areas.

Living At The Edge of a Sea Change

Low-lying coastal communities are experiencing the social, economic, and political ramifications of GMSL rise in divergent ways. Situated inches above sea level, Miami-Dade County in Florida is already negotiating with an intruding ocean. Of the 13 million people in the continental US who will experience a six feet rise in GMSL by the year 2100, almost 25 percent inhabit Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It has received copious media attention because of the valuable real estate located alongside the water. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Develomement has ranked Miami as the most endangered city in terms of asset exposure. A whopping $416 billion in assets are currently jeopardized, and this figure is expected to skyrocket to $3.5 trillion by 2070. Around 90 percent of Miami-Dade county is less than six meters above sea level, with more than 10 percent positioned less than a foot above sea level. Miami’s low elevation is not its only vulnerability. The city sits on a 40-foot-thick limestone slab with an extremely high porosity and permeability, allowing water to easily rise up through the porous ground to the surface. This renders seawalls, levees, and dikes powerless against the inundation of a rising sea. 

The 5.5 million residents of Miami-Dade county must contend with more common high-tide flooding events, also known as nuisance flooding. Nuisance flooding, which is not typically deadly or dangerous, disrupts transportation and causes expensive damage to infrastructure. The county has already invested $1.7 billion in ecosystem restoration, elevating infrastructure, and implementing storm equipment; however, this is only the edge of the ocean of investments needed for the county to survive the anticipated two foot rise by 2060. The 2021 Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Strategy reveals the $542 million worth of necessary initial adaptation programs for which the county does not have the funding. Customarily, the burden of the cost of extensive infrastructure projects is divided among local, state, and federal governments. Due to the lack of leadership and denial of climate change amongst Florida’s politicians, the City of Miami has been forced to front the majority of costs to try and keep their city afloat.

Figure from Taylor & Francis Online

Historically, beachfront property in Miami has been more desirable and expensive than other areas in Miami-Dade county. That is now changing in a hurry. Sea level rise has profound impacts on human preferences. According to a 2018 study, real estate situated at high elevations has appreciated at a faster rate than any other place in the United States. High-income households are substituting their at-risk properties and moving to high-elevation neighborhoods, displacing “existing populations consistent with the conventional framings of climate gentrification.” 

What is climate gentrification? The negative impacts associated with climate change are pushing people “inland onto communities that have been rooted there and have endured disinvestment, racism, and inequality and are now under the threat of gentrification and displacement.” Climate gentrification is bolstered by the principle that the effects of climate change make areas more/less preferable based on their ability to accommodate human settlement and associated infrastructure. Revitalizing under-resourced neighborhoods leads to soaring costs of living, dislocating longtime residents, and leaving a new demographic to reap the benefits. 

Little Haiti in Miami is located 10 feet above sea level, leading to an influx of investment and increased land value. Zillow’s 2017 projections ranked Little Haiti as one of Florida’s “hottest neighborhoods,” citing the area’s food scene and lively murals as one of its largest appeals. The rich culture in this area can be credited to the Caribbean enclave that has been occupying its neighborhoods for generations. With the average home value from 2016-2017 increasing 19 percent, Little Haiti is the fastest gentrifying neighborhood in all of Florida. The value appreciation in Little Haiti has not been leveraged to collectively benefit the residents of this neighborhood, with many lifetime inhabitants being forced to leave as the living expenses became unattainable. Like the waters it is escaping from, climate gentrification will spread into surrounding communities in the coming years, making the need to “promulgate a broader awareness of the processes shaping socioeconomic vulnerabilities and not just physical environmental exposure” more central than ever.

The value appreciation in Little Haiti has not been leveraged to collectively benefit the residents of this neighborhood, with many lifetime inhabitants being forced to leave as the living expenses became unattainable.

The Path Forward

The risk to coastal communities and megacities is escalating. Imminent sea level rise (less that two meters) will impact an estimated 267 million people that live in coastal areas. The most severe GMSL scenarios predict at least 2 meters in sea level rise if humans do not address the climate crisis in the coming years. The 2021 IPCC report stressed that, among other impacts, this is a “code-red for humanity,” as the impact by 2100 depends on how quickly and effectively the world responds to emissions today. It is essential that countries start preparing for the impending implications of GMSL rise in two ways. These can be thought of traditionally as “adaptation” and “mitigation,” but while both are absolutely necessary, in our view, mitigation is more comprehensive.

Adaptation: preparing coastal communities for the impacts of sea level rise today. Of course, this entails developing green infrastructure that can withstand the effects of sea level rise, flooding, and other scientifically predictable extreme weather events. Such infrastructure consists of sea walls, stormwater structures, green buildings, artificial reefs, sand dunes, or mangrove forests. But it is more than that, too. Out of necessity, our coastal communities will also need to adapt to new environmental conditions by swapping historical crops for saline resistant ones, utilizing agroecological methods to revitalize the soil. And our local, state, and regional governments should prepare for the real possibility of managed retreat, including the exploration of land buyback programs and preparing for the equitable relocation of affected communities. All individuals, regardless of race or economic status, should receive the same level of aid and protection from applied solutions, but it is even more important that plans and preparations be culturally conscious and built on community feedback.                                      

Mitigation: addressing the root causes of sea level rise. And those root causes are deeply embedded in an extractive economy, in our politics, and have become normalized in our society. This means movement building around a transformative politics rooted in justice that seeks to end extractive practices, such as the use of fossilized fuels, through greenhouse gas emissions regulations, taxes, and a shift of subsidies to renewables. It means establishing new transparencies, or governmental checks, procedures, and monitoring systems that ensure businesses and politicians are held accountable: to disclose where their money comes from, and so that the actions they take ensure we have a habitable future. But to fundamentally stop the positive feedback loops causing sea level rise and other climate impacts requires taking an uncomfortable look at our institutions and our economy, and how they must be deeply reformed. That will take continuous, mounting, coordinated pressure from the climate justice movement on our political and economic leaders. If they cannot lead, the movement will.

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