Emergency repairs at Neskowin, Oregon. Photo by Armand Thibault

Climate change is in the news again lately.  Last week we saw the release of the White House’s third National Climate Assessment, reporting that communities across the U.S. are experiencing impacts of climate change today, in various ways.  From heat waves in the Northeast, to longer wildfire seasons in the Southwest, our climate is changing with serious consequences both socially and economically.  The White House report prompted renewed statements by climate change deniers, and the subsequent and clever representative climate change debate by John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight, driving home the point that climate change is a fact that is about as debatable as whether 15 is greater than 5.  

Citing the knowledge of these climate change impacts, an insurance company has filed suit against Illinois cities for failing to take action to prevent flooding impacts as a result of climate change.  The insurance angle is an example of a market-driven response that may prove to be more effective at prompting meaningful response than traditional legislative-driven approach, but may also signal a broader strategy of insurance companies looking for insulation from climate change risk liability.

This week we’ve seen two new papers released by NASA scientists showing what is characterized as “unstoppable” collapse of the major glaciers of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The melting of these glaciers could result in 4 feet of sea level rise over then next two centuries, and at least 10 feet when complete.  Remembering that for every 1 foot of sea level rise we can expect approximately 100 to 200 feet of inland flooding and erosion (and much more than that in relatively flat areas like Florida), these numbers are more serious than they may first appear.  According to Climate Central research, 10 feet of sea level rise in the U.S. would equate to the loss of 28,800 square miles of land currently home to 12.3 million people.  The new reports make clear that though dramatic and irreversible, the time frames for these changes could be centuries or even longer.

Photo Courtesy USGS

In Oregon, coastal communities face a dual threat because in addition to sea level rise and storm surge, we know that offshore lies an earthquake and tsunami waiting to happen.  The Cascadia Subduction Zone produces massive earthquakes and associated tsunamis on average every 400 to 600 years.  It’s been 300 years since the last megathurst earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, and recent research by Oregon State University shows a 40% chance of a major earthquake in the Coos Bay area occurring in the next 50 years.  Since 1995 Oregon law has prohibited the building of schools, care facilities, and high occupancy assembly buildings within the identified tsunami inundation zone.  The location of these facilities outside the tsunami zone may also serve to protect them from climate change impacts.  But only a few types of structures are included, and the law does not address the relocation of existing buildings or other critical infrastructure that may be at risk from either climate change impacts or tsunami.  More resources are needed to help coastal communities address both of these risks, known and looming large.  You can find out more about climate change adaption efforts and challenges in my article on the subject published recently in the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation.