Are Your Beach Trips Numbered?

As beach season winds down, anyone who enjoys beaches should be concerned about their future. One of New England’s most famous beaches, Herring Cove on Cape Cod, is being consumed by rising sea levels, presumably due to climate change. “We’re retreating,” Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George E. Price, Jr., told the New York Times’ Jess Bidgood.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Mary-Jo Avellar, moderator of Provincetown, where the popular beach is located. “This beach used to be pretty flat. It’s been scoured out.”

Most of the nation’s coastline is retreating, according to Rob Thieler of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Early this year on the southern California coast, residents of Pacifica saw their homes fall down into the ocean.

Erosion will corrode an average of 3 to 4 feet of beachfront every year for the next 60 years, according to a 2000 Federal Emergency Management Agency survey prepared by the Heinz Center. A recent study underwritten by Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer estimated that up to a half-trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property may be under water by the end of the century.

Whole islands are likely to be swallowed up. “Time is running out,” Town Manager Renee Tyler told Jon Gertner, who traveled to Virginia’s Tangier Island to see what was left. David Schulte, a marine biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, estimates that the island will be under water in another 25 to 50 years. Its 470 residents will become climate change refugees.

Large parts of Miami Beach may be uninhabitable by 2050. Native villages on Alaska’s coast are preparing to pull up stakes and move, lock, stock and barrel.

In some cases, communities are paying big money to bring in more sand. But beach “nourishment” and other, older beach rebuilding measures have come under fire in recent years by geologists, who claim they are ineffective, expensive and sometimes even destructive. “We simply cannot engineer our way out of this problem even though we seem think we can,” Orrin Pilkey told ABC News. He is a geologist at Duke University who has been an outspoken critic of beach rebuilding programs.

Many experts believe that the “managed retreat” being conducted by the National Park Service on Cape Cod is probably the wave of the future.

Some politicians say that we can’t afford to pay a little bit more for gas or electricity. They need to pull their heads out of the (eroding) sand. The truth is we can’t afford NOT to pay a bit more for these products if we want to make the inevitable transition to a no- or low-carbon economy before climate change has reached the 2-degree Celsius mark that scientists estimate is the red line we should not cross.

How much does it cost to move a city? If you’re an official in an area that fills up with beach-goers, you know that threatened beaches means threatened economies. In California alone, it’s estimated that beaches generate at least $13 billion in annual revenue from recreation (2001 data). 

We recommend turning to the free market. Almost 40 nations and more than 26 subnational jurisdictions have adopted carbon pricing, and we should do whatever it takes to make the United States the next country to adopt a carbon fee. Economists consider it the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way to combat climate change.

Could such legislation pass Congress? Yes, if we come up with a creative compromise.

And we have. Our partnership has suggested a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Half of the revenue could be used to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent (the highest in the industrialized world) to 25 percent. Most of the balance of the revenue could be returned to low- and low-middle-income families. Or Congress could try some other mix; there are any number of ways to revise the allocation of the fee’s revenue until negotiators reach the combination that brings majority support. In January, when a new president and a new Congress are sworn in, the American people should demand action.

How much more coastal erosion are we prepared to endure? We are a can-do nation that needs to move beyond “can’t do” on climate change.