It won’t cost $6 billion to build sea walls around Charleston County to protect against sea level rise, as a recent report from the Center for Climate Integrity suggested. In fact, sea walls won’t cost anywhere near that much, because they mostly won’t get built.
And that’s a very good thing.
After decades of misguided development patterns and piecemeal efforts to keep water out of parts of the city via pipes and pumps, Charleston is finally learning that it might not be able to win the fight against higher seas and stronger storms.
It’s hardly an admission of defeat, however, as the city is simply adjusting its strategy. Fighting back water is prohibitively expensive — that $6 billion estimate is actually a conservative one for a countywide sea wall — and ultimately less effective than treating it like an asset to be embraced and managed.
That means protecting and revitalizing natural defense systems like marshes and drainage basins. It means building homes to be more resilient and flood-resistant. It means planting more trees, adding rain gardens, replacing impermeable pavements and coming up with more creative adaptations like parks that convert into ponds after heavy rain.
It means building more tunnels and pumps too, of course, along with lots of other fixes that city officials estimate will cost about $2 billion.
But the idea is to leave the city not just better prepared to withstand flooding and storms but also more attractive and livable. Walls almost never help with the latter and all too often prove insufficient for the former as well.
In fact, the damage caused when a levee or sea wall is breached often exceeds what would likely have happened if nothing had been built to guard against flooding in the first place.
The Center for Climate Integrity is transparent about its agenda. Its leaders are pushing to hold the fossil fuel industry financially accountable for climate change in the same way tobacco companies were ordered to make huge payouts over lung cancer.
It’s an imperfect metaphor. And at any rate, good luck.
But avoiding a worst case climate change scenario and preparing for a wetter future should unquestionably be top priorities. Those efforts will cost a tremendous amount of money.
A more realistic place to look for funding, however, would be the billions that the federal government already spends on climate-related natural disasters. Those dollars tend to flow overwhelmingly to recovery projects in places already devastated by floods, fires and storms.
More money should be focused on making places safer and stronger before disaster strikes.
And locally, Charleston needs flexibility from state lawmakers to raise and redirect revenue toward what is clearly one of the city’s most critical long-term needs. Politics don’t matter much if the city is underwater.
Eye-popping numbers like the $6 billion sea wall figure can help to some extent if they help draw attention to the scale and scope of the problems that are already arising from climate change and are almost certain to worsen in the coming decades.
The report’s authors are right that fixes won’t be cheap even if they’re grievously wrong about the solutions most likely to work. But it won’t take unlikely lawsuits to raise that money. We’ve really already got it.
We just need to spend it more wisely.