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Monday, June 17, 2013

Ominously rising: seas, floodwaters, losses, and costs

A study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency finds that rising seas and increasingly severe weather due to climate disruption may increase areas in the U.S. that are prone to flooding by up 45 percent by the end of the century. Thirty percent of that increase is due to population growth – but 70 percent is due to climate disruption. 

The Impact of Climate Change and Population Growth on the National Flood Insurance Program through 2100 says that these ominous changes could double the number of flood-prone properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program – from 5.6 million properties to 11.2 million  - and drastically increase the costs of floods, as well as the costs of operating the program. 

Having to insure twice as many properties would be a big deal for the NFIP. It generally works like any other insurance program, using the premiums that policy holders pay in each year to cover losses when they occur. But the program has been walloped by major storms in the past decade. The NFIP went $16 billion in debt on Hurricane Katrina and after Sandy will be $25 billion in the hole, a debt it may be unable repay. The report projects that the average loss on each insured property could increase as much as 90 percent by 2100. If future storm victims aren't forced to eat their losses, taxpayers may have to cover the difference.

The FEMA study is based on the assumption that sea levels will go up by four feet in the next 86 years. But a report released last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that sea level rise could be more than six feet. Whether it's four feet or six feet, rising seas cause shoreline erosion and recession, and create greater surge risk in the event of major storms. The FEMA report also notes that flooding around rivers will likely become worse in a warming world, due to changes in precipitation frequency and intensity. Population growth, which causes increases in paved areas and changes in runoff patterns and drainage systems, will affect the amount of flooding from rivers, the FEMA report notes.

Climate change will likely make flood insurance much more expensive for the federal government, but also for individual policyholders. The average price of policies would need to increase by as much as 70 percent to offset projected losses. 

Along with urgently and drastically cutting our emissions, we need to begin dealing with the reality - and the shared costs - of the climate-related threats we have already locked in. Investing in resiliency now to avoid future losses must become an urgent national priority.  Do we as a nation have the capacity to prepare for the consequences our past energy choices and place ourselves firmly on a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable path for the future?

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