THOMPSON: We’re not all in the same boat when it comes to climate change | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: We’re not all in the same boat when it comes to climate change



Historically, when the rich and powerful in the U.S. lose an ocean-front home to some natural disaster - hurricane, tsunami, flood or fire - everyone paying taxes helps them re-build. It’s like a bad time-share deal for most taxpayers…you pay a premium price - often unwittingly - but you never have a day at the beach.

Up until late last year, Americans who owned ocean-front homes had affordable flood insurance because the premiums were subsidized heavily by tens of millions of taxpayers.

Canada - like the U.S. - faces similar threats from climate change…rising seas and more unpredictable rainfall causing floods that most Canadians aren’t insured against. More on that later in this column.

I’ve seen homes on Florida’s coastline fall to hurricanes…flooded by storm surges and blown apart by high winds…time and time again over the years. Today, Florida’s beautiful coasts - sugar-sand beaches with swaying palms and turquoise waters - have become home to multi-million dollar palaces.

Florida’s beachfront homes in the 1950s and 1960s were affordable for the middle class…$35,000 for a 4-bedroom home on Daytona Beach. Today, in Miami alone there are 36 beachfront homes for sale above $10 million…with one listed at $150 million.

On beaches in the Sunshine State that stretch for 1,350 miles - almost twice California’s coastline - you don’t see as many people strolling the warm sands as you did 50 years ago…even though Florida’s population is three times greater today. One of the reasons is that mile after mile of Florida beaches have luxurious multi-million dollar homes that most people use for just a few weeks a year.

Increasingly, U.S. coastlines are home to mansions for the ultra-rich, like this $40 million home in South Florida.
Increasingly, U.S. coastlines are home to mansions for the ultra-rich, like this $40 million home in South Florida.
Image Credit: PEXELS

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 and it is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Flood insurance isn’t available from most private insurers, but is available through FEMA.

FEMA’s flood insurance is funded by premiums - which averaged just $739 until October, 2021 - but the program can borrow directly from the U.S. Treasury to cover claims, if necessary. Increasingly, it has become necessary.

The problem is flood insurance was priced mostly on the basis of whether a home was inside the so-called 100-year flood plain…land expected to flood once every century. Threats like torrential rainfall or proximity to water were ignored…so most homeowners paid rates that understated their real risk.

The result is a program that for more than four decades has subsidized wealthier coastal residents at the expense of homeowners further inland, who are most often people of colour and of less financial means.

Of course, as climate change makes flooding both worse and more frequent, using tax dollars of the many to underwrite waterfront mansions of the relatively few is getting harder to defend. Republicans in Congress are still trying, however, fighting climate change initiatives and still seeking special tax programs to help ease the pain of wealthy beach house owners.

The Trump Administration delayed FEMA’s increases in flood insurance based on the new realities of climate change for almost three years…perhaps Donald Trump wanted to avoid the increased premiums for his real estate and clubs…worth hundreds of millions of dollars? But today the rates are more equitable…and reflect real risks.

Still, Republican politicians predictably protected beachfront home owners during the Trump Administration - most of whom they accurately surmised were Republican voters - by limiting the increase of annual premiums to just 18 percent a year. So, it will take decades for the really rich to actually pay their fair share. Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to pick up the tab.

The rich and powerful have done just about everything they can to stave off the inevitable…using the resources of the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge and re-build beaches that Mother Nature re-sculpts every few years. Of the $7 billion in beach replenishment projects in the tonier beach towns around the the U.S. over the past 40 years…$5 billion was shouldered by mostly landlocked, poorer taxpayers.

In Florida, catering to the rich and powerful is so well known and obvious a governmental theme that you hear a common chorus among the not-so-well-to-do: “Rich folks f*** it up for the rest of us!”

But, beyond the seeming class warfare being waged to see who lives on the beaches - spoiler alert; it is always the rich folks - there’s a more pressing need. We should be building sustainable housing everywhere…and that means no more homes on slivers of beach on the oceans.

Climate change is a real thing. Being a multi-millionaire with a beach palace isn’t going to change it…or even slow that fact. But be prepared taxpayers…the homeowners in Florida with beachfront residences - usually second or third homes - will likely get subsidies to make the inevitable move from harm’s way in the coming years.

The Washington-based World Resources Institute in its Aqueduct Floods Project estimated the number of people worldwide affected by floods annually will more than double from about 65 million in 2010 to more than 132 million by 2030.

The annual cost from flooding rivers and rising seas in Canada could nearly triple in just eight years if Canada doesn’t do more to improve flood protection. Flooding will directly affect the lives of more than 350,000 Canadians by 2030.

Canadians are - mostly unwittingly - buying and building homes in high-risk flood areas and where wildfires are more likely. The result will be billions of dollars in damage each year, according to a report last October from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

The report recommended buying out 10 percent of the homes in the highest one percent of flood-risk areas nationwide - about 7,500 properties - for about $1.9 billion, saving $200 million each year.

Further, building sea walls, elevating at-risk buildings and shoring up eroding beaches are cost-effective measures, according to the Institute. Also, it recommends changing the composition of asphalt to withstand higher temperatures and increasing the depth of base layers to withstand heavier rainfalls can and should be done now. Further, the report advised installing temperature sensors on railway tracks and adjusting train speeds based on ambient temperatures, among other actions.

Sadly, these are steps that need to be taken now simply to adapt to a changing climate…not mitigate the threats. Currently, one million Canadians don’t even know they are at risk…because a public map of flood areas doesn’t yet exist.

There’s work to do in Canada, the U.S. and worldwide. The fact is…we’re not all in the same boat with climate change. We need to spend less time and money on worrying about the yachts and beach homes of the ultra-rich…they always seem to fare well. Our planet is in crisis…we need to start solving the problems of climate change not just for the rich…but for everyone else.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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