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'Development' at Any Cost: US Coasts Left 'Extremely Vulnerable' to Climate Change

Scientists: wetlands, sand dunes, other ecological features essential to protecting our coastlines

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

The coastal United States is more vulnerable to the dramatic effects of global warming than ever because of rampant over-development and the subsequent destruction of protective coastal wetlands and sand dunes, a new report confirms. Despite this growing affirmation, politicians continue the devastating cycle of funding coastal development while the country's precious natural barriers are washed out to sea. 

A flyover view of the Stewart B. McKinney wildlife preserve in Connecticut, the restoration of which was gutted from the Sandy relief bill passed this week. (Photo: Greg Thompson/ USFWS) Put forth by scientists with the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) as a contribution to the broader National Climate Assessment, "Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities" (.pdf) examines the climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human communities.

“Sandy showed us that coastal states and communities need effective strategies, tools and resources to conserve, protect, and restore coastal habitats and economies at risk from current environmental stresses and a changing climate,” said Margaret A. Davidson of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management and co-lead author of the report. “Easing the existing pressures on coastal environments to improve their resiliency is an essential method of coping with the adverse effects of climate change.”

The report describes the importance of coastal ecosystems in "minimizing [and mitigating] the impacts of climate change" and prescribes a number of actions to be taken in resource management and restoration including tidal wetland restoration, sediment management and prudent coastal planning that takes into account the "episodic extreme weather events" made more frequent by the changing climate.

Another essential component of this growing vulnerability is the "intensive coastal development pretty much everywhere but Alaska,” said USGS coastal wetland ecologist and report co-author Virginia Burkett. 

More than half of the nation's population currently resides in coastal communities, including the Great Lakes, and “half the nation’s residential building permits since 1980 have been issued in coastal counties,” Burkett added.

As Climate Central reporter Michael D. Lemonick notes, "Those problems are even worse in areas like the Mississippi Delta, where dams on the Mississippi and its tributaries have kept sediment from replenishing the coast, making the impact of sea level rise even greater."

Despite the strong case made here, politicians continue the damaging pattern of ignoring these essential coastal features in favor of continued development and restoration of human-made structures.

As The Nation's George Zornick points out, the $50.7 billion Sandy relief bill signed Tuesday by the President quite blatantly left coastal ecosystems out to dry. In one instance, the Senate cut $150 million intended for the NOAA for the restoration of sand dunes, coastal wetlands, and other areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Zornick continues:

Another provision added to the bill is nakedly punitive—a simple “screw you” to residents of Connecticut.

The Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge includes four sets of coastal islands and spans 70 miles of coastline in Connecticut along the Long Island Sound. It encompasses over 800 acres of barrier beach and tidal wetland, and “provides important resting, feeding, and nesting habitat for many species of wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds and terns, including the endangered roseate tern.”

It was ravished by Sandy and sustained what its manager termed “severe” damage. In the original Sandy relief bill put forward by the White House, the McKinney refuge was slated to receive $9.8 million to fix the damage—a vanishing fraction of the entire $50 billion legislation.

But if you read the final Sandy relief bill, you’ll notice a somewhat odd provision:

The provisions under this heading in title V of this division shall be applied by substituting '$78,000,000 (reduced by $9,800,000)' for '$49,875,000': Provided, That none of the funds made available under such heading in title V may be used to repair seawalls or buildings on islands in the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.

Yes, the legislation specifically took away that $9.8 million and singled out the McKinney refuge as ineligible for restoration.

Why? Because a Republican representative of Louisiana, John Fleming, made the McKinney nature preserve a symbol of supposedly wasteful pork spending in the relief bill.

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