This might be a good time to take a look at the most important environmental law that nobody has ever heard of.
The real estate industry fought that law bitterly in Congress, but lost, and it landed on Ronald Reagan’s desk in 1982. The president not only signed it, but did so with a rhetorical flourish, calling it a "triumph for natural resource conservation and federal fiscal responsibility."
The law — the Coastal Barrier Resources Act — was intended to protect much of the American coastline, and it did so in a clever way that drew votes from the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats.
It is worth bringing up today because we are once again in an era when our coasts are at risk and our national coffers are strained. The $75 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy, coming only seven years after the $80 billion from Hurricane Katrina, told us this much: We need a plan.
The climate is changing, the ocean is rising, more storms are coming, and millions of Americans are in harm’s way. The costs of making people whole after these storms are soaring. Without ideas that stand some chance of breaking the political gridlock in Washington, the situation will eventually become a national crisis.
The law that Reagan signed in 1982 might just offer a model of how to move forward.
First, the background:
Scientists are still figuring out how storms will be altered as global warming proceeds, but they are pretty certain about some things. Land ice the world over is melting in the changing climate, and the ocean is heating up, too, which makes the water expand. Those factors are causing the ocean to rise.
It rose about eight inches in the past century, requiring billions of dollars to fight erosion. Recently the rate of increase seems to have jumped, to about a foot per century — and climate scientists think it will go up quite a bit more. The cautious prediction at this point is that we could see two or three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, and possibly even six feet.
What will that mean for people living near the shore?
You might think things would be fine for them until the day the ocean finally covers their land. But it does not work that way.
Long before inundation occurs, people will be hit more and more often by coastal flooding. In places where it took a huge storm to send seawater into living rooms, a routine storm will do the trick once the ocean has risen several feet.
It should be obvious that the more people we move out of harm’s way in the reasonably near future, the better off we will ultimately be.
But we are doing the opposite, offering huge subsidies for coastal development. We proffer federally backed flood insurance at rates bearing no resemblance to the risks. Even more important, we go in after storms and write big checks so towns can put the roads, sewers and beach sand right back where they were.
We are, in other words, using the federal Treasury to shield people from the true risks that they are taking by building on the coasts. Coastal development has soared as a direct consequence, and this rush toward the sea is the biggest factor in the rising costs of storm bailouts.
So what was so clever about that 1982 law, and how can we learn from it?
Development pressure on the nation’s coasts was intense back then, but hundreds of miles of barrier islands and beaches were as yet unspoiled. Environmental groups would have loved a national ban on further coastal development, but conservatives would never have gone along with that.
Two Republicans, Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island and Rep. Thomas B. Evans Jr. of Delaware, found the magic formula. Their bill simply declared that on sensitive coastlines that were then undeveloped, any future development would have to occur without federal subsidies.
In other words, no flood insurance and no fat checks after storms.
The law did not prohibit anybody from building anything. And in fact, some development has occurred on lands in the redlined zone. But the law has mostly held, discouraging development along some 1.3 million acres of American coastline — a monumental triumph that continues to pay dividends.
So here is a modest idea. As the first plank of our plan for coping with storm risk, what about expanding the boundaries of the program that Reagan took such pride in?
That is not to be cruel: people deserve humanitarian help after big storms. But Robert S. Young, head of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, thinks we have to start weaning beach towns from the welfare roll.
One way to begin, he suggests, would be to identify the towns in the riskiest areas, the ones that the taxpayers keep bailing out again and again.
Perhaps we say to them: You get one more shot. We will make you whole after the next big storm, and if you choose to use the money to rebuild, then you are on your own.
Just maybe, in some areas that should never have been developed in the first place, the necessary retreat from the beaches would finally begin.