COMMENTARY: Sea Changes

There’s Little Time Left to Save Coastal Regions

The debate over whether our global climate system is experiencing changes at an accelerated rate seems to be over, even if the extent to which human activity is a primary cause remains in dispute. Climatologists are not yet able to model the full scope of changes we will be experiencing; however, with even modest increases in sea levels will come the increased probability of destructive storms and flooding along the coastal regions of every continent.

Rising tides pose a constant threat to cities across the world.© Getty Images

Almost one-half of us live within a few hundred kilometers of a coastline, and many of the world’s most densely populated regions are right on the coast. With little thought to the long-term consequences, we have established these enormous centers of population where the risk of disaster is ever-present.

It now seems clear that the engines of climate change will not be reversed or even slowed before we experience ever-worsening storms, rising tides and destruction of many cities and communities constructed at sea level. Evacuation of these low-lying regions around the globe or the construction of sophisticated flood prevention systems (as exist in the Netherlands) are not under serious consideration anywhere in the world.

What we need is what we do not have—time for debate, consensus-building, and citizen pressure on governments to act.

There is only one practical step that can be taken by governments around the globe, with direction from the scientific community. This is to determine where the additional water can be safely channeled to form inland seas where deserts now dominate the landscape, or where there are deep depressions capable to storing water that will otherwise flood our coasts. An immediate priority ought to be to develop computer models that identify the best locations and routes by which to channel water inland from the coasts.

I do not suggest this is an ideal course of action. However, after much consideration of the challenges we face and the high probability of coastal destruction over the next few decades, this strategy must be considered and thoroughly studied to identify the potential environmental consequences of converting large areas of the earth’s surface to inland saltwater seas. Paying for these types of projects is certainly an issue for governments. Inasmuch as the protection of the coastal regions also preserves land values, the most obvious means of paying for the construction of inland canals, dams and other necessary public improvement projects is to impose a national surtax on land values (which are almost universally left untapped by local governments as the most legitimate source of revenue for public infrastructure).

The rationale for imposing a national surtax on land values is that the creation of inland seas will surely create monetary land values where currently they are very low or nonexistent. More than one economist, including Nobel Prize winner William Vickrey, has argued the case for capturing land values as public revenue. In 1977, Professor Vickrey offered both advice and a warning to us:

"Use of land rents, or, at least, of a major fraction of them, for public purposes is
not merely an ethical imperative, derived from categorisation of these rents as an unearned income derived from private appropriation of publicly created values, but is, even more importantly, a fundamental requirement for economic efficiency. Cities that take the lead in such public use of land rents may find that in the long run the subsidy is self-financing through the enhancement in land values that results
There will, of course, be many an agonising slip between abstract economic analysis and cold political and economic reality. Lack of comprehension, political intervention, strategic recalcitrance, and the inertia associated with heavy commitments of fixed capital
may slow the processes involved to a glacial pace. But the fundamental tendencies and requirements inherent in the very nature of the city can be ignored only at great peril to its economic health."

His analysis applies as well to our capacity to respond to rising sea levels and other environmental threats. For example, in the global arena, this principle must be applied under the Law of the Sea. Licenses awarded to private interests permitting exploitation the world’s commons must be allocated by competitive bidding under strict regulations to prevent environmental degradation. The licensing fees collected could then be utilized as a global fund to remediate the most pressing environmental disasters.

In those countries where the new inland seas are formed, governments should retain public stewardship over the land and, to the extent development along the new shores is warranted, offer access to these locations under leaseholds awarded by competitive bidding (with periodic adjustments in the annual ground rent charges consistent with current market conditions). Hopefully, these measures will yield enough time and public revenue for us to agree upon and implement solutions to the many environmental, economic, social and political problems pulling us toward a rather dismal future.

EDWARD J. DODSON teaches political economy at the Henry George School of Social Science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a three-volume work, The Discovery of First Principles. He may be contacted at scimail@comcast.net

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