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Climate risk

Published April 3, 2013 3:00 pm

Coastal dwellers should pay
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A new poll suggests that while most Americans believe that climate change will bring more destructive storms and rising sea levels, and that something must be done to meet the threat, far fewer are willing to let the federal government step in.

They flat don't want to devote billions of dollars in tax revenue to protect people and businesses that stubbornly insist on living in harm's way.

In other words, their message to the growing numbers of coast huggers is this: Either pay for higher sea walls and restoring sand dunes yourselves, or move far enough inland that you won't have to worry about footing the bill to mitigate seaborne catastrophes on the order of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

The poll commissioned by Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment and Center for Ocean Studies is the first to measure public attitudes toward adapting to a climate knocked askew by global warming. The results are encouraging but, due to the survey's limited scope, somewhat misleading.

It is welcome news that 82 percent of the 1,174 people surveyed believe there are preparations to be made for the coastal damage resulting from megastorms and rising sea levels. That seems to suggest that the politics of climate change denial is losing traction with each report from the latest crop-killing drought or flood, deadly heat wave, monster wildfire or tornado. The consequences of failing to prepare are, indisputably, there on the television screen.

But there is a serious disconnect between most Americans' acceptance of coastal climate risks and what they would be willing to pay for disaster preparation. Less than 40 percent would support — or pay for — sea walls, trucking in sand or paying people to relocate inland.

A majority rightly favor tougher building codes and restrictions on development. These preventive measures are of equal importance in the West, where human encroachment on forests and other combustible terrain, a consequence of lax zoning laws, has spelled disaster in the face of drought-fed wildfires. The cost of fighting these fires is borne primarily by the government, just as in other areas of the country hit by droughts and flooding.

The poll shows that paying to prepare for someone else's climate disaster is not a popular prospect, that the cost should fall to those who are under threat. Is there any reason to doubt, then, that a majority of Americans would feel the same way about people who insist on building their dream home on a forested mountain slope?