Saving the Carolinas: The financial toll of climate change on the coast


MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Climate change is putting coastal property and infrastructure at risk, and landowners will likely bear the cost.

“I had to evacuate my home and my entire community was inundated with floodwaters for 10 to 14 days,” said April O’Leary, founder and president of Horry County Rising.

O’Leary and 400 other Horry County families were forced from their homes after catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Florence.

“I saw my beloved neighbors, whom I adore, suffer,” she said. “Grown men crying, kissing me and hurting, it really broke me.”

Damage from Hurricane Florence was estimated at around $24 billion, making it the 9th most destructive in US history. According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change is expected to have even greater economic impacts.

“South Carolina has warmed about one degree Fahrenheit over the past 120 years,” said South Carolina state climatologist Hope Mizell. “That’s less than the Earth as a whole, which is warming by almost two degrees.”

Mizell said the state has seen an increase in extreme rainfall. Four of the 10 wettest years on record have occurred since 2013. Flooding is a big concern with warming temperatures.

“We see there are impacts to cities, homes, businesses, low-level infrastructure,” Mizell said. “They are certainly more vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise and inland flooding as well.”

That’s why O’Leary started Horry County Rising, a grassroots group working to mitigate and adapt to flooding.

“We’re going to flood no matter what,” O’Leary said. “We can’t change that, but we can make sure that when we flood it’s not a catastrophic event.”

According to the National Climate Assessment, $1 trillion of coastal real estate and more than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges in coastal floodplains are already vulnerable to extreme storms and hurricanes that result in billions of dollars in repair costs .

“We also have very aging stormwater infrastructure,” O’Leary said. “Much of the infrastructure was designed in the 1950s and 1960s for much lower rainfall.”

The cost of upgrading the country’s wastewater and stormwater systems is nearly $300 billion over the next 20 years.

AR Siders, assistant professor at the University of Delaware, focuses on coastal adaptation. She said adapting to climate change requires not building in flood-prone areas and improving existing and new infrastructure.

“We’re waiting after the damage to start thinking about how we’re going to rebuild, and instead we have to start thinking about adaptation more at the planning level, the initial level, like the decision to build this new one. development, the decision to put this new infrastructure in place,” Siders said. “Where do you put the new school, right? Are you going to build the new school in the flood zone? Are you going to build it on the dry side of town? »

The continued impacts of warming temperatures depend on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020, South Carolina’s four nuclear power plants supplied 55% of the state’s total electricity, and the state was the nation’s third-largest nuclear power producer.

South Carolina ranks 27th in the nation for carbon emissions, leading energy companies like Santee Cooper to strive to reduce their carbon footprint

“By the 2030s, we expect we will reduce our carbon emissions by about 55%,” said Santee Cooper spokeswoman Tracy Vreeland.

To do this, Santee Cooper plans to close its Winyah Bay plant in Georgetown by 2028 – leaving just one coal-fired plant in operation – and invest more in renewable energy.

“Last year we contracted 425 megawatts of solar power, and the next decade we plan to add another thousand megawatts of solar power and 200 megawatts of battery storage,” Vreeland said.

To put that into perspective, that would power over 253,650 homes.

Duke Energy was unable to arrange an on-camera interview, but did send News13 information about its clean energy plan. The company plans to get less than 5% of its power from coal by 2030 and phase out coal completely by 2035, with an ultimate goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Experts like Mizell said now is the time to act.

“When you talk about climate change, there’s uncertainty in the magnitude, the timing, the location of the impacts of climate change,” Mizell said. “Granted, this can make it difficult to understand and recognize the importance of acting now, but since we are certainly already seeing things here in South Carolina, as well as around the world, you cannot wait until in 2050.”


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