Zillow has tapped its rich database of properties to underscore the economic catastrophe in store if U.S. policymakers fail to address rising sea levels. As an effect of climate change, rising sea levels are already impacting coastal communities. The new Zillow report provides a window into a future in which unchecked global warming combines with local inaction to enable a six-foot rise by 2100.

Overall, Zillow finds that 1.9 million homes would be literally under water, totaling $916 billion in residential property losses. The majority of homes at risk, or 65.4 percent, are located in suburban areas. Urban areas would account for 22.6 percent of the lost and rural areas make up the rest, at 12 percent.

Rising sea levels and risk: the human factor

The picture comes into sharper focus when the human toll is taken into account. According to Zillow, the top one-third tier of homes would account for an outsized proportion of the lost value, at $597 billion. As the report notes, though, less affluent homeowners would suffer a proportionally greater loss because they tend to have more of their life savings tied up in their homes.

Zillow Senior economist Aaron Terrazas, who came to the company from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Economic Policy, spoke with Inman about the human factor. He explained that Zillow conducted a similar study on rising sea levels last year. Feedback from real estate professionals and other stakeholders convinced the company to take a second, more nuanced look that included the impact on high-end homes compared to more modest or low end properties.

“This is an interesting angle that certainly resonates in different areas,” he said. “Homeowners in the upper tier have more resources to invest in protecting their homes, for example by elevating them.”

Cities vs. suburbs: it’s complicated

Geographic location also masks other factors. Zillow finds that lower value homes are slightly more at risk in urban areas compared to rural and suburban areas.

However, the actual risk could vary significantly, as some cities are already investing in protective infrastructure.

“Because of the population density, it does make more sense for public investment to defend downtown cores, both residential and commercial,” Terrazas said. “It’s a lot harder to justify that scale of investment in more sparsely populated areas.”

Terrazas also notes that high-end homeowners outside of cities have more resources to protect their own property, but sea level impacts on public property could void those efforts:

“Often in more sparsely populated areas, infrastructure is at risk, including roads and bridges. Owners of high-value property could individually defend their properties, but that won’t be much use without roads and bridges.”

Climate change: the way forward

Terrazas emphasized that the Zillow report evolved from the company’s core mission of providing transparency in the real estate market. Zillow chose the six-foot scenario as a middle ground between high- and low-probability projections from NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These projections assume a “do-nothing” policy toward climate change. However, climate action is well under way on a global scale. The real question is whether the pace of progress is fast enough to counteract the warming forces already at work.

Although President Trump recently took steps to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, his administration is still partly engaged in the initiative. Under the Paris Agreement, every nation on Earth except Syria (and now, the U.S.) has set voluntary greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Globally and in the U.S., many cities have also taken up a leadership role. The city of West Palm Beach, Florida, is one standout example.

Last April West Palm Beach hosted a U.S. Senate hearing on climate change as part of its intensive climate action program. Inman spoke with Penni Redford, the city’s Climate Change and Resilience Manager, who emphasized the importance of goal setting and a holistic approach to sustainability:

“Leadership does need to start from the top, and our Mayor, Jeri Muoio, recognizes that we want our city to be sustainable and resilient in every way. Climate change is a big part of that. We have a greenhouse gas reduction goal of net zero by 2050, and she is also a signer of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.”

The city has already integrated sea level rise into its capital improvement planning. One example is the use of a specialized valve in stormwater outfalls, to prevent water from flowing back into the system.

“This is a broad effort that embeds sustainability and resilience into the fabric of our city,” Redford said. “It is every department, every employee. This is how we want to move forward.”

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter.

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