In 1952, after my grandparents married, they bought a home in Avalon, N.J., intending it to be the heart of family gatherings for generations to come. I grew up spending long summer days fishing and crabbing in the marshes, walking along the boardwalk, and playing cards at sunset. These are my fondest memories of childhood, but I fear that climate change may render these experiences part of history.
At the Jersey Shore, rising sea levels mean higher, devastating storm surges from hurricanes and nor’easters, and “sunny day flooding,” which is when ocean tides are so high they cover roads, seep into homes, and turn neighborhoods into tide pools.
When I was little, the sand was steps away from my grandparents’ doorstep. Now, that sandy marsh has turned into a year-round swamp filled with invasive reeds. Some of our neighbors’ homes were damaged beyond repair by Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. Everyone is worried that their home will be next.
A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that within the next 30 years, about 62,000 homes in New Jersey will be at risk of chronic sunny day flooding. Today, these homes house nearly 79,000 people. Ten Jersey beach towns are expected to have at least 1,500 at-risk homes by 2045. Ocean City tops this list with an expected 7,200 at-risk homes. Sea level rise could wash away entire beachside communities.
Chronic flooding isn’t just a nuisance and a threat to family traditions, it’s an economic problem. The homes in harm’s way currently contribute almost $390 million in local property taxes. They are at risk of losing value and saddling their owners with underwater mortgages, figuratively and literally. Furthermore, around 2,600 commercial properties will be at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. Nearly all of these properties are retail establishments — hotels, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, and pharmacies — businesses unlikely to survive flooding every two weeks.
Climate change amplifies the damage that major storms can cause. We know that sea level rise extended the reach of Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge by 27 square miles, affecting an additional 83,000 individuals in New Jersey and New York City, and increasing the damage total by billions of dollars. The economic fallout in New Jersey was unprecedented. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates the recovery costs for Atlantic City alone at $312.7 million. My grandparents were lucky, all they lost to the storm was a dock.
People still think of climate change as a faraway thing. But, down the Shore, we can point to the damage. Coastal communities are the canaries in the climate change coal mine.
The good news is that Gov. Murphy has taken some important steps to stem the causes of climate change. Early in his term, Murphy directed the state to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Murphy’s intention is clear. Now he needs to follow through, by making sure that New Jersey has a strong RGGI emissions cap.
The RGGI emissions cap is something many New Jerseyans have never heard of, but it’s a critical administrative decision that will determine much of the state’s environmental and energy policy for the next several years. Experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council calculate the optimal emissions cap for New Jersey at 12 to 13 million tons in 2020. A strong cap like this would set up the state for a clean energy future, while a weak cap would do nothing to reduce pollution. RGGI has successfully reduced carbon emissions and pollution, and contributed to each participating state’s economy in the process. Without a strong emissions cap, New Jersey won’t reap any of the benefits that RGGI can provide.
I’m heading back to Avalon for July Fourth. I can’t wait to walk down the beaches with my nana, sail with my cousins, and end the evenings with ice cream from Springer’s or Avalon Freeze. These activities are the pillars of childhood for tens of thousands of New Jerseyans, and are what makes the Jersey Shore unique.
I hope that in setting New Jersey’s RGGI cap, Gov. Murphy chooses to protect our environment, protect our homes, and protect Jersey Shore summers for future generations.
Sophie Davies is studying environmental economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley. She spends her summers with her grandparents in Avalon, NJ.