We're losing Malibu and Nantucket. This is why we can't wait to address climate change.

Gold Coast Battles Beach Erosion
© Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

In the August issue of Vanity Fair, William D. Cohan and Vanessa Grigoriadis tell the story of how two of the most expensive beach communities in the United States, Malibu and Nantucket, are facing destruction due to beach erosion.

Even while homes are precariously perched above the encroaching sea, there remains a fight between homeowners and the rest of the community over what, if anything, should be done to save these beaches.

While beaches eventually erode with or without climate change, the challenges facing these homeowners serves as a good lesson for why it isn't wise to wait to address climate change.

Sarah Oktay, the vice-chairman of the Nantucket Conservation Commission, explains why she is opposed to homeowners shipping in tons of new sand, known as "beach nourishment", to slow the erosion:

While she agrees measures can be taken to slow erosion, she argues, “Rarely can you stop it, and if you do stop it, you’re hurting someone else. It’s a natural process.”

She believes that taking dramatic steps—such as putting up sloping retaining walls, known as revetments (like the 13-foot Broad Beach wall)—is akin to paving over a field. “If you put asphalt on it, then you’re saying, ‘I don’t plan to use this as a field anymore,’ ” she claims. “If you take beach bluffs or dunes and you cover them in rocks so it can’t go anywhere, then it no longer provides that feeder material to downdrift beaches, so you’ll lose the beach in front of those rocks and you’ll lose the beach downdrifts. It’s basically telling your neighbors, ‘Well, I want my home more than you want your beach.’

“That doesn’t mean it’s not sad,” Oktay adds. “It can be heartbreaking for people who have had houses in their families for hundreds of years. But it’s a part of life.”

Similarly, in Malibu, local residents have critisized efforts to ship in sand and the construction of a stone wall to protect the threatened homes because these actions can damage beaches elsewhere along the coast.

I'm partially sympathetic to those taking the view that we shouldn't spend lots of money and energy fighting against what is largely an inevitable problem. At one point in the story a plan to bring in 60,000 truckloads of sand is considered, even though this will only last up to 10 years, when even more sand would have to be brought in. The idea of using this much fuel and creating carbon pollution to delay the consequences of a problem that has been exacerbated by carbon pollution is insane.

Tom Ford, director of marine programs at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation summarizes what is likely going to be the hard lesson people will learn from these examples:

“I do think the Broad Beach homes are in jeopardy, and I don’t want to be cold or callous about that,” says Ford. “But we have to recognize that scientists in Rhode Island and New Jersey [and other places where there’s a lot of erosion] are talking about ‘managed retreat.’ ” That means abandoning these houses and moving away, preferably way, way upland. Ford takes a breath. “We simply have to recognize that building homes on beaches is not sound policy,” he says.

He's right that building homes on beaches was not wise, but instead of hammering that point, what I think is the most interesting lesson here is that it illustrates the limits humans face when it comes to "fixing" the problems we've created by changing the climate so rapidly.

As the Vanity Fair piece explains in great detail, many of the homes in Malibu and Nantucket are owned by some of the most wealthy and powerful people in the United States. If even these people can't get their acts together to fix these two small beaches, what does that say about the ability of entire states or countries to collectively act to solve even more widespread problems associated with climate change?

One of the most frustrating things about the climate change crisis is that despite scientific understanding that the atmosphere is warming due to man made greenhouse gas pollution, for years we have been stuck debating what is or isn't occurring and we've lost precious time that should have been spent working on the best solutions to address the problem.

Thankfully, that is now changing. Perhaps because the evidence is too overwhelming, but it seems we've finally reached a point where most people are in agreement that the climate is changing (though, not our members of Congress), but unfortunately disagreement remains about the severity of the problem and what should be done about it.

As was noted in my post on the War on Coal, even the coal industry is acknowledging the climate is changing, but they still believe "clean coal" is a solution.

Fox News, yes, THAT Fox News, shocked observers this week when they actually admitted that climate change was real and would cause future problems.

Even Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson famously acknowledged that the atmosphere was warming and the climate changing, but suggested that there was no urgency to address the crisis now because we will adapt.

What all of these examples have in common is that they fail to acknowledge the cause for this climate change and offered no concessions towards conservation and less pollution as a way to minimize the crisis.

It seems that people that once denied the climate change crisis was even real have now shifted to the belief that it is real, but will be easy to fix at some in the future.

The reality is that we need to be adapting now. In fact, we needed to have been making drastic changes a decades ago. We have to act now, not only because it will help to minimize the degree of the crisis we'll face farther in the future, but because as this story in Vanity Fair so thoroughly illustrates, if we wait till the crisis is right at our door -- or when our house is siting on the edge of an eroding cliff, so to speak -- it is simply too late to solve the problem, no matter how much money or power you have.

IMAGE: GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 24: A general view is seen of the damage close to beach front homes caused by beach erosion at Southport on June 24, 2013 on the Gold Coast, Australia. Large sea swells and king tides are eroding the beaches of the Gold Coast, increasing fears of the financial effect the damage will have on tourism. It has been estimated a long-term solution to protect the sea walls and foreshore will cost AUD $30 million and a proposal will be presented to the city council next month. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

We're losing Malibu and Nantucket. This is why we can't wait to address climate change.
If you wait for a crisis to reach your doorstep, it'll be too late to act. The story of beach homes threatened by the encroaching sea is an example of why we need to act now to slow climate change.

Related Content on Treehugger.com