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Swept Away: Paradise in Peril

Laurel Erickson: Ah, Malibu. That town where million dollar views and multi-million homes are a dime a dozen. And the good life, is ordinary life. But if some scientists are right, Malibu is a paradise in peril because of climate change and rising sea levels. Take Broad Beach, a once wide stretch of sand, that threatens to be swept away by surging waves and tides. Visit this beach at hi-tide, and well, there’s no beach to visit.

Andy Stern is the former mayor of Malibu, and a Broad Beach resident.

Andy Stern: The boulders you and I are sitting on or looking at, if these weren’t in, these houses would have been in serious danger, possibly washed into the ocean.

Laurel Erickson: Stern doesn’t believe climate change is causing Broad Beach’s troubles. But scientists say that in the past century, sea levels have risen 8 inches. And that’s only a taste of things to come. In the next 100 years, researchers think sea levels along the California Coast could rise four and a half feet. Such a rise could expose long stretches of the California Coast to storm surges and inundations.

Cara Horowitz: More than half the value of California’s real estate is vulnerable to climate change.

Laurel Erickson: Cara Horowitz is the director of the Emmet Center of Climate Change at UCLA. California’s total real estate assets are worth about 4 trillion dollars. 2.5 trillian, nearly half, are vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate change impacts if we do nothing.

So people think about climate change and they sometimes think about it as some sort of abstract environmental problem. It’s a problem for our communities, it’s a problem for our economy. So it’s something that we’re going to have to grapple with.

Laurel Erickson: So this is pretty beautiful.

Andy Stern: It’s a beautiful area.

Laurel Erickson: Some, like Andy Stern, believe the best way to protect threatened coastal property is to stay put and construct more sea walls. Roll in more rocks, and turn some homes into virtual seaside fortresses. The most authoritative study so far on sea level rise and California’s coast reported the state might need 1,100 miles of new or modified coastal protection at a cost of over $14 billion.

Paul Jenkin: They can pour as much money as they want to into it today, but in the long term, unfortunately it’s going to be money down the drain. And even if you do spend billions of dollars in concrete structures, these structures are not going to stop this process. This is the forces of nature that we can’t control.

Laurel Erickson: Many environmentalists like Paul Jenkin of the Surfrider Foundation argue that armoring the coast just makes the problem of beach erosion worse.

Paul Jenkin: When you construct a sea wall it exacerbates the erosion problem. The sandy beach that once was there to protect the structure is gone. So over time, especially under conditions where sea levels are rising, the beach gets narrower and narrower, and disappears and is not going to be a safe place to live.

Laurel Erickson: Instead of staying put in the face of a rising ocean, environmentalists favor something called managed retreat. Essentially, packing up and moving things back, away from the coast. From homes, to highways, to critical infrastructure such as power plants. In the city of Ventura, they’ve already started a retreat from the sea, ripping out a threatened beach lot parking lot and bike path and moving them about 65 feet inland. 30 miles to the south, Andy Stern says managed retreat just isn’t an option for him or his neighbors. Should people be living in these areas over the next century?

Paul Stern: It’s their homes. There’s no question. They bought homes, it’s their private property, and I don’t know where you stop if you go down that path of telling people you shouldn’t be in this neighborhood anymore.

Cara Horowitz: I think climate change is forcing us to confront what’s possible at the very edges of sort of human capacity. We’re going to be forced to ask ourselves: What should be protecting, and what do we have to let go?

Laurel Erickson: Whether the best response is coastal armoring, managed retreat, or some combination, California has yet to develop a funded, state-wide strategy to plan for and confront sea level rise. And as we try to figure out what to do, if anything, the ocean isn’t waiting for an answer. I’m Laurel Erickson for “SoCal Connected.”

In this 2011 "SoCal Connected" story, correspondent Laurel Erickson examines the impact of climate change and rising sea levels along the California coast.

Many Malibu residents have turned to expensive rocks and boulders to shield their homes from rising sea levels and floods. But some believe that rocks and walls will not permanently work to address the issue.

Andy Stern, former mayor of Malibu, says for now, boulders and rocks have helped to protect homes from water seeping in and around residential areas. He believes that the best way to protect homes is to stay put and construct more sea walls.

Researchers predict that in the next 100 years, sea levels along the California coast could rise another four and a half feet, ultimately exposing long stretches of coast to storm surges and floods.

Cara A. Horowitz, executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law, says that more than half of real estate is vulnerable to climate change. She says that California real estate assets are worth four trillion dollars, and that more than half are vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

What have you done to protect your home? Find out what residents and experts have to say in this episode of "SoCal Connected."

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