Why sea-level rise will wipe out billions in waterfront Silicon Valley tech properties

·4-min read
The climate crisis may wipe out billions of dollars worth of Silicon Valley tech company offices, a recent analysis has found (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
The climate crisis may wipe out billions of dollars worth of Silicon Valley tech company offices, a recent analysis has found (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

By the end of this century, the ocean waters of the foggy San Francisco Bay could rise by nearly 5 feet thanks to the climate crisis. This sea-level rise, according to a new analysis, will hammer billions of dollars in property belonging to Silicon Valley heavyweights whose offices are ever-expanding in the region—and will drown the pockets of low-income neighbourhoods in their shadow in what residents worry could be the “next Katrina.”

Local governments are scrambling to find the billions that would pay for levees and other projects that might stop the rising tide, but they’ve only had mixed success at getting their wealthy tech tenants to chip in, according to a new National Public Radio investigation.

The scale of the destruction could be enormous. Google has bought more than 70 properties not far from the shoreline in the past 5 years in Sunnyvale, worth almost $3 billion dollars. In nearby Menlo Park, Facebook has spent more than $2 billion in recent years expanding, including state-of-the-art campuses built by famed architect Frank Gehry. Both companies are planning further expansions near the water.

On the flip side of this spending spree, residents of areas like East Palo and Belle Haven will have far less resources to tackle the coming climate crisis. Both areas are home to a history of segregation and economic inequality, and many of the communities of colour that live there have struggled to benefit from the economic bonanza of wealth that is Silicon Valley tech.

The barriers that currently protect parts of the bay aren’t enough to handle the unprecedented extreme weather that will come as the climate crisis deepens, according to local officials.

In the 1940s, salt companies constructed mud berms as part of ponds along the bay they used to collect salt from seawater. Local governments still maintain them, but the area is considered a flood zone by the Federal Emergency Management Agency because the barriers don’t meet safety standards.

“We know that the structures that are providing flood barrier now are not adequate and are subject to failure if we have a really big tide or a big wind event or a big storm surge,” Kevin Murray, senior project manager with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency that works on flood protection in the area, told NPR.

In the face of these threats, area governments have embarked on an ambitious set of plans to build levees and restore marshes across the Bay Area, though they’ll likely fall short on funding unless private businesses kick in.

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project seeks to restore up to 15,000 acres of marsh land, which helps mitigate sea-level rise, while the federal government has contributed $50 million to the SAFER Bay levee project, and localities have poured huge percentages of their annual budgets into building the 6-mile barrier. Facebook, meanwhile, added in $7.8 million to partially protect its campuses, though that wouldn’t even cover its full recent expansions.

“Sea level rise is an issue for everyone living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area due to our close association with a large body of water,” the company said in a statement. “We want to do our part to help protect the communities around our campus.”

Another project, the South San Francisco Bay Shoreline Protection Project, wants to build an 18-mile levee for nearly $2 billion, though congressional and local funding of the project has fallen well short of the goal.

Google, for its part, has offered to help build a levee around Moffett Park, a low-lying office park where it owns many properties, so long as other companies chip in too.

Both companies have continued expanding along the shoreline, even though the climate risks were well known. This put local governments in a bind. They need local development to help fill government coffers, especially to build desperately needed housing in the region, but that can mean allowing more and more people to be concentrated where climate crisis puts them in incredibly danger going forward.

The whole situation raises the question, as some have advocated for, of a “managed retreat” from climate change, where governments focus on getting people away from the riskiest climate zones rather than building expensive solutions for them to stay there.

As the environmental journalist Jake Bittle recently argued in The Baffler, following the condo collapse in Miami, another city extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise, “Zeroing out our emissions will require unprecedented feats of innovation and engineering, but adapting to the world we now inhabit will require something more: forsaking the attitude that sees the natural world as something to be conquered and controlled.”

“Nature is going to claim its space regardless,” he added. “It’s up to us whether we get out of the way.”

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