Delaware Governor: Say Goodbye to Your Beach House

With climate change bringing more upheaval to coastal states, Jack Markell questions whether taxpayers should have to pay for storm-related home repairs.

From left: Gwen Ifill, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Jack Markell (The Atlantic)

You know climate change advocates are having a tough time when they invoke the Know-Nothing Party as a sign of hope for the future. For the past year, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been making a weekly speech about global warming on the Senate floor, mostly to an empty chamber and a handful of C-SPAN viewers. But even if Washington isn’t necessarily paying attention to the issue right now, Whitehouse claims his efforts aren’t in vain.

“We’ve been through dysfunction before. Rhode Island was run by the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse explained cheerfully during at interview at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday. He and Delaware Governor Jack Markell took the stage to persuade viewers and PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill that climate change is an important, politically pressing issue. But Ifill seemed dubious about their approach.

“I guess my question isn’t about the seriousness of the issue, but the futility of coming to the United States Senate and arguing it when nobody is listening,” she said.

And indeed, futility—albeit a rather noble futility—was the lingering impression as Markell and Whitehouse exited the stage. Throughout their discussion, they railed against Washington’s dysfunctionality, criticizing the special interests and partisanship that they believe have crippled climate reform efforts. And again and again, they admitted the important role the federal government must play in saving the environment, pointing to FEMA guidelines, cap and trade proposals, and emissions standards that need to be revised at the federal level.

“Hopefully, over time, the federal government will be able to speak with one voice,” said Markell.

“What do you base that optimism on?” asked Ifill.

“Well, that may be blind optimism,” he admitted.

What Markell does have more control over, though, is what his state will do the next time a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits, displacing thousands of coastal residents.

“These are the most uncomfortable conversations to have: The investments that people have made in their homes over a period of decades," said Markell. "The question is: What’s the public benefit of continuing nourishment of some of these beaches? To what extent ought taxpayers be picking up some of these costs if the benefit goes to a relative handful of people?”

This was an issue for the state last fall when Hurricane Sandy destroyed homes and businesses along the Delaware Bay. If similar storms will inevitably strike again, is it worth it for communities to rebuild, especially with taxpayers bearing the costs?

On the other hand, as these storms become more and more common, residents of Delaware and Rhode Island might not have anywhere else to go—after all, their states have a lot of coastline in their small territories. Maybe Senator Whitehouse feels the same way about advocating climate reform in Congress.

“Retreat is not really an option,” said Whitehouse. “We can’t head back from the shoreline and head to the high ground.”