Sound Off: The climate action that may not be spoken aloud


Whidbey Environmental Action Network

In her Sound Off of Aug. 12, Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair listed steps the county is taking to address the ongoing climate meltdown. Unfortunately, not included was land use regulation. Now you can hardly fault any persuasion of politician for not wanting to touch this hot button; it tends to burns politicians’ fingertips very badly. After all, we North Americans have always been torn between our desire for community well-being and individual unrestrained liberty to do whatever we feel like with our “private” property.

But the tension between private property and community rights, not to mention inter-generational needs, simply can’t be ignored on islands with hundreds of miles of privately owned shoreline.

That shoreline is rapidly changing. There are places that are simply not going to be habitable by humans in the near future. Take a look at the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group “Interactive Sea Level Rise Data Visualizations” tool at

People who now live on the islands’ low-lying coasts are not going to be living there for much longer, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, old or new residents, recycle or throw beer cans out the window. The laws of physics really don’t care about any of that; they just care about how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases we’ve emitted by burning fossil fuels. And they definitely don’t care about modern human concepts of property “ownership.” So, like it or not, those humans are going to be moving, either cashing in the land while they can or as refugees, victims of human caused “natural” disasters.

But what about the mess left behind, the derelict structures and their sodden septic tanks sinking beneath the rising waters of Puget Sound? Who is going to be responsible for cleaning up the polluting mess left behind on hundreds, if not thousands of miles of coastline? For that matter, what about the new development still being permitted, doubtless to be the foundation of our broiling civilization’s very own future Atlantis cautionary myth?

There are steps the county can take, but they involve that dreaded land-use regulation. The county could require new shoreline development to have structure removal insurance; that is, insurance to pay for the removal of structures when the property they sit on becomes uninhabitable. Of course, as the ‘time-until’ comes closer, the cost of such insurance will increase, just as insurance against hurricane or wildfire loss has drastically increased in Florida and California — when it’s even available. Or the county could require that any new structure on the coast be designed so that it can be dismantled and removed when the land it sit on gets flooded out or simply is not dry land anymore.

Now these are not politically simple or easy steps to take. They will certainly be opposed by the islands’ politically powerful real estate and development interests, not to mention many coastal property owners themselves. But are there alternatives that assure that the islands’ real long term natural wealth — clean, unpolluted shoreline — is not trashed in the ongoing climate meltdown? Maybe, but we won’t find them if we don’t at least recognize the problem and begin talking about it. And that requires politicians taking climate action that goes well beyond merely improving the energy efficiency of county buildings.

Steve Erickson is a Whidbey Island resident and the co-founder of Whidbey Environmental Action Network.