Facing Climate Change, States and Cities Seek to Borrow Billions

(Bloomberg) -- Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, Florida, says climate change will be a homeowners’ worst nightmare.

"If you own a home and you find that your roof has a problem or you find out there’s a termite infestation, you have to take care of it," he said. "That’s what climate change is. Sea level rise has created challenges that have to be addressed. For local governments, they don’t go away unless you do something about them."

Facing Climate Change, States and Cities Seek to Borrow Billions

That’s why Miami Beach, where frequent flooding prompted by high tides have illustrated the risks of climate change, is asking residents for the power to pump more money into environmentally-friendly sidewalks, parks, and neighborhood improvements. The $439 million bond proposal would use a fourth of the proceeds to address the effects of climate change.

Nationwide, states and local governments are asking voters to approve billions of dollars of debt for environmental projects, including those aimed at protecting against the impact of rising global temperatures.

In California, which was hit hard by a years-long drought that began in 2011, voters will consider $8.9 billion of bonds for water projects. Austin, Texas, voters will also consider borrowing to improve water quality. A 100-year-old seawall in San Francisco could get a $425 million repair job to make sure it protects the city from rising sea levels and floods.

"It signals that you do have a lot more states and localities taking some of the environmental, social and governance risks much more seriously," said Tom Schuette, co-head of investment research and strategy at Gurtin Municipal Bond Management.

Climate change poses a major financial threat to some U.S. cities by threatening to reduce property values they rely on for much of their tax base and leaving them dealing with costly natural disasters.

Facing Climate Change, States and Cities Seek to Borrow Billions

Some of the proposals may be prompted by lack of action by President Donald Trump’s administration, said Mitchell Moss, an urban policy and planning professor at New York University. Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris climate accord that was signed by almost 200 countries after years of negotiations, arguing that the pact’s carbon-cutting commitments would punish American industry. He’s also failed to deliver on his promises to increase spending on local infrastructure projects.

"Environmental values today are so very central to certain states," Moss said. "They’re going to naturally go to the financing of infrastructure as the federal government cuts back."

Protecting the environment is an "apolitical" issue in Montana’s Missoula County, said Amber Sherrill, executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, a nonprofit. The county is asking voters to approve $15 million worth of bonds to conserve fish and wildlife habitats and to protect scenic views. The Northern Rockies locality has built up tourism around camping and hunting.

"It’s an economic driver for our county as well," she said. "That clearly crosses political lines."

Gelber, the Miami Beach mayor, said the projects financed by the bonds, such as adding water retention features to parks, will make the city "greener." Residents he’s talked to have been supportive of the bond issues, given the steps the city has made to make the process transparent, such the creation of an advisory board to help pick projects, he said.

The debt measures would provide money to plant up to 5,000 trees to provide shade and to move the city to more energy efficient street lights. It would also raise city seawalls.

"I don’t think we can wait," Gelber said. "It’s really easy for a local government to say, ’We’re going to kick it down the road because the federal government’s going to come rescue us.’ But that’s just not the way it happens."

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