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Coastal living a bummer with climate change, report says

Seth Wenig / AP

This file photo shows homes destroyed by Superstrom Sandy fronting the beach in the Rockaways section of New York.

For anyone who lives in a coastal region of the U.S. — and about half of the population does — climate change is already making life harder. And the bad news is, it's only going to get worse as the sea level rises, storms strengthen and erosion accelerates, according to a new government report.

"Impacts on coastal systems are among the most costly and most certain consequences of climate change," Virginia Burkett, the chief scientist for climate and land-use change at the U.S. Geological Survey, told NBC News.

Coastal regions contributed $8.3 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2011.

Burkett is a co-lead author of the coastal impacts report, which is a technical input to the federally commissioned National Climate Assessment that was released in draft form earlier this month. That report noted that climate change is already disrupting life in the U.S. and warns those disruptions are set to worsen.

The coastal report’s findings about the consequences of climate change are familiar — rising seas, increased storminess, floods and erosion threaten to cripple sewers, roads and power plants, for example. 

What’s new, Burkett said, is that this familiarity has nudged coastal communities to at least begin planning adaptation strategies — things such as moving infrastructure inland, constructing seawalls and preserving barrier islands.

"The problem, however, is that the implementation of the plans is lagging," Burkett said. That may be because people see climate change as a gradual process, leaving them time to build projects such as new roads and sewer systems as older systems fall into disrepair and project funding is secured.

The need for adaptation, Burkett added, is driven by two factors: experience and science. Recent events such as the impact of superstorm Sandy on New York and New Jersey and the record loss of summer sea ice in the Artic in summer 2012 are opening eyes to the reality of climate change and need to adapt.

Adding to the urgency is the rising cost we are already paying for climate change, Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told NBC News.

"Congress just wrapped up this week part two of a what is going to be a $60 billion aid package to those northeastern cities that suffered from Superstorm Sandy," he said. "$60 billion is the amount of money that was raised by the fiscal cliff talks earlier this year … that is being zeroed out."

The act of seeing the cost of climate change on the ledger, so to speak, makes climate change an issue to contend with today. It is no longer a theoretical threat we may face in the future, Deans added.

"What we are seeing right now is that the price tag is coming due."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website.