The Science is in agreement, politicians are not, and the money has not stopped.
According to a National Wildlife Federation report, Miami could lose up to $3.5 trillion in assets due to sea level rise by 2070. That puts Miami first in the world in sea level rise risk, before Guangzhou, China, and New York City. The majority of Miami Beach, at its current height, will be underwater if sea level rises a mere 4 ft. Estimates have it between 6′-10′ by the end of the century. Some buildings built this decade, like the Faena forum or the Alton shopping center are below that 4 ft level.
With all of this information, however, property values continue to rise, developers continue to build, and the city continues to densify. It is almost impossible to find empty land in Miami Beach for less than $100/sf.
The University of Miami published a comprehensive climate change report, illustrating its effects on South Florida, and the unknowns involved. “Climate change is no longer viewed as a future threat around here,” says atmosphere expert Professor Ben Kirtman, of the University of Miami. “It is something that we are having to deal with today.” This is especially true on the west side of Miami Beach.
Miami Beach has become a planning model for coastal towns around the world and is slated to spend almost half a billion dollars to combat sea level rise. You cannot visit Miami Beach without seeing the raised roads, bridges, massive pump stations, and construction work. In looking at the sea level rise risk map (here), Miami Beach is under major threat, with even the 1-2 ft of sea level rise expected over the next 15 years.
Mayor Phillip Levine was elected on the issue of climate change and has taken his mandate to heart. He lands squarely on the optimist side of the climate change debate, citing political will, infrastructure jobs programs, and perseverance of the American city, as reasons not to be defeatist. This is a view shared by President Obama and many mainstream Democrats.
Alton Rd. has already been raised, and pump stations have been added all along it. Sunset Harbor, a neighborhood that used to flood often, now remains dry. Many other roads remain on the punch list. These solutions, Levine admits, are the first line of defense, however, a larger more comprehensive plan must follow suit to prevent further rising beyond current estimates. Miami and Florida are missing a political will among the more senior lawmakers in the state, including the governor, Congress, and the majority of state legislators. Although most parts of Miami will be spared with a sea level rise, Miami Beach and Miami are twin cities that rely on each other for infrastructure, tourism, talent, and more. Why should Washington act when senior lawmakers from one of the most affected States are not even in agreement?
As with all potential disasters, there is an opportunity if properly planned for. North Beach has developed a comprehensive master plan that aims to balance preservation and new sustainable construction. The plan illustrates a new construction of buildings whose first floors are flood-able, and if road levels rise, can meet them on their second floor. The threat of climate change does not mean that we should abandon ship but learn to work with our creativity and information to make the best of a situation that is dynamic. Many existing buildings will need to be demolished or vastly renovated. Many people will lose homes. Many businesses will fall. This does not mean that we do not try to make the best city for everyone involved.
The City of Houston realized that flooding, due to its massive amounts of impervious surface and abundant rain, is going to be an issue that defines its next century. In response, its bayous became a major player in the masterplan, and a mandatory, citywide, flood insurance tax was passed. Now if a home floods, the city buys it at its value with the flood tax proceeds. It uses the land to create reservoirs and parks. This is an example of local policy filling a gap that the national policy cannot.
Climate change is both a worldwide phenomena and incredibly local. Problems differ by city and by state. While Houston is flooding, California is in drought. While temperatures are hotter in Anchorage, they are colder in Chicago. We need both a comprehensive plan and localized ones. Pragmatic mayors and governors will find innovative ways to create jobs while saving homes and businesses. World leaders, industries, and NGOs must keep up to combat climate change on a global scale while creating whole new industries in the process.
These are the kinds of conversations we should be having. How do we stop rising seas, rather than “are seas rising at all?”. How do we reverse the rise of fossil fuels, rather than “Do humans have an effect on the climate?”. Or what can we do as a human race to combat one of the biggest problems we face, rather than “Is it too late to do anything at all?”. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, or maybe it’s the only option we have.