Florida’s tight elections come at a crucial time for climate change action in the US: ‘This is catastrophic’

Votes are being recounted, but saving southern Florida will take decisive action in the coming years, experts say

Clark Mindock
Miami Beach, Florida
Sunday 18 November 2018 16:23
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Miami is one of a number of cities that will face the effects of rising sea levels
Miami is one of a number of cities that will face the effects of rising sea levels

In Miami-Dade County these days, hurricane-force winds and evacuation orders are no longer what must accompany streets flooding and roads turning into lakes.

Along Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Florida, and elsewhere on the barrier island, residents have already been forced to reckon with the impacts of climate change: plastic liners and sandbags are in place to keep garages and homes dry, while the city is raising roads and installing expensive pumps as a part of a $400m (£311m) plan to try to offset rising sea levels that now frequently spill over even when the sun is out.

As election workers in the the county and across the state rush to recount ballots in the Senate race before Tuesday, the fate of climate change action in fragile Florida looms large over the tallies. And for a place like Miami, which is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of rising sea levels and climate change, the fate of the city’s literal existence could be tied to those ballots.

In many respects, the gubernatorial candidates couldn't have been more different.

“I believe in science,” wrote Democrat Andrew Gillum wrote on Twitter in August (he conceded yesterday). He has frequently called for action on climate change, and has cast his opponent as an opportunist on the issue. “We will protect this state, invest in renewable energy, and create new, well paid, green jobs all across our state.”

His Republican opponent and ultimate victor, Ron DeSantis, has recently come to call himself an environmentalist – this year has seen toxic algae blooms in the state, making it near impossible for a politician to not pay at least some attention to the environment – but has stopped short of calling for a war on climate change, and says he doesn’t want to be a climate “alarmist”.

Nationally, the results of the 2018 midterm elections have already sent ripples of hope that some members of Congress may at least try to do something on the issue – even if Democrat Bill Nelson does not overcome the electoral odds in the Florida recount to return to the Senate, and even with Mr Gillum's concession.

Democrats, newly in control of the House of Representatives, have a diverse incoming class of legislators with climate on the mind. Among those are New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined a sit-in in the offices of presumed incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge her to act decisively on the issues. Ms Pelosi soon after announced that she would would reinstate the House panel on climate change as speaker, citing that protest.

Back in Miami – as in low-lying coastal zones across the United States – the stakes could not be higher.

If sea levels continue to rise unaddressed by costly mitigation efforts, water will creep up from nearly every direction and slowly take over one of America’s largest metropolitan areas, potentially cutting off fresh water supplies; flooding roads, electrical infrastructure and airports; and ultimately leaving behind a horribly polluted shallow marine environment once known for warm nights filled with salsa dancing.

Could a House special committee on climate change be enough? Can sit-ins in the presumed speaker’s office push quick enough action to save Miami from drowning? If you ask University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless, the answer is sobering – carbon dioxide is already in the atmosphere at dangerous levels, and the ice caps are only going to keep on melting because of those emissions and the heat they trap.

“At some point we have to say this is catastrophic, and it’s going to be catastrophic,” Mr Wanless said. “I think people’s psyches just can’t fathom this”.

To some, scientists like Mr Wanless are climate doom-sayers preaching the end of times for the world’s low-lying coastal metropolises and barrier islands, and he recognises that his research predicts a much graver future than some other models even come close to.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the consensus scientific group on the issue – predicts that a confluence of factors including warming oceans and melting polar ice sheets will raise global average sea levels by about half a metre, Mr Wanless is more bullish on the topic.

He says that his research has found that, in the past, sea level has risen in spurts instead of smoothly over time, as most predictions show. In those spurts, several metres of rise might be seen, and he thinks the world has just begun a spurt, based on the amount of CO2 and ice melt we have seen – and for a place like Miami Beach, we can expect 3-10m of sea level rise by 2100.

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That level of sea level rise is bad news for any coastal area, but would be especially unforgiving for cities like Miami, which has seen a boom since the 2008 financial crisis with an influx of jobs and rising towers. The original city, founded just over 120 years ago, was built on topographic high points. Since then, though, development has spread to lower-lying lands as homes and businesses flourished.

“Over time, that development moved from the safest high ground into lower and lower elevations. In some cases that ground was only habitable because they drained it,” Randall Parkinson, a researcher with the Sea Level Solutions Centre at Florida State University in Miami, said.

The impact of rising seas will be severe in the city. With just 60cm of sea level rise, waters would be high enough to disrupt fresh water supplies. By 120cm, 62 per cent of Miami-Dade County would remain as waters push in from the Everglades to the west. A little past that – at 1.5-1.8m of rise – the Trump National Doral Miami would be drowning. At 2.1m, Miami International Airport is gone. At 3m, just 9 per cent of the county would remain.

Skipping ahead to 6m – although the county would have been deemed uninhabitable long before that – there’s nothing left. That’s right in the centre of Mr Wanless’s doomsday predictions.

“South Florida is incredibly low and places like Miami Beach and every other barrier island and low-lying coastline in the world – Shanghai, Mumbai, or even London at some point – we’re going to be inundated,” Mr Wanless said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Donald Trump says he thinks climate change will 'change back'

In the 2018 races, the environment was unavoidable in Florida. Mr Gillum and Mr DeSantis were joined by Republican Rick Scott, who is running against Mr Nelson, in discussing the issue. That’s a rarity in the state’s politics, to say the least: Mr Scott, as governor, has banned the use of terms like climate change in official capacities. Even so, with algae blooms impacting local tourism and health, and the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Michael after it hit the state’s panhandle last month, the issue was unavoidable.

Mr Parkinson says it’s no surprise that the candidates discussed the issue with the impacts so pressing on daily life for Floridians, but that more needs to be done.

The state, city and federal government needs to start planning now if there is any hope that various jurisdictions will be able to coordinate costly infrastructure efforts to adapt to climate change. Anything short of that and southern Florida is set to see widespread resettlement – and there is nowhere inland for the Miami metropolitan area to go.

“That is the squeeze that most coastal areas are going to feel – there may be no inland to migrate to,” Mr Parkinson said. “So, withdrawal is not linear. It’s conceptional. Nobody’s going to be moved by the government. They’re going to have a home that is destroyed.”

Southern Florida is sinking, and that includes President Donald Trump’s cherished Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

“It’s going under,” Mr Parkinson said of that resort. “Really, anything along the coast for a mile or two inland, easily, is just going to be flooded.”

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