The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why climate resilience strategies won’t save Florida

A cyclist rides past an area flooded during an especially high tide in Miami on Oct. 9, 2018. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
4 min

John Morales is an editorial fellow for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and chief meteorologist at WTVJ (NBC6) in Miami.

Florida is spending loads of money in the name of “climate resilience.” But don’t count on that to save Florida. Without measures to address climate change at its source, all that money will be as useful as a heap of soggy dollar bills.

Florida’s sea levels are increasing faster than the global rate — an astonishing six inches in the past 25 years in Miami — due in part to ocean currents in the area. Saltwater inundation of the city streets — so-called sunny day flooding — is up 400 percent since 2006. A greater proportion of hurricanes are reaching catastrophic intensities, with the potential to drive a deeper and more destructive storm surge farther inland. And more intense rainstorms are producing precipitation at rates that exceed the carrying capacity of the drainage systems — a problem exacerbated by a water table that is being pushed up by the encroaching sea.

Unlike in New York or Netherlands, there is no known way to stop the surging seas from affecting southern Florida. The area lies on top of porous sand and limestone, so dikes and seawalls are ineffective in keeping the water out. The highest elevations along the densely populated coastal ridge from Fort Lauderdale south are generally at or below 25 feet, while the Florida Keys and inland locations closer to the Everglades sit much lower at three-feet elevation or less.

Recently updated projections expect the region to take on an additional foot or so of seawater by 2040, and up to seven feet by 2100. But that inundation will not happen at a steady pace. Once certain thresholds are crossed, seawater would start encroaching upon Miami’s metropolitan area from the ocean side and the Everglades side. And many areas kept dry by canals or higher topography would experience flooding as saltwater overtops barriers. For the low-lying Florida Keys, just a modest rise of two feet — potentially expected by 2050 — would inundate 70 percent of the islands. That’s why officials in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, have dared utter the word “retreat” when referring to flood-prone neighborhoods. That would have been unthinkable for a political appointee to say just a few years back.

For greater Miami-area leaders, the short-term solution is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on climate adaptation measures, such as installing machinery to pump (polluted) water back into Biscayne Bay and raising streets and roadways to keep them dry. The process has been far from smooth, with some homes now seeing worsening floods from water that runs off the raised streets and pumps that malfunction during power outages. The region is projected to take on an additional $4 billion by 2060. Miami’s master plan, if implemented, would protect the city from five-year storms. The Netherlands’ Rotterdam, by contrast, is protected against 10,000-year storms.

Resilience has its limits in Florida — big time.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) intends to throw more money at the problem. He has allocated hundreds of millions of mostly federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan to protect the state from the surging seas. With matching funds at the local level, the investment will top $1.2 billion. But $76 billion is needed statewide by 2040. We’re not even 2 percent of the way there.

There’s an argument to be made for climate adaptation spending that can prolong the environmental viability and economic vitality of some of these fastest-growing regions of the country. But all this resilience spending seems to be a mere bandage in the face of what’s coming.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored last week the need for a clean-energy transformation. If we can reduce emissions and limit global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), we will still experience intense effects from climate change, but the onslaught from rising seas will be far more manageable. If we fail to do this, all that resilience spending in Florida will be for naught.

Keep that in mind as elected officials continue to refuse to address the root cause of climate change. DeSantis recently pledged not to address the state’s carbon footprint, saying, “When people start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. And so, we’re not doing any left-wing stuff.” Meanwhile, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which would have catalyzed cuts in carbon and methane emissions, remains stalled in the Senate.

We cannot afford this business as usual. In the words of author Jeff Goodell, “The Water Will Come.” And our dollars won’t just be soggy. They’ll be submerged.