Resilience only goes so far: Why we can’t save Florida

Photo credit: Leah Culbert

The conventional wisdom is that in less than a century Miami will be swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean as climate change fuels rising sea levels.

Climate change already poses an existential threat to Miami, its constituents and the environment, and its effects will only linger until no one can reside here. Climate gentrification puts disproportionate burdens on people of color.

A report by XDI’s climate risk specialists found that outside of China, the state of Florida is the most vulnerable province in the world to economic damage caused by climate change, largely due to the state’s geography. According to a report by the Florida Energy and Climate Commission, Florida has over 1,200 miles of coastline and a majority of its 18 million residents live within 60 miles of either the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

As coastlines become riskier investments, higher rates of gentrification and displacement are occurring in once “undesirable” socioeconomically lower neighborhoods. Even as more money is allocated in the name of “climate resilience”, little viable change is possible or feasible, especially without addressing the root of climate change and its harmful effects.

Sea levels across Florida are as much as 8 inches higher than they were in 1950, and according to studies conducted by the Florida Climate Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. In South Florida, another eleven inches of sea level rise is possible by 2040, and up to seven feet of sea rise by 2100 is likely and would be catastrophic.

If these forecasts become reality, the sea levels would displace about 800,000 residents in Miami-Dade County and make a large portion of the county uninhabitable.

Research group Climate Central projects worst-case scenarios for 2100 in Downtown Miami and nearby residential neighborhoods to experience near-constant street and first-floor flooding. According to Zillow, 26% of all U.S. homes at risk from sea level rise are located in Miami-Dade county.

Intense storm surges and saltwater intrusion in the Biscayne Aquifer are already causing issues with drinking water sources and drainage and septic systems, and tide encroachment into Miami from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades will only worsen.

Despite being vulnerable to hurricanes and sea level rise, waterfront properties are still some of the most desirable and expensive real estate in South Florida.

The popular waterfront entertainment venue, the Wharf Miami, is emblematic of the young-adult social scene in Miami. With themed events, food and drink options, and an open-air concept, the Wharf Miami has hosted many thousands of guests since its opening in 2016.

The establishment closed Sept. 16, and will be replaced by Riverside Wharf, a 10-story structure covering over 200,000 square feet, including a hotel, a range of restaurants, nightclub, rooftop day club and marina. While this new construction would bring the Wharf’s Breakwater Hospitality Group increases in revenue, the development brings with it a multitude of environmental detriments, and will increase real estate values in the area.

“The external environment of the Wharf … there are a lot of homeless people, a lot of garages and parking lots … people sleep on the street outside of the Wharf,” senior marine affairs and international studies major Jacob Esquivel said. “It isn’t a very developed part of town, and I am curious to see how they react to the displacement of homeless people.”

The massive multi-year, $185-million project is expected to include a public riverwalk and sea level rise initiative as a contribution for the community, but it will increase housing and living costs. Thishas also been happening in the Downtown Miami and Overtown neighborhoods, now sought after by contractors looking to develop inland for higher ground to escape the effects of rising sea levels.

The risk of climate gentrification is increasing with the cost of housing, pushing out poorer residents living in higher and drier neighborhoods to make way for wealthier renters and buyers who want a home that’s safe from flooding. The increasing inequality highlights the need for water management and climate change mitigation strategies.

Miami has a rate of inequality similar to that of developing countries, with 40% of the households in Miami-Dade County considered working poor, and 20% living in poverty, according to Florida International University’s Miami Urban Future Initiative.

Neighborhoods surrounding Downtown Miami including Overtown have become areas of interest and are considered valuable, but the proximity of low-income neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by people of color poses an obstacle.

Affected by tumultuous Jim Crow laws, discriminatory red lining and highways construction, these minority neighborhoods are disproportionately concentrated with waste sites, heat islands, incinerators and trash facilities, affecting air quality and community health.

In Overtown, as in most low-income communities of color, the issue of housing is crucial, especially as affordable housing is threatened and land for development is limited.

South Florida’s housing market is increasingly inflated as demand increases and supply shortages remain, according to a study from Florida Atlantic University and FIU. It shows that Miami residents pay an almost 39% premium for a typical home.

Middle-class residents are also at risk. Many residents have most of their savings tied up in their home’s equity and face seeing generations of wealth accumulation disappear when the property market crashes due to rising sea levels.

Short-term solutions to these problems include spending hundreds of millions of dollars on climate mitigation efforts.

According to Miami’s Stormwater Master Plan, plans to combat rising sea levels will cost at least $3.8 billion in the next 40 years, but wouldn’t even be enough to keep every neighborhood safe.

Fla. Governor Fla. Ron DeSantis’ attempts to fund solutions to this problem include allocating hundreds of millions of state and federal funds to protect Florida, some of the largest investments made to install new pumps and drains, convert septic tanks to sewer lines and elevate flood-prone buildings. These efforts are minimal and are not likely to result in significant change.

The political divide between the left and right is stark, especially as elected officials continuously refuse to address the root cause of climate change. Political divisions are preventing serious efforts to promote the common good.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if emissions can be reduced and global warming kept to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, 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 is a waste.

Every time a disastrous weather event hits Florida we hear the chorus of “Florida’s going to be underwater soon”. But why don’t we ever do anything about it?

While climate adaptation spending that can prolong the environmental viability and economic vitality of Miami is important, most of this resilience spending seems to be little more than a Band-Aid, a feeble levee that can’t block the swell of problems that Miami faces and that soon will collapse.

Lia Mussie is a senior majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science with minors sustainable business and public health.