Florida faces devastation. Denial will make it worse.

Florida faces devastation. Denial will make it worse.

No graver threat faces the future of South Florida than the accelerating pace of sea-level rise. In the past century, the sea has risen 9 inches in Key West. In the past 23 years, it’s risen 3 inches. By 2060, it’s predicted to rise another 2 feet, with no sign of slowing down.

So begins the first article in a major effort by South Florida’s major newspapers, along with PBS and NPR, implicitly reading the riot act to a state whose Republican governor, Rick Scott, has not only ignored climate science but has placed gag orders on public discussion of it by state employees.

Scott’s Republican Party bears a heavy responsibility, as it is the only major political party in the world that still denies the obvious. Not only denies it, but attacks the scientists even as it doubles down on supporting the fossil fuels that ensure death for hundreds of millions, and, over time, potentially billions of human beings and the extinction of more than half of all species.

The party has turned the United States into a rogue nation. Responsible for more than a quarter of all the extra heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere even though it has less than five percent of the world’s population, the Republican-controlled US government is the only one in the world that refuses to participate in the Paris climate accord that provides the barest hope of avoiding a global climate catastrophe that will take centuries to overcome.

The GOP’s denial is a deep moral sickness, and the window of opportunity to adequately turn this around is rapidly shrinking. Indeed, growing numbers of experts think it is already too late to reach the Paris goal of keeping total warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. We have a slim chance of even staying barely below 2C. We’re on pace for well over 3C, and new research is constantly showing that things are worsening far faster than our models project, so that 4 degrees or even higher by the end of the century is a real possibility. And the warming won’t magically stop in 2100.

Florida, one of the Republican-controlled states steeped in climate science denial, also happens to be Ground Zero for the disaster to come from rising sea levels. Its major media are trying to break through the denial so that the state can be at least somewhat prepared for the gathering storm heading its way:

Water levels could easily be 2 feet higher in 40 years. And scientists say that’s a conservative estimate. Because of melting ice sheets and how oceans circulate, there’s a chance South Florida’s sea level could be 3 feet higher by 2060 and as much as 8 feet by 2100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s not just a matter of how much land we’re going to lose, though the barrier islands and low-lying communities will be largely uninhabitable once the ocean rises by 3 feet. It’s a matter of what can be saved. And elsewhere, how we’re going to manage the retreat.

You see the evidence several times a year in Miami Beach, the finger isles of Fort Lauderdale and along the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach. During king tides on sunny days, seawater bubbles up through storm drains and over seawalls into lawns, streets and storefronts. That didn’t happen 20 years ago, but it’s going to happen more and more.

Of the 25 American cities most vulnerable to sea-level rise, 22 are in Florida, according to the nonprofit research group Climate Central. They’re not all along the coast, either. Along with New York City and Miami, the inland cities of Pembroke Pines, Coral Springs and Miramar round out the top five.

Flooding also is increasing in South Florida’s western communities — like Miami-Dade’s Sweetwater and The Acreage in Palm Beach County — because seawater is pushing inward through our porous limestone foundation and upward into our aged flood control systems, diminishing capacity. Sawgrass Mills, a huge shopping complex in western Broward, closed for three days last year because the region’s stormwater system couldn’t handle a heavy afternoon thunderstorm. You’ve never seen that before.

The encroaching sea is bringing sea critters, too. Catfish were spotted swimming through floodwater at a Pompano Beach apartment complex west of I-95 last year. And don’t forget the octopus that bubbled up through a stormwater drain in a Miami Beach parking garage.

The article points out that to many the threat still seems so far off that denial comes easily. I’d say this is a national problem, and, in fact, a human problem. Humans have a terrible record of facing slow-moving, long-term dangers, even if that danger threatens civilization. We won’t by any means be the first civilization to be destroyed because of its lack of foresight. The article continues by pointing out that even insurance companies, which have a direct bottom-line interest in getting this right, are sleepwalking into disaster:

However, sea-level rise is not yet on the short-term horizons of the mortgage and insurance industries. Perhaps that’s because lenders generally recoup their money within 10 years, and insurers can cancel your policy year to year.

But government officials well know their successors will be stuck with abandoned properties when the water rises. And part of their responsibility will be to clean the debris to ensure pristine ocean water for future generations.

Perhaps you think you’re safe because the flood map shows your home is on high ground. But you still need infrastructure — things like roads, power plants, water treatment facilities, airports and drinking-water wellfields. So while your house may be high and dry, good luck getting to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out of town.

It’s tricky to trumpet the threat headed our way. Scientists like Harold Wanless, a noted University of Miami coastal geologist, have the freedom to be blunt. He says the local projection understates the accelerating rate of rise. “By the end of the century and just after,” Wanless says, “South Florida will be a greatly diminished place, and sea level will be rising at a foot or more per decade.”

But local leaders fear scaring people and damaging our economy. Though our region is certain to be reshaped, they express confidence that we can adapt if we start planning now to raise roads, elevate buildings, update the region’s 70-year-old flood control system, buy out flood-prone properties and make smart choices about what to save and where to invest.

They fear scaring people and damaging the economy. That’s understandable, on the one hand. If potential investors in Florida property become fully aware of the scale of the coming catastrophe, they will back away and property values will plummet. That, in turn, will lead to a huge loss in tax revenue and a rapidly growing inability to provide basic public services.

On the other hand, if the state forbids discussion of climate science and keeps people as much in the dark as possible, property values can remain high and public services can still be provided for at least a few more years, or perhaps even a decade or two, before the water rises too high for denial to overcome. Then the crash will be harder, faster, angrier.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Public officials find it easy to pass the buck to the next generation. And that is why, even staring into the face of disaster, the United States is unlikely to prepare even remotely adequately for the great catastrophe to come.

If you care about the little children of today, who will be caught in a rapid escalation of climate woes in the decades to come, there is but one chance to get this under enough control so that modern civilization is not crippled: we must rapidly phase out all use of fossil fuels. With the levers of power under the control of Republicans who are doubling down on fossil fuels, that means one thing: Vote. Them. All. Out.

We have wasted three decades in which the science was solid enough for a prudent society to take action. Because the deniers have succeeded in confusing the public, we are now with our backs against the wall. We do not have another decade to waste, if we care about the little children of today. If we do not rise to the challenge, we will bequeath them a bitter legacy.

Photo: Miami financial district on August 1, 2017. Creative Commons license; credit Phillip Pesar.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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