Officials in Miami-Dade County, where climate models predict sea levels will rise by two feet or more by 2060, have released an optimistic strategy for living with more water, which may include increasing homes and roads, building denser inland and more the creation of water concentrates more open space for flooding in lower-lying areas.
This blueprint, released on Friday, depicted the rising seas as largely manageable, especially for a low-lying area with centuries of experience in handling water.
However, climate experts warned that the county’s plan downplayed the scale of the threat, saying it failed to warn residents and developers of the risk of continuing to build near the coast in a county whose economy is heavily reliant on waterfront real estate.
“I’m not sure if it really fits the problems that lie in Miami’s future,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He described the strategy as “just enough to reassure developers that Miami will be safe enough to build in in the near future”.
The Miami-Dade debate is part of a larger struggle to respond to the growing threat of climate change across the country. As floods, forest fires and other hazards worsen, disaster experts have increasingly urged local authorities to reduce their exposure by encouraging people to leave vulnerable areas. But cities and counties often resist this advice, fearing that withdrawing would damage their economies and anger voters.
This debate has been particularly intense in South Florida, where climate change is a serious threat. In the Florida Keys, south of Miami-Dade, officials recently said it was not economically feasible to protect every home from rising sea levels because the small population did not provide enough tax revenue to fund the projects.
What is happening in Miami is very likely to become a case study for other cities and counties facing climate challenges. Among the major US metropolitan areas, it may be the most exposed to sea level rise due to its low, flat geography. And with some of the most expensive coastal properties in the world, it has sufficient tax base to experiment with solutions – and tremendous economic incentive to discourage buyers and investors from leaving.
Local officials say it is untenable to do nothing. According to a report by the Urban Land Institute last fall, more than $ 3 billion worth of real estate could be lost to daily tidal flooding by 2040 without action to reduce the threat. By 2070, that number is expected to rise to $ 23.5 billion. However, Katherine Hagemann, head of climate adaptation policy for Miami-Dade, said it made no financial sense to respond to these threats by withdrawing from the coast or paying large numbers of people to leave their homes. It makes more sense to keep these areas liveable.
“You are now seeing a really high return on investment for adjusting to protect the macroeconomic situation in South Florida,” Ms. Hagemann said. “The cost of withdrawing in some of these places would be very high if you bought them out at market value.”
The county’s strategy focuses on a number of actions, each finding that there are disadvantages.
This includes raising houses on stilts, which allows water to flow underneath during floods. This approach can work well when building new homes, but it is expensive for existing structures. And it doesn’t prevent the streets that lead to the houses from becoming impassable.
Another way to build houses and roads is to repeatedly move dirt and stones from other places to raise the level of the soil even when building or rebuilding houses. This approach, known as filling, can simply push water onto neighboring plots. And as the blueprint states, it can be “technically and financially difficult to fill a property multiple times”.
The strategy also includes building denser housing on higher land outside the ocean. But these areas – which until recently were less in demand than coastal properties but are now attracting more interest – are home to many of the county’s low-income families and colored people, and the document warns that they could be displaced from their homes due to rising costs , a phenomenon that some refer to as “climate centrification”.
Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit group in Florida advocating action to protect communities from climate change, praised the county for increasing the risk of displacement for lower-income residents. “Wealthy and poor people in Miami-Dade County face different risks due to rising sea levels,” she said via email.
The answer is to build more homes for low-income residents, said Zelalem Adefris, vice president of policy and advocacy at Catalyst Miami, which works with low-income communities in the county. She urged officials not only to focus on adapting to climate change, but also to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re not going to want to dredge and fill forever,” said Ms. Adefris.
Mike Hernández, a Democratic political adviser who worked in communications for the former mayor, said the fundamental challenge was the reluctance of elected officials to acknowledge the severity of the threat. He called the district’s new strategy “a best-case scenario”.
“If you say adjustment, people will say, ‘OK, we’ll build on that,” he said. “But what adjustment actually means – and I think that’s the scary part for many elected officials and administrators – is adjustment , can mean ceding land. It can mean pushing people inland or building a barrier. “
“Unfortunately it won’t be nice,” said Mr Hernández.