The More Powerful Climate Change Story Is in Places Like Miami

January 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

A couple of days ago, my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, published yet another report from the Arctic about global warming. It was a well-written, thoroughly reported piece. But I seriously doubt that many people read it in its entirety. I am even more certain that it won't do much to change the minds of people who are in denial about climate change and/or vote for politicians who pretend it doesn't exist.

The reason is that the Arctic, Siberia, Antarctica and other places favored by climate change reporters are too remote to get people's attention. Yes, a photo of a nervous polar bear standing on a melting ice floe may seem visually arresting. But the reality is that when many people see such a picture, they think:

a) climate change is happening far, far away; and

b) if that polar bear drowns before he can eat me, great! 

The only thing that will change the minds of people in denial is reporting that tells them climate change is going to hurt something they care about--their wallets. Stories to that effect are readily available, not in the Arctic, but in places like Bal Harbour, Florida.

My wife and I spent a few days in Bal Harbour recently. It's a wealthy little enclave (three-tenths of a square mile) at the northern end of the barrier island that includes Miami Beach. Bal Harbour has a population of 3,039 and assessed real estate valued at $5.2 billion. If my phone's calculator is to be relied upon, that means the average Bal Harbourean owns property worth about $1.7 million. Much of this assessed value, about $4 billion or so, is concentrated in the high-rise hotels and condos that line the beach. You can see what they look like in the picture at the top of this post.

As my wife and I walked along the beach, we saw fliers advertising an evening meeting at Bal Harbour's Village Hall. A consultant was going to brief anyone interested in a preliminary study of the hazards facing Bal Harbour (and by extension, Miami Beach and the entire Miami area) due to climate change. On the South Florida coast, of course, the most threatening effect of climate change is water.

Out of curiosity, we went to the meeting, along with maybe two dozen residents. The news for Bal Harbour was not good. Over the next thirty years, it can expect a lot more "sunny day flooding," which is already occurring in Miami Beach. Sunny-day flooding is the result of "king tides," which occur when the moon is particularly close to the Earth, in the autumn. Not coincidentally, that's when Venice has its aqua alta flooding; it's the same phenomenon.

Bal Harbour can also expect more and more severe tropical storms and hurricanes. Meteorologists used to talk about a "hundred-year storm" when they described a storm so intense that it could be expected to occur only once a century or so. Now such storms seem to be occurring several times a decade, and meteorologists are warning that South Florida is likely to see what once were thought of as "five hundred year storms." These are hurricanes like Dorian, which laid waste to Abaco in the Bahamas last year, or the storm that squatted over Houston for a couple of days in 2018 and delivered 43 inches of rain.

This would all be on top of the threat to Miami Beach and Bal Harbour caused by melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The water may only be rising an inch or two a decade right now, but Miami Beach doesn't have many marginal inches.  A lot of what is now considered Miami Beach real estate was once a marsh. It was filled in decades ago by dredging out what is now Biscayne Bay and depositing the spoil. The average elevation above sea level can be measured in inches.

No one in the village hall, though, was talking about letting Bal Harbour revert to marshland. Instead, they were using watchwords like mitigation and resilience. Bal Harbour is going to suffer periodic serious flooding. To survive, it is going to have to spend--and spend heavily--on mitigation and resilience. This means building so that the effects of floods are less severe than they might be, and so that Bal Harbour can bounce back from a flood more quickly than it could today.

Mitigation and resilience come down to some fairly prosaic things. Collins Avenue, the thoroughfare that forms the spine of Miami Beach and Bal Harbour, might need to be raised a few feet to remain passable during what will become routine flooding. Some buildings, the ones built on low lands, might have to be replaced with buildings that are effectively on stilts, with the ground floor limited to things like garages and the living space put higher in the air.

The mitigation and resilience process will have winners and losers. Bal Harbour's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, for instance, was built in the 21st Century, when the effects of climate change were already becoming known. Not coincidentally, I suspect, it was built on an earthen pedestal, a mound 14 feet above sea level. A lot of the newer high rises on the beach are similarly situated. They can withstand a lot of flooding. But the older buildings on the western side of Collins Avenue, including a lot of garden apartments and small motels, are on land only two feet above sea level. They're toast. 

The consultants estimated that Bal Harbour will need to spend $1.5 billion over the next 30 years on mitigation and resilience. Again using my trusty phone calculator, I estimated that this would work out to $16,666 per year for each of Bal Harbour's 3,039 residents. To which a lot of people might say, "So what? It's not money out of my pocket."

And that is where a a lot of people would be wrong. That ain't the way it works.

What will happen? The very same politicians who insist that climate change is fake news will propose spending general tax dollars to mitigate it. Republicans will do this because they're habitual hypocrites. They'll talk out of one side of their mouths about small government and fiscal responsibility. Out of another side of their mouths, they'll deny that the climate is changing and add that we ought to burn more coal and oil.  And out of yet another side of their mouths (politicians have big mouths), they'll vote for resilience and mitigation projects to help home owners and hotel owners (their constituents and contributors) pay for things like raising Collins Avenue.

Democrats will complain that we really ought to do something about carbon emissions. But then they'll also vote for massive federal expenditures to put the hotels on Miami Beach on Art Deco stilts. They'll do it because construction workers might vote Democratic. So might the people employed in Miami Beach doing things like stoking hookah pipes and serving cocktails in birdbath-sized glasses. And Democrats just congenitally like massive federal expenditures.

And that is how we are all going to wind up paying through the nose for climate change. 

Because, you know, no one wants to see tourists in Miami Beach using those big cocktail glasses for flotation devices and the hookah pipes for air hoses during their amphibious vacations. That would be un-American. 

But what I'd like to see is more journalism that tallies the bill coming due for climate change--and who exactly is paying it. If it's going to cost $1.5 billion in tiny Bal Harbour, I am sure the cost for the entire United States will be astronomical. Maybe more reporting on that would get some people's attention.


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