The Line on the Sidewalk: South Florida’s Climate Change Dilemma

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The third most populous state is waging a battle. It’s a war that much of the population knows it probably won’t win, mainly because the state government doesn’t believe it exists.

The coastlines of southern Florida are disappearing, a precursor to what scientists say will eventually consume much of South Florida’s lucrative real estate due to climate change. Experts estimate that within four generations the coastlines that shelter some of the country’s richest business centers and vacation homes will have to be abandoned. Since much of that real estate is owned by some of the world’s most noteworthy billionaires, the projection puts a whole new spin on the concept of refugee evacuations.

But it also forces Floridians to look at another issue that has been gnawing at their coastlines: The state government appears to believe that climate change doesn’t exist – or at least isn’t relevant to be discussed in the halls of the capitol, scientific studies or government agencies. The economy, which is what Gov. Rick Scott reportedly won his last gubernatorial election on, takes precedence in North Florida where coastal flooding is, if anything, just a distracting nuisance. For some in Florida, the link between the environmental degradation of the state’s tourism empires like Miami, Key West and Disney World and the sinking of Florida’s economy have not yet been scientifically proven.

And that leaves South Florida residents in a dilemma. How do they buttress the area’s freshwater aquifers, which risk being contaminated by wash from coastal storms and surge, if the state won’t recognize the need in the budget?

To a point, the government’s reticence is understandable. Scientists are hard-pressed to state just how much the sea level is predicted to rise. Years ago, the figure was 1 to 3 feet by 2100. Now scientists say that number is conservative. Hard figures are difficult to ascertain. Plus, heady, technical terms like “amplifying feedbacks” that are meant to illustrate the seesaw effect that declining polar ice will have on warm seas thousands of miles south may sound sensible, but they seem to be a non-starter for a governor who has not yet publicly acknowledged that climate change is real.

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But what also isn’t being tackled yet is how to address what scientists predict will be “the great exodus” from Miami’s shores in coming years, and how the state will deal with the tidal surge of populations as they move north. Whether Florida can absorb millions of environmental refugees within its own diminishing land mass and with a stressed water system is a question that is still in the making. And whether insurance companies will even be able to pay out on properties that are no longer viable is equally uncertain.

For now, some advocate developing a relocation strategy that would facilitate a more orderly move. It’s an idea that understandably has a fair amount of pushback on Miami’s million-dollar shorelines, where the resale potential of environmentally-stressed properties, especially those lots are slated to lose their access to potable water, is on the decline these days.

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Eve Mosher draws a chalk line where waters are predicted to rise in surge storm events.

Still, some residents haven’t given up on trying to convey the urgency of the situation. Organizations like ClimateCentral.org and HighwaterLine.org have realized that visual aids sometimes offer the most impactful messages.

HighwaterLine, which was founded by New York artist Eve Mosher, has come up with a very personal way to show residents in various cities just what high tide means. In 2007, with the use of a chalk marker, Mosher visually drew a line across New York City streets to show what endemic flooding (such as from storm surge) would do to the city if climate change continued. Her efforts were realized in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy, which was for many a watershed moment in accepting that climate change could, indeed, change the landscape of their city.

Today, HighwaterLine’s visual message can also be found in downtown Miami, where flooding from rising sea levels is expected to bring unprecedented changes. ClimateCentral has bolstered these efforts by providing data that visually paints a picture of the infrastructure that will be lost as Florida’s coastlines move inland.

However the Scott administration decides to address that unmentionable question of climate change, the government must know that the economic success of its top three industries: International trade (via — you guessed it — key South Florida ports), tourism and the Kennedy Space Center all rely upon the environmental well being of its coastlines. But since Florida’s highest administrative office is limited to two four-year terms, the challenge of figuring out how to combat Miami’s most pressing economic problem will most likely be the responsibility of Florida’s next governor.

 Images: Adapting to a Miami flood: Maxstriz; National Guard enters Melbourne Fla. community: DVIDSHUB; Drawing flood lines – Curtis Hamilton for the Canary Project

 Video map of sea level projections by Matthew Toro.

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.