The word “resilience” got a serious workout at the fifth Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit in Fort Lauderdale last week. EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe used it to describe the type of cleaner energy production needed in the country to reduce heat-producing emissions and also as an objective for South Florida in dealing with the inevitable rise of sea level as the Earth heats up.
Addressing elected officials, business leaders and the public, Mr. Perciasepe rightly praised South Florida leaders for creating a four-county alliance to develop ways to prepare and protect the region as the sea rises over the next 50 years, an increase that could be in inches or feet, depending on various contributing factors. Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties have a lot to lose if the sea level rises even three or four inches over five decades.
Billions of dollars worth of public infrastructure, private businesses, residents’ homes and more are at risk, not just for frequent flooding, but also outright inundation and destruction.
But as chronicled this week in several Herald articles and WLRN radio reports, the public battle to prepare for rising seas is still in its infancy in this region and not more than a blip on the radar in the state Capitol. People still want to live along the water. Developers, with a few exceptions, keep building condos with waterfront views and politicians who reject the very idea of climate change are still getting elected.
Yet, there are glimmers of progress. In itself, the existence of the four-county climate leadership alliance, which represents 5.6 million residents, is encouraging. So are burgeoning education programs to teach children in South Florida about the effects of global warming in their lifetimes, whittling the climate-change skeptics over time.
Individual coastal communities — Miami Beach for one — are developing ambitious projects to deal with local flooding caused by seasonal high tides and exceptionally wet rainy seasons, as well as hurricanes. A few developers have begun consulting with scientists at Florida International and Florida Atlantic universities about where it will be safe to build in the future.
Some experts predict that the real wake-up call on climate change will come when private insurers react to increased threats of frequent flooding of property by raising rates or dropping coverage. Congress recently increased the costs of obtaining federal flood insurance to reflect real risks, though it appears to be ready to pull back in the face of constituents’ outrage. In truth, the price of flood insurance will rise along with the sea level, though most experts recommend only gradual rate increases as the wisest course.
Rate increases, along with property owners having to deal with the aftermath of repeated flooding, will force rethinking about how South Florida continues to develop. The Seven50 Southeast Florida Prosperity Plan, a far-reaching project sponsored by the area’s regional planning councils to create an economic blueprint for the next 50 years, poses several proposals, including restoring mangrove forests and beaches, higher sea walls where feasible and building better coastal and inland flood control.
No one is yet seriously talking about retreating from the coastline, but they should be. In 50 years, certainly in a century, scientists predict that our coast simply won’t be there any more. We need to prepare, now, to become resilient — to endure and prevail — in the future.