A warning for Miami, Miami Beach

Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change. Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis and Keith C. Pilkey. Columbia University. $29.95. 208 pages.
Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change. Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis and Keith C. Pilkey. Columbia University. $29.95. 208 pages.

There is something deeply embarrassing when your state features prominently as the what-not-to-do option. But that is increasingly true when it comes to climate change and the inevitable effects on Miami, Florida’s largest city and one that is already seeing those effects first hand.

In Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change, the authors point out to the rest of the country something many Floridians already know: One of our state senators, Marco Rubio, is a climate change denier, and our governor, Rick Scott, is even worse — he has prohibited state employees from using the term.

So our own experience with flooding is discounted by “I’m not a scientist” politicians, those head-in-the-dredged-sand deniers who cling to a political stand that has veered so far from reality it is hard to understand.

Retreat is an effort to explain the science — the stuff Scott and Rubio claim to not understand — for a lay reader. It is clear and authoritative and for South Florida, it is urgent.

“Miami, a city without a long-term future, is perhaps the biggest violator of common sense regarding the rising sea level,” the authors write. “It is a city where officialdom and developers alike are whistling past the graveyard when it comes to climate change.”

Orrin Pilkey is a professor emeritus at Duke University, where he has researched coastal geology since the 1960s. His daughter, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, is a geologist at Washington State’s Department of Ecology. Orrin’s son, Keith Pilkey, is an attorney with what he describes as a “long-standing interest in geoengineering and corporate influence on science policy.”

Together they have explained how rising seas will ultimately force many millions of people to retreat from the coasts, starting in Miami and Miami Beach. And they lament the failures of our leaders.

“Florida’s response to climate change is complicated by the current political climate and lack of leadership and even its politicians’ political cowardice,” they write.

Here’s the takeaway — we’re going to have to abandon Miami at some point in the not too distant future.

Maybe someone can figure out a way to save places like New Orleans and Amsterdam, both of which sit below sea level. At least in Miami we are a few feet above sea level in most places, so if seas rise just a foot or so, we should be okay, right?

Wrong. Miami sits on porous limestone. We can’t build structures to protect us from the rising sea.

“The significance of the porous limestone in Miami’s future is huge,” the authors write. “The construction of levees, dikes, or seawalls around all sides of the city will not stop flooding by sea-level rise. Although such walls would reduce the impact of storm surge and wave attack from a hurricane, they would not reduce inundation from a rising sea.”

And they would do nothing to protect our water supply. Saltwater intrusion into our aquifer will ultimately foul our drinking water, even as our roads and other critical infrastructure are being swamped.

The authors call Miami a “doomed city” and explain the current scientific consensus. No one knows exactly how fast the seas will rise — in fact they won’t rise at the same rate everywhere around the globe. But they are rising.

Retreat from a Rising Sea devotes a chapter to the chief scientists who have questioned whether global warming is caused by human activity or is even happening at all.

“Scientists who deny climate change and our role in it typically produce flawed papers with cherry-picked facts published in non-peer-reviewed journals,” they write. “The results are then trumpeted by right-wing think tanks, websites, and news organizations like Fox News. These papers are eventually debunked in scientific journals a year or so later, to much less fanfare.”

The book points out that several of the most prominent climate deniers are backed by organizations like the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil.

Much of Retreat from a Rising Sea is drawn from scientific papers, while some comes from recent stories in such magazines as National Geographic and Rolling Stone. The book does not break new scientific ground, but it’s not designed to. It is written as a warning, based on what we already know.

“Short of the city’s replacing cars with boats, Miami will probably be doomed when the sea has risen two more feet,” they write. “There is no nearby high ground to move buildings to; seawalls and the like won’t work; and city and state leaders haven’t even agreed there is problem, much less how to respond to the coming flood.”

If only our leaders would read this book.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.