Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: How to bury your head in the sand, Miami-style

FILE--A woman boards a Miami-Dade Transit bus on Alton Road at 10th Street in Miami Beach in October 2008 after the driver pulled up to a ramp, making it somewhat easier to avoid a huge puddle. High tides caused spotty flooding throughout the city.
FILE--A woman boards a Miami-Dade Transit bus on Alton Road at 10th Street in Miami Beach in October 2008 after the driver pulled up to a ramp, making it somewhat easier to avoid a huge puddle. High tides caused spotty flooding throughout the city. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In a vulnerable state where the governor, one of two senators, and a trove of congressional representatives are climate-change deniers, there’s only one line of defense left: county government.

In Miami-Dade — dubbed for good reason the country’s “ground zero” for rising sea levels as a result of global warming and glaciers melting at more accelerated rates than anticipated — there’s plenty of talk about concerns. Climate change has finally become a popular talking point. But meaningful investment in solutions, that’s another story.

There are calls to action, role play — and the No. 1 technique for burying your political head in the Miami sand: assigning the issue to yet another task force — and leave out the scientist who issued the first alarming report, the one that should’ve made leaders pay attention years ago but was shelved.

He didn’t sit on the new task force, much less lead it, but he has done first-hand research on Miami’s rising sea levels.

Barrier islands east and west in South Florida will be under water in the next century, he will tell you.

“The severity of what’s coming up is very clear,” Dr. Harold Wanless, the University of Miami scientist who co-chaired the first Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force in 2007, told me. “We’re in for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to be prepared instead of blindsided?”

A sensible proposition from a nationally recognized expert who lives among us — but what’s county government doing about it?

Members of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s staff, who spoke to me about the issue Tuesday, will tell you that they agree: Climate-change initiatives should be a priority. Although this may have not been spelled out in the 2016 budget, they insist, funding is there to address the future.

They point to long-term investments such as a revamped water and sewer system that will be resilient to seawater intrusion. They point to the adoption of stricter building codes that take catastrophic weather events into consideration. They point to endangered lands and beach nourishment programs they continue to fund.

There’s a theoretical plan to build “resilient communities” able to cope with climate change, according to a budget memo from the mayor to commissioners. But when I inquired about specific new projects — preparation for the catastrophic flooding to come, for example — I came away with a lot of discussion about good intentions and awareness but nothing major or ground-breaking.

And more worrisome was that even a vital fact Wanless cited and I ran through them was questioned: According to U.S. government projections, we could see a two-foot sea-level rise as early as 2048. That’s a mortgage cycle away.

“How can anyone put a date on it?” asked the mayor’s point man on climate change, Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt.

The answer to that question is in the first page of the county’s 2014 task force report, written by its chair, Harvey Ruvin, clerk of the courts: “[Sea-level rise] is a measurable, trackable and relentless reality. Without innovative adaptive capital planning it will threaten trillions of dollars of the region’s built environment, our future water supply, our unique natural resources, our agricultural soils, and our basic economy.”

And the theory of building “resilient communities?”

“That’s a silly term,” Wanless says.

The mayor was not available for comment Tuesday.

He was in Los Angeles, invited by the White House and State Department and traveling on the Miami-Dade taxpayers’ dime, to speak at the U.S.-China Climate Change Summit — a keynote speaker he was, no less.

Here’s hoping, that in the process of role-playing, the mayor brings back real, ground-breaking solutions for Miami-Dade.

Fabiola Santiago can be reached at 305-376-3469, fsantiago@miamiherald.com or on Twitter @fabiolasantiago.

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