Yogi Berra once said that, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” His words could serve as yet another warning for the residents of today’s Florida, a state that finds itself in the eye of the storm on climate change.
It’s customary on the first day of the half-year-long hurricane season to issue a reminder about preparing for what a well-known book (and movie of the same name) once called The Mean Season. Long-time Floridians know they have to be ready, and that now is the time to prepare.
Feeling complacent because Florida hasn’t been hit by a major storm in 10 years? Consider this: On April 11, 1992, the Herald ran a story with the following headline: Slow season forecast for hurricanes. Four months later, Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade. And here’s a headline we spotted last week in the Sun Sentinel: NOAA predicts slow hurricane season. Our advice: Be prepared for the worst.
But as bad as hurricanes are, they do not pose existential threats to Florida, or to our future. The recurring peril of windstorms has certainly not stopped the influx of millions of new residents that began in the post-war years and has turned Florida into the third most populous state in the union.
But climate change — specifically, sea-level rise caused by global warming — poses a challenge of another order of magnitude. A hurricane hits our shores like a big bang. It’s here and then gone, leaving disaster in its wake. We clean up, we move on.
Sea-level rise is something else: an insidious attack, slowly gnawing away at our beaches, our coastline, our coastal cities. It doesn’t go away.
And it’s here already. Look at the flooded streets in Miami Beach. Or, further up the coast, the 450-year-old city of St. Augustine, whose streets already flood about 10 times a year, and homes built on sand dunes teetering over open space as the Atlantic encroaches on the foundations. All of Florida’s coastal cities face similar threats. Over on the Gulf side, the Tampa/St. Pete area is deemed particularly vulnerable to rising seas because roads and bridges weren’t designed to handle higher tides.
Insurance giant Swiss Re, according to a recent news story, has estimated that the economy in southeast Florida could sustain $33 billion in damage from sea-level rise and other climate changes by 2030.
The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact said last year that waters around this area could surge up to two feet by 2060, posing a huge threat to our infrastructure and fresh water supplies and, ultimately, our way of life.
These are not wild guesses or alarmist warnings. They’re predictions, based on accepted science. And here’s the rub: While some communities, like Miami Beach, are scrambling to prepare for this challenge, the state of Florida has no plan. Gov. Rick Scott’s disregard for climate change science has created a culture of fear among state employees.
We don’t think the end of Florida is inevitable, or even likely. But the end of Florida as we know it is certainly possible, and growing more likely every year as the state’s once limitless future erodes along with the vanishing beaches and shrinking shoreline.
State leaders, it’s not too late to steer Florida in the right direction. We should be drawing up plans to cope with the challenges of the future, instead of heading blindly toward certain disaster. Or, as Yogi Berra also said: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”