In South Florida, we need to transform our communities to address climate change and sea-level rise


University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science


Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy Faculty Advisory Committee

Clement and Lombard
Clement and Lombard

In South Florida, where we are faced with frequent “sunny day flooding,” most residents have little lingering doubt that our climate is changing.

While the vastness of the challenge that comes with living on a low-lying porous limestone base with salt, fresh and brackish waters around and below us, can seem overwhelming, we cannot let this daunting condition paralyze efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation measures. Instead we need to transform our communities to have a global impact.

When the fringe of Hurricane Irma turned Miami’s streets into rivers and filled waterfront parks and homes with debris, we experienced a harbinger of days to come.

The 9-inch rise in sea level during the last 100 years, caused mostly by fossil-fuel consumption, is predicted to accelerate as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, with as much as a 3-foot rise in South Florida by 2060. Our water systems and settlement patterns in flood-prone areas were not designed for a rising sea or such a large population. The vulnerabilities of our location are becoming clearer as very high tides become commonplace.

The rising waters link many issues that can benefit from informed discussions about how we interact with our environment and how we can wisely allocate resources.

We live in a landscape that been reshaped by large-scale engineering. The consequences are evident in water-quality issues in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee releases, and precarious settlements in wetlands and barrier islands.

Efforts to control the water, such as pumping it back into the ocean, provide only temporary relief, and we can’t keep the water out with dikes and dams because it rises up from the ground below.

Coping with sea-level rise requires an integrated approach engaging everyone. South Floridians can take action on two levels: globally and locally.

The first approach is one that we share with the global community: to “turn off the burner” and rein in activities that generate greenhouse gases. According to the EPA, most 2016 greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. came from transportation (28.5 percent), homes and businesses (11 percent), and electricity production (28.4 percent). The design of our houses, workplaces and cities, contributes to more than two-thirds of the emissions.

Walkable neighborhoods, energy-efficient buildings, and integrating natural systems and plant communities are strategies we can deploy to develop places that are healthier for people and the planet.

Both individual and collective action is needed to address these challenges. We can advocate for state and federal governments to enact laws to regulate emissions through carbon fees and dividends. We also can join the US cities and states committed to meeting Paris Climate accord targets.

The second approach is hyperlocal.

The shoals and channels along the coastal ridge and the interior communities of former hammock, pine rockland and wetland all require specific strategies. Residents, business owners, and local and regional government need to work together to develop them.

This is happening around South Florida. City and county resiliency officers have conducted public workshops for the Greater Miami and the Beaches resiliency initiative, working toward a report expected later this year.

Our geology demands hyperlocal observation and planning. It has inspired an array of individuals, groups and local governments to form robust networks.

We have been involved in Grove 2030, a volunteer group striving to envision a future informed by the values of the community, and focusing on a local response to climate change.

Since the city of Miami’s comprehensive Coconut Grove Waterfront Plan (2008) did not explicitly address sea-level rise, we conducted a recent workshop, “Sea Change: Imagining a Resilient Waterfront in Coconut Grove,” to discuss how new thinking can inform planning.

We have learned that neighborhoods are seeking alternatives to engineered systems, They are exploring new approaches to coastal areas that incorporate mangroves and marshlands to mitigate flood risk and increase walkability, bike-ability and connectivity across the waterfront’s public spaces.

Moreover, sea-level rise impacts the quality of coastal waters and ecosystems. These values also need expression in the Coconut Grove waterfront plans.

Local governments do not have the answers. We need to work together to construct them. Each neighborhood and community should re-examine their own conditions and work with their city and county governments to advocate for the adaptations that they want to see happen.

Fortunately, there are many projects (listed below) around the world demonstrating creative approaches to managing water in public spaces that benefit humans and ecosystems. Although they don’t address our unique conditions, they suggest methods and processes and help to inspire imaginative solutions for South Florida.

The forces of nature don’t respect the boundaries that separate municipalities and neighborhoods. Working together as a community will determine the effectiveness of our strategies for living with the forces.

This includes the opportunity to design effective and equitable solutions that can reduce the disparate burden that environmental problems place on underserved communities. Design efforts require purposeful, participatory action with diverse local leaders from the start.

This process can lead us into a new form of resilience as a community, sharing challenges with a sense of responsibility for one another. If this condition teaches us anything, we should realize that all of our actions literally ripple through this fragile peninsula. How we come together to act on this awareness will determine our future. And now is the time to act.

Amy Clement is a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Joanna Lombard, co-chair of the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy Faculty Advisory Committee, is an architect and Professor in the School of Architecture with a joint appointment in the Miller School of Medicine Department of Public Health Sciences at the UM.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.