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Miami and More: Doomed to Drown

June 29, 2013

“It is beyond denial; it is flat-out delusional.”

You thought Hurricane Andrew was bad? Try Hurricane Milo. Image: Sun-Sentinel.

The speaker is disaster-impact analyst Chuck Watson, attempting to sum up the intensity of climate change denial in the state of Florida. The must-read article is “Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown,” — aka “Goodbye, Miami” — in Rolling Stone. The topic is sea level rise and its implications not just for South Florida but also for low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Philadelphia (well, Philadelphia isn’t really mentioned, but Philly is particularly vulnerable because the Delaware Bay and tidal Delaware River are slated for disproportionate sea level rise). The paragraph preceding that “delusional” summation reads:

The statehouse in Tallahassee is a monument to climate-change denial. “You can’t even say the words ‘climate change’ on the House floor without being run out of the building,” says Gustafson. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2016, is another denier, still trotting out the tired old argument that “no matter how many job-killing­ laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather.” Gov. Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican, says he’s “not convinced” that global warming is caused by human beings. Since taking office in 2011, Scott has targeted environmental protections of every sort and slashed the budget of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency in charge of managing water supply in the region, as well as restoration of the Everglades. “There is no serious thinking, no serious planning, about any of this going on at the state level,” says Chuck Watson, a disaster-­impact analyst with longtime experience in Florida. “The view is, ‘Well, if it gets real bad, the federal government will bail us out.’ It is beyond denial; it is flat-out delusional.”

We urge you to read the whole article. A preview:  It’s fascinating. It’s compelling. It starts like this:

When the water receded after Hurricane Milo of 2030, there was a foot of sand covering the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontaine­bleau hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage occurred not from the hurricane’s 175-mph winds, but from the 24-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, the old art-deco­ buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater-treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera. More than 800 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale…

The essay continues to make its case with full allegiance to science, and to topographical and geological realities:

South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won’t just come in from the east – because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the west too, through the Everglades.

Even worse, South Florida sits above a vast and porous limestone plateau. “Imagine Swiss cheese, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the rock under southern Florida looks like,” says Glenn Landers, a senior engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This means water moves around easily – it seeps into yards at high tide, bubbles up on golf courses, flows through underground caverns, corrodes building foundations from below. “Conventional sea walls and barriers are not effective here,” says Robert Daoust, an ecologist at ARCADIS, a Dutch firm that specializes in engineering solutions to rising seas.

The author of “Goodbye, Miami,” Jeff Goodell, describes the scene during a torrential rain:

Blue sky vanishes and suddenly water is everywhere, pooling in streets, flooding parking lots, turning intersections into submarine crossings. Even for a nonbeliever like me, it feels biblical, as if God were punishing the good citizens of Miami Beach for spending too much time on the dance floor. At Alton Road and 10th Street, we watched a woman in a Toyota stall at a traffic light as water rose up to the doors. A man waded out to help her, water up to his knees. This flooding has gotten worse with each passing year, happening not only after torrential rainstorms but during high tides, too, when rising sea water backs up through the city’s antiquated drainage system. Wanless, 71, who drives an SUV that is littered with research equipment, notebooks and mud, shook his head with pity. “This is what global warming looks like,” he explained. “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”

The quotable Harold Wanless, Goodell’s companion and observer during that rainstorm, is the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami.

Of his home city, Wanless says,  “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”

Of engineers and their solutions, Wanless observes, “Engineers want to sell solutions, and often that means downplaying the seriousness of the problem in the long term.”

The same may be said, too often, and in too many contexts, of activists. We’ve seen it as recently as this past week, witnessing the celebration of Obama’s Climate speech at Georgetown, in the “as-if” world, the parallel universe in which full-fledged support for fracking, escalating the shale gas epidemic on the global scale, magically does not increase climate change — in spite of 9% methane leaks at the well-head and 17% leaks in the distribution system. As if.

Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to these chopped-up chunks of this article, the most important piece on climate to hit the pages of Rolling Stone since Bill McKibben’s Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  Read the whole thing. The sections on drinking water and desalination plants, and the Turkey Point nuclear power plant, are crucial to the whole.

Action Faction

Trying to avoid sinking into “well-informed futility syndrome” after reading this article? The three actions below take just a few minutes, and may help keep you actively searching for deeper actions to take instead of deeper depression to sink into.

Action suggestions:

First, since fracking escalates climate change, and climate change increases both sea level rise and the violence of storms, call President Obama: 202-456-1111 to tell him how strongly you disagree with his promotion of shale gas and especially his LNG (liquified natural gas) export strategy, which is horrible both for communities impacted by fracking, and for climate.

Second, give South Florida a hand. If you have the urge to call Gov Rick Scott to tell him to get out of the way so someone capable of understanding science and facing the future can govern, you’ll find his contact information — as well as many more specific and constructive action steps — in the spring Florida Sierra Club newsletter, The Pelican.

Third, in the buzz about “Goodbye, Miami,” remind everyone that it’s not just carbon we need to reduce, it’s greenhouse gases overall, including methane, especially right now (methane is 105 times more potent in global warming impact than CO2 in the 20-year time frame, according to NASA scientist Drew Shindell). It’s not just Big Coal and Big Oil that are causing the problem — it’s Big Gas. A fossil fuel by any other name sinks Miami just the same.

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