Climate Change Refugees: Only the Beginning

Climate Change Refugees

Oakley and Casey Jones, tourists from Idaho Falls, navigate the flooded streets of Miami Beach as they enter their hotel during last year’s king tide. Image by Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com
Image Credit: Miami Herald

What would 20 million climate refugees look like? The state of Florida has almost that many people, many of them concentrated on the coasts, with around 7 million in Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties alone. Go find Florida on this map, and then play with the water levels. Florida is flat – from 0-50 meters above sea level – and using 345 foot Britton Hill isn’t fair. Zoom in on the area from West Palm Beach to Homestead.

Now raise the water level two meters.

Not that much of a big deal, right? Sure some blue appears pretty far inland as the water table rises, but even the coast isn’t that impacted, really. At five meters, you’ll notice more impact inland, while on the coast some very fancy real estate owners need a rowboat to get to the mailbox – and depending on how high the water is, they might need a snorkel and fins, too. At 8 meters – roughly 24 feet – Lake Okeechobee extends all the way into the Keys. A Hurricane Katrina or Camille could push that much water without breaking a sweat.

“But the water always goes back down!”

Well, no. It doesn’t. Otherwise the city of Miami wouldn’t be spending $25 million to mitigate tidal flooding along Indian Creek Drive. Not king tide flooding, not storm runoff flooding – plain old high tide flooding. Otherwise Fort Lauderdale would not be preparing to raise 200 miles of seawalls by eight inches. Otherwise our aquifers would not be slowly spoiled with invading salt water, putting the entire Everglades ecosystem in danger of collapse, leaving alone the question what the people of Florida will drink, cook, and wash with. The worst-case projection by NOAA is a six foot rise by 2100, unless there is accommodation, mitigation, and even retreat from our unsustainable coastal building sprees.

Yes, retreat.

Restore the dunes. Restore the mangrove forests. Block new and unsustainable construction that is simply not sustainable in the face of six feet of water in the lobby. This kind of building is a vanity project, sold to people who want the pretty postcard Florida, but not the problems of maintenance. Politicians, too, must understand that a world-class city is not made of sporting events and grand buildings but from sound planning and the needs of future generations accounted for.

Thus far, most American municipalities are dancing along in the fail line with county, state, and federal governments, private industry, developers, and the NIMBYs hollering about what those dunes would do to their view. Miami is at least getting out in front of the problem, albeit in wading boots instead of track shoes. Palm Beach County has gone further, restoring ten miles of dune habitat, renourishing their beaches, and taking aggressive anti-erosion measures. We need to be more aggressive in making people understand that sea level rise is a disaster that could be more devastating than a hurricane, simply because hurricanes move on, but sea level rise stays for a very long time.

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