Before the Flood, South Florida Native Quietly Plans Exit Strategy
I spoke with my friend Robin this week. Robin lives in Miami Shores, a mostly upper-middle class neighborhood located in Miami Dade county. It’s near the causeway that takes you to the beach. Robin was born on Miami Beach, so she’s a South Florida native.
On our call, Robin recounted a conversation she recently had with a friend who lives on Miami Beach. Both had seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood documentary on the National Geographic channel.
A central focus of this documentary was sea level rise and the impact it will have on Miami in the coming decades. The documentary had scared Robin and her friend enough to start thinking about selling their homes and moving to higher ground. For Robin, that higher ground was in Asheville, NC. She told me her home was paid for, and should the real estate market crash due to a mass exodus caused by sea level rise, she could lose the half million dollars her home was currently worth. She didn’t want to be a climate refugee. Robin wanted to know my opinion.
I’d also lived most of my life in South Florida. Although I’d been talking about leaving for much longer, I finally sold my home and made my exodus five years before. Due to rapid population growth and limited natural resources, South Florida is a textbook example of overshoot and what I saw as an inevitable collapse–hastened on by climate change and the already rising sea. And to add the cherry on top of the feeling of impending doom, the geology of South Florida being a porous limestone, makes the coastline indefensible. You can build a sea wall, but the water will still rise up from the ground beneath your feet.
I shared my thoughts with Robin. Across history, sea level rise has been non-linear. Climate impacts have been mostly worse than predicted; feedback loops could amplify these even further. And far before they have an epic flood in their front yards, Robin and her neighbors will have other problems to contend with that will make the southern end of Florida unpleasant to inhabit.
One that should be of concern was salt water intrusion into the drinking water aquifer. You can’t drink salt water. Desalinization is both costly and energy intensive, and probably not feasible to do on such a large scale. Another to consider was the sewer. When I lived in Broward, the number floated around the county climate change task force was 18 inches of sea level rise to inundate the sewer system.
So, in my opinion, Robin was reasonable to start contemplating that her real estate investment (now still a hot commodity) might decline in her lifetime. Yes, I agreed with her. Start downsizing, get the house on the market, and get the exit plan in place now while she was still in control. Robin wasn’t wasting any time. She intended to complete her move in 2017. I’m sure she’s not alone.
And although Robin’s situation is not unique, she is fortunate in that she has resources that allow her to proactively move to higher ground. Around the world, many people will not have that opportunity. We are likely to see massive migrations of climate refugees this century.
And just thinking about that scenario is both tragic and overwhelming. We are past the time to get a price on carbon that will allow us to transition to a new energy economy. But as they say, better late than never.