MIAMI FACES AN UNDERWATER FUTURE
In Miami, the rising sea is already an ineluctable part of daily life. Everyone is affected
THE NEW YORKER -- whether storm flooding forces a small-business owner to shut down for a few days (at tremendous cost), or daily tides hinder students commuting to school, or the retreating coastline forces people to abandon their homes. There are other, less obvious, but equally troubling impacts. People’s increased contact with overflow water from urban canals and sewers is a significant health issue. Low-income communities of color—like Liberty City and Little Haiti—also face rising housing costs as residents seek higher ground. Some have started referring to this as climate gentrification, “a trend of underserved communities being taken over by investors and developers due to rising sea levels,” Valencia Gunder, a community organizer, explained. Historically, “low-income communities of color were forced to live in the center of the city, high above sea level. Now that the sea level is rising, that puts us in prime real estate.” Gunder is one of the many Miami residents who appear in this video series, which focusses on the high-stakes questions that arise as people begin to adapt, and the factors that help create and strengthen resiliency for what’s ahead. “Every adaptation project is an opportunity to improve our environmental quality,” Tiffany Troxler, a wetlands biologist, said. “And to improve social equity.”
As the average global temperature increases, sea level is projected to rise more than one foot by 2045, which would put a fifth of Miami underwater at high tide. While the entire East Coast of the United States is at tremendous risk, Miami is particularly vulnerable. Its underlying bedrock is limestone, which makes the effects of sea-level rise particularly insidious. “Limestone is very porous, so salt water can seep up,” Ben Wilson, an environmental scientist, said in an episode that examines the intersection of ecology and development. “We can’t just build a wall to keep salt water out.” Along the shoreline, freshwater marshes, which act as natural coastal buffers against storm surge, are collapsing because of increased salt-water intrusion. Once those grasses are gone, storm waters will flood Miami much more quickly.
The economic effects will be staggering. Tourism and property taxes—derived from real-estate development—are the region’s two main sources of income. “There are many in the business community, and even government officials, who feel we shouldn’t talk about it,” Wayne Pathman, a real-estate lawyer, said. “But it’s too late for that.” The median family income in Miami-Dade County is roughly forty-five thousand dollars—not high for a metropolitan area. The hardest-hit communities will be, and have already been, those with the fewest resources to adapt and rebuild.
“With climate change there already are winners and losers,” Jesse Keenan, a Harvard professor who teaches courses on climate adaptation, said. “The idea, as a matter of public policy, is how do we subsidize and and support the most vulnerable populations, who are very often the economic losers.” There is no easy answer. But the people featured in these videos are, at least, trying. “I love this place,” one activist told the filmmakers. “I love the people, I love the diversity and the colors and the richness. I love that cross-cultural mix we have going on here. The question is, ‘Can we live here much longer, and safely? And if so, how much longer, and how safely?’ ”
Some residents are planning real-estate development and new infrastructure to attempt to keep the city dry.
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