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AOC is actually holding out false hope for Miami. She thinks that southern Florida has a chance still. But that’s because she doesn’t yet know enough.

Climate Change

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Comments That Miami Is At Climate Risk, & Right-Wing Media Erupts In Howls

AOC is actually holding out false hope for Miami. She thinks that southern Florida has a chance still. But that’s because she doesn’t yet know enough.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says remarkably sensible things infused with knowledge and insight, if you actually listen to her words. But you’d never know it from Fox News and other right-wing media. Case in point:

Yes, in a speech Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) put Miami and climate change in the same sentence, and right-wing media took flight. But here’s the thing. She was actually being fairly conservative in her statements from a climate risks perspective. It’s easier to argue that she was not alarmist at all.

First off, let’s be accurate about what she said:

“What is not realistic is not responding to the crisis — not responding with a solution on the scale of the crisis,” she said. “Because what’s not realistic is Miami not existing in a few years. That’s not realistic. So, we need to be realistic about the problem.”

She’s not saying that it will disappear. She’s not saying that’s guaranteed. She’s saying that dealing with climate change so that there is a Miami in the future is critical. And she tied that to the Green New Deal, understandably. However, nothing will save Miami.

My perspective is straightforward. Miami is screwed and will be a shell of its former self by about 2050. That’s about 30 years, which in climate change terms is a few years, so I think that AOC’s timeframe of a few years is a reasonable statement from a rhetorical perspective. Will there be a Miami there? Sure, but it will be a rich enclave with some squalor around it at best. By 2100, it will be few resorts for the rich with foreign workers flown in as necessary.

Why? A few reasons.

Let’s start with sea level rise. IPCC 5 median sea level rise was about 60 cm (24 inches) by 2100 and about 20 cm (8 inches) by 2050. IPCC 5 excluded some reports observing more rapid Greenland melting because of the lack of an explanatory mechanism, but that’s now covered in subsequent research. As a result, sea level rise is faster than the 5th IPCC report published, so expect about up to 30 cm or 12 inches by 2050 as a reasonable median projection, and about a meter or 3.4 ft by 2100. Around an extra foot of water along the shores of southern Florida by 2050 is a fairly conservative estimate at this point, and that’s baked in. We don’t have the ability to prevent that level of sea level rise because the temperature dials we have — CO2e levels in the atmosphere — are slow-moving.

King tide clear sky flooding in Miami covering street with seawater

King tide clear sky flooding in Miami in 2016. Image credit: B137/Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

And that’s just base sea level rise. That doesn’t count king tides, which are already providing incredibly predictable clear sky flooding in multiple Miami neighborhoods today, so expect that in a lot more places. That doesn’t count storm surge from hurricanes, which adds a whole lot more if there’s another foot of water to begin with. That doesn’t count waves from hurricanes, which will roll a lot further inland on a storm surge and high tide. Miami is going to get clobbered by flooding many times during the upcoming hurricane seasons.

That video is of Hurricane Irma-driven flooding in September 2017 in downtown Miami. Imagine that a couple of feet deeper with waves instead of ripples. None of the buildings or infrastructure were designed for that. Insurance is going up at minimum.

About half of Miami’s 5.5 million residents live within two meters or a bit over 6 feet of sea level today. High tide, storm surge and waves with another foot of basic water level put them all at risk, or at least every single home and business.

And southern Florida is built on a sponge of limestone. There is no way to keep the water out as the Dutch have done. Parts of Miami are already pumping water out to sea to try to hold it back.

But you know, that’s not actually the worst problem.

Image of southern Florida with sea level rise exposure with new CoastDEM data by 2050 in red

Image courtesy climatecentral.org

See all that red? A recent machine learning study shows that by 2050, all the bits in red are at risk from extreme coastal water levels regularly through the year. Yeah, flooding. You’ll see that much of the southern Keys are mostly gone, as are little bits of Miami. The Miami bits aren’t unexpected, but that big red blob on the left is worse.

What’s that blob? It’s the Everglades. What does the Everglades do? It filters fresh water into the Biscayne Aquifer, which is where everything in southern Florida gets its water. What’s the aquifer in? Limestone again. It’s already suffering a lot of brackish incursions at current sea levels, as well as little problems of Superfund sites and septic systems in sprawling subdivisions making it vile.

So the Everglades turn into salt marshes, no more fresh water gets into the aquifer and what’s left there gets brackish and polluted.

Bye bye cheap fresh water for southern Florida. Hello, expensive water, which makes a lot of marginal living arrangements non viable. Hello migrations out of southern Miami by anybody nearer the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum who can scrape together travel money. Bye bye cheap labor for cleaning, retail, and the hospitality industry.

Before the recent machine learning study, I thought southern Florida was in serious trouble by 2100 and starting to see significant impacts by 2050. Now I think it’s in real trouble in just 30 years.

And guess what else is going to be hitting Florida. Bye bye a lot of beaches. Beach-related tourism is over 50% of Florida’s economy, and do you know what that requires? Beaches with sand on them. And that sand is getting scarcer and more expensive, and it’s being washed away from beaches faster between higher seas and broader diameter hurricanes and other storms. Beaches have been reclaimed for years, but each one cobbles together municipal, state, and federal money. A bunch of municipalities are going to be hit by a trifecta. They have to relocate inland at great expense, they won’t be able to afford beach sand or convince the state or feds that their beach matters, and their beach revenue disappears. A lot of Florida’s revenue is going to be draining away by 2050.

Given that about 30% of the Florida Keys are going to be underwater by 2050, a bunch of Keys revenue is going to go too. A lot of people in the Keys are already waiting for relocation bailouts, and that’s just going to increase.

So what will be there? Rich people around Miami and a few other enclaves. A workforce that will get free water at work if they are lucky. And a lot fewer people.

Miami is going to have way too much of the wrong kind of water and way too little of the right kind of water. Along with Key West and New Orleans, it’s going to be a much smaller playground for rich people, without much around it.

So AOC is actually holding out false hope for Miami. She thinks that southern Florida has a chance still. But that’s because she doesn’t yet know enough. She’s saying that it’s unacceptable to let it disappear, when it’s already pretty much too late given our decades of inaction. I’m sure she’ll learn more. As it is, she’s a lot more right than the right-wing media deriding her, as usual.


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Written By

is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.

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