Can Miami Survive Rising Sea Levels?

© Nisbetwylie photographs / Alamy

A panel of experts discuss the fate of the city as the polar ice caps continue to melt.

How long can the party last? With the polar ice caps melting at an alarming rate, low-lying coastlands like Miami are under threat the world over. According to some experts, the city might find its streets submerged as soon as 50 years from now. And because it’s built on porous limestone, engineering solutions like seawalls won’t do any good; when the time comes, the seawater will percolate up from underground as well.

To discuss what can be done about it, departures gathered a panel of Miami luminaries from the worlds of politics, real estate, design, urban planning, conservation and science around a table at the newly opened Miami Center for Architecture and Design in August. Concrete solutions were remarkably few and far between. But the consensus was that someone, someday will save Miami.

We’re here in downtown Miami, maybe a couple of feet above sea level. When we reconvene in 2064, will we need boats to get here?

KEREN BOLTER, Science director, Coastal Risk Consulting, LLC: I can’t answer that question definitively because we have a lot of different paths from where we are now. I feel like we’re off to a good start. I know that there’s so much more that needs to be done. One of the greatest things that we have in southeast Florida is our Regional Climate Change Compact—in which four counties have come together and created a full set of resources, tools. And they’re teaming up to take action.

JAY PHILLIP PARKER, CEO of Florida Brokerage, Douglas Elliman: If you took a look at Miami Beach, you would recognize that parts of the city are completely underwater in any high-level storm. And yet we are now witnessing a tremendous investment in trying to correct this problem. I don’t have a scientific background, but I think that our municipalities are knowledgeable enough and have the resources to take action. I ultimately think that we’re survivors. I’m not a sky-is-falling type of person.

MICHAEL GONGORA, Former Miami Beach city commissioner; partner, Becker & Poliakoff: Most cities are still having the argument about whether global warming and sea-level rise are really happening. We believed in it early on. In 2012 we passed the first Stormwater Master Plan of any municipality in Florida that actually accounts for sea-level rise. Part of what’s being done, besides installing pump stations, is we’re raising Alton Road six inches. And we’re starting to do it on all the streets in Miami Beach. We’re also raising seawalls on city-owned properties.

ROBIN BACHIN, Assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement, University of Miami: We need to think about how these localized efforts can become more regional. Not just through municipal government, but also through the state, through the federal government...through every entity that has a vested interest in seeing that South Florida, which is ground zero for sea-level rise, becomes a national model for how we deal with climate-change issues.

Austin, you’re a designer who lives right on the water. You’re trying to come up with ways to design homes and other kinds of structures for the future. How is the prospect of sea-level rise impacting your work?

AUSTIN HARRELSON, Interior designer, Miami Beach: You have all been studying this for quite some time. But for me, this is a new thing. I haven’t had the first client move down from New York and say to me: “I’m very concerned about sea-level rise.” I think about it because I live a hundred feet from the water. The storms brew up, and my family, my three little kids—they’re very scared. I live in a 1936 historic house. I’ve looked into doing different things: Should I raise the house up by two feet? In South Florida it’s not so easy, because we are built on soil and rock that is not really intended for those kinds of loads. How do you ask a lot of people to pick up their houses? Who’s going to pay for it? We can change some codes, and I think that would probably be a very good way to start.

CAROLINE LEWIS, Founder and executive director, The CLEO Institute: This is a carbon game. Sea-level rise just gives us a reason to amplify the [climate change] conversation faster. We’ve been playing hurricane roulette for how long?

Parker: The problem that you face from a municipal, city, county, state level is that you have businesspeople who are looking at the path of least resistance, the most effective way to build their product for that end user who’s really thinking about: How beautiful is my home? What are my views? Do I have a western or eastern exposure? And what’s the sun going to be like in my backyard? As sophisticated as they may be, and as knowledgeable as they may be about this subject, the average buyer today owns a property for five to seven years—they’re not thinking about 60, 70, 80 years from now.

So where does the responsibility lie? Someone needs to be thinking 50 years down the line.

Parker: I think the responsibility falls with the governments.

DR. CHRISTINE SHEPARD, Gulf of Mexico Program science director, The Nature Conservancy: I’m building a house. And I said, okay, they say base flood elevation has to be at nine feet. But I know what I know, so I’d like to build it two feet higher than that. And if you just rely on the government, you’re relying, in some cases, on 30-year-old maps that don’t incorporate the current sea level, let alone future levels. So it all comes down to the outreach in education.

Bolter: The main barrier to implementation is the lack of awareness. We’re looking at short-term profit and not thinking about the long term. People don’t understand and the developers don’t understand, so they’re not demanding action. I wonder if it’s going to take a disaster for people to say “Oh, my gosh!”

Considering the porousness of the limestone aquifer, solutions that work for other low-lying cities aren’t going to work in Miami. So what will work here?

ROBERT DAOUST, Associate vice president, Arcadis, with a background in ecosystem ecology: That’s a very good question. The idea of a big levee, like you have in the Netherlands—or a big seawall, like you build around New Orleans—is not something that can translate here. You have to look at ideas that [have worked] in other places and try to think about how to customize them for the issues we have here. But what is that solution? That answer is still very much unknown.

Parker: As it becomes a more densely populated community, we have to think about ways to charge the appropriate people for the impact they’re having. When people want to build a 300-unit project, they will have to contribute toward costs, toward pumping systems and new technology.

Gongora: Impact fees are necessary in Miami Beach. But you also have to look for ways to incentivize good building practices.

Lewis: I work in D.C., as well. And we’re trying to get some federal dollars to invest in “solution-orientedness” and ingenuity here. I work with whoever’s ready. I don’t go out there convincing people who don’t want to understand climate change. You can’t mitigate if you don’t call it carbon pollution.

Daoust: I think the challenge is that a municipality is like a little boat that you can turn quickly, and the federal government is like a gigantic ...

Lewis: Titanic. [laughter]

Bachin: But I think you see, increasingly, the private sector and the public sector working together.

Daoust: The government’s not going to do anything it doesn’t have to do. Everglades restoration stalled for years. Why did [former governor] Jeb Bush decide to move forward? Because it was suddenly sexy. It was hot, it was electable and there was a strong public willingness to support it. The government’s not going to react until there’s grassroots energy to do it.

Bolter: You have to frame the messages so people say: Wow, this is a big deal. Some people care about the financial issues and the property value; some people care about the habitat loss; and some people care about health. All these septic tanks right next to drinking-water wells? With the groundwater rising? There are so many health issues.

Lewis: Our sewer system has been denied its funding for upgrades for decades, just because of poor government. I see one little hurricane disrupting our sewer system. Everybody in this room is going to pack up their car and go find relatives on high ground. But the poor—which is more than 50 percent of the population—are going to be here with toilets that don’t flush, [which could lead to] cholera. This is the worst-case scenario. But creating the political will to prevent that means creating the people’s will.

If we had a magic switch and could shut off carbon pollution today, there’s still 25 years of climate change baked in. That must complicate your efforts to convince people to do something.

Lewis: It does. A lot of people think, “Well, what’s the point?” Look: All of that carbon up there is pretty much ours. And the next 25 years is egg on our face. So let’s roll up our sleeves and start finding ways to scrub that carbon out. The big answer is a carbon tax. The Obama administration came up with a pretty good climate action plan. Not good enough for me, but pretty good. And in it, the president has fuel-efficiency standards, building retrofits. He’s doing it almost in secret. That’s the sort of thing that should be a national campaign.

Shepard: It’s sad to say, but sometimes it does come after a big storm.

Daoust: In New York, already the momentum from Sandy is starting to wear very thin. It’s reactive: Everybody freaks out, and then it drifts from memory. Life has gone on.

I spoke to someone recently who said, “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. Miami is a boom-or-bust town. People learn how to buy low and sell high.” On some level, are those the attitudes we’re dealing with?

Gongora: I don’t think so. We’re looking to sustain our community for the future. Those of us who are invested here, who have families here, who grew up here, are looking for the sustainable solution. This isn’t just like a quick fix, to invest and get money.

Bolter: In [a 2013] Rolling Stone article about sea-level rise, there was a quote that said America is just going to let Miami go. That’s so silly. You love your home—you’re going to pay more than it’s worth to protect it. And Miami is so special. We’re going to pay more to keep it.

Parker: We live in one of the most interesting real-estate markets in the world. And it’s not simply because of the fact that we have beautiful beaches. You’d be hard-pressed to find an environment that offers the culture, the dining opportunities, the education, the hospital systems...

Bolter: And it’s sexy. Miami’s sexy.

Parker: Very much so. Ocean Drive magazine just published an article about why South Florida is becoming a home to more billionaires than anywhere else in the world. The idea of boom and bust—that something’s going to pop—is filled with air. There is sustainability in this market because of the very significant draw from all over the world: It’s bringing wealth; it’s bringing knowledge; it’s bringing power. That’s going to create more intelligent minds thinking about the future.

Bachin: It’s incumbent upon educators and financiers and Realtors to say: Let’s create a model of luxury development in South Florida that leads the world in thinking about sustainability. So designers: What does it look like? To create a luxury high-rise building that maybe has a view of the waterfront but also has coastal protection? There are ways that we can do this.

Daoust: The need to preserve any natural protective features [like coral reefs and mangroves] is a no-brainer.

I feel like the prevailing sentiment in this room today is resiliency, optimism, “goddammit, we’re gonna beat this.” How wise is the optimism? Is this an example of the crazy guy you see on the news when the hurricane’s coming, who refuses to leave despite the warnings?

Bolter: I’ve been optimistic, but things are being done that I don’t agree with. We are incentivizing people living on the coast through our insurance. They’re getting subsidized insurance, so they’re not seeing the true risk. An estimated 40 percent of insurance subsidies go to Florida coastal properties.

Shepard: And people in other parts of the country really resent [the incentives].

Lewis: Yes, they do. And they should.

Daoust: But somebody who owns a $15 million home on Palm Island doesn’t care.

Lewis: Well, they shouldn’t get federal-government insurance. Let them self-insure. Look, I don’t know if there’s a person in this room who would be honest and tell you they haven’t thought about if they’re going to leave Miami. So my husband and I are like, Should we bail now? Do we have five years? Do we have 15 years? We never want to leave. We love where we are, like everybody here.

Bolter: A hundred years ago, Miami Beach was a sand dune and some mangroves. So I have hope that in a hundred years, we’re going to find a way to suck the carbon out. There are innovations and solutions that we haven’t yet imagined. We’ll find ways to do things that we don’t know yet.

Gongora: Besides the optimism in this room, which I think is great, everybody around the world wants a piece of Miami and Miami Beach. There are major players investing in our community, that have billions and billions of dollars invested in property.

Lewis: We love these crazy-rich people.

One thing that’s been talked about a lot today is the idea that people would not come in and invest that kind of money unless solutions were going to be found. But as an outsider, you might think: Is your head in the sand? And isn’t that sand wet? [Laughter]

Harrelson: Maybe you’re right—but this is a global problem. We’re going to be attacking it all over the world. And I think, with all the global resources we’ll have, we’ll come up with something. That’s why I’m optimistic.

Bachin: We shouldn’t have blind optimism just because billionaires are investing in Miami. Presumably, most of the people investing today are not from the United States. They are paying with cash. It’s unclear what their intentions are, short- vs. long-term. The important thing is recognizing that we have a much better understanding of the science of sea-level rise and climate change. There are concrete examples of a response. Not just: Well, billionaires are investing in South Florida, so it must be okay.

Shepard: And part of it is, they just love being by the ocean. We all choose to live by the coast. And so it’s ironic that the thing that draws everyone here is the same thing that’s posing such a threat.

Harrelson: And you want your child to be able to live here. Keren, you’re living right down the street from where you grew up. I want my children to be able to have that opportunity, too. And I’m already seeing my children ask the questions.

When you talk about protecting the environment, so frequently the argument is: We have to save this for our children. I feel like in this conversation today, it’s more like: We’ve got to get our kids to fix it for us.

Shepard: But the awareness with children, I think it’s also helpful that we’re talking about it with them. So we’re building a house in a flood zone, and we have this conversation with our son regularly: We choose to live here. Mommy knows about the risk. And we know that we could walk away one day, and then come back and it won’t be here. We don’t have confusion about that in our family— we talk about it. But a lot of folks are not even aware that where they are faces that risk, and that’s part of the problem.

Lewis: I agree with that. It’s more passing the baton than telling them “You go run the race.”