Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sea Level Rise and Miami Beach: Context to the policy issues discussed in that Rolling Stones article

Recently, my inbox has been awash with stuff about climate change induced sea level rise (SLR) and Miami Beach.  The NOAA reports that the average sea level rise in the Miami area has been 2.39 + 0.43 mm/yr (yes that is mm) or 0.78 + 0.14 ft/century (yes that is 100 years).  

The question of course: Does 2.4 mm/yr warrant action and if so, what action?
A recent Rolling Stones article outlines three policy issues in relation to talk about SLR and Miami Beach, the context for which the article's author, Jeff Goodell, neglects.  In italics, I present the Rolling Stones problem frame and policy solution.  Then some context.

SLR will cause salt water intrusion and limit the availability of freshwater therefore, a desalination plant is needed.
For many decades Miami has been interested in a desalination plant, but the cost has proved politically prohibitive. The concern was/is that South Florida population was lowering the water table which would be devastating to the Everglades ecosystem, cause salt water intrusion, and problems with the availability of fresh drinking water (and sinkholes as demonstrated in northern Florida).  What is more, (my impression has been) if the population was less reliant on the Everglades for fresh water then more of it could be available for development.

SLR will flood Miami Beach therefore, a development plan and infrastructure update for the area is needed that force people to move out of the area.
In the 1970's, a South Beach/Miami Beach Redevelopment plan was advocated for which included a number of dikes and canals for the Miami Beach area.  The goal of that plan was to create an exclusive community and get rid of lower income residents which were considered a contributor to "blight."  The Venice like aspect of the plan never came to fruition, but apparently never went away either.  Ridding the area of lower income residents however was achieved quite successfully.

In addition, there has been much recent advocacy for increasing investment into existing US infrastructure (roads, water treatment).  Recently, The Economist featured Miami in its own assessment of this infrastructure debate.  Arguing that infrastructure should be updated in Miami Beach due to SLR is simply to take advantage of an existing demand for investment of this kind.    

SLR will cause hurricane losses to become more severe, therefore the cost of insurance needs to increase to communicate this risk. 
Florida has been having problems with their windstorm (hurricane) insurance since the 1970s due to trends in development.  Climate change is no more a factor for this than is the moon made of green cheese. However, if climate change is accepted as something that is affecting losses through impacts on hurricanes, etc., then the science used to establish insurance rates can be altered.  There is a great international financial interest in this for several reasons which have little to do with climate change.

Climate change science, including investigation into changes in mean sea level, has been very informative over the years and "climate change" is an important, complex global issue.  But the primary problem here for Florida, Miami, and Miami Beach is a moral and ethical one regarding desired land management policy (including population growth and density) for Florida's future.  Believing that the former dictates courses of action for the latter is not only false but impossible and effectively removes the public from participating in constructive public debate about the future of where they live.

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