Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Do we need to say “Goodbye Miami”?

We’ve reached a turning point in the conversation about climate change. It was nearly a year ago that a Berkeley physicist made headlines by declaring himself “a converted skeptic” after his own research showed rising earth surface temperatures. Last fall New York Mayor Bloomberg linked Hurricane Sandy to climate change, and this June New York released a $20 billion climate adaptation plan. And last month President Obama finally made the climate change speech we’ve been waiting for (if not fully the one we hoped for).

It’s a welcome shift, brought about by growing awareness of climate extremes like last year’s record heat wave and of course Superstorm Sandy, events which reinforce the continued warnings and predictions by scientists. The last several years of hyper-politicization of climate change, the pillorying of scientists for reporting their findings, and the loss of precious time to get ahead of the problem have been excruciating for those of us concerned about this issue.

But as the dam cracks on the conversation, pent up words and worries rush in. Doomsday predictions like those from Rolling Stone, or on the other side those who fear that climate change will lead to heavy-handed regulation and the end of private property, make it seem like reality is crumbling and we’re at a crisis moment with nowhere to go.

It’s understandable. Unlike most other major issues which, by the time they become widely debated have a whole slew of heavily researched proposals ready to deliberate, climate change adaptation is in its policy infancy. The tools and measures we’ll need to adapt our community aren’t fully developed.  But that doesn’t mean there are no solutions, and it doesn’t mean that Miami is going to devolve into chaos. It just means that we will have to work fast and yes, there will be some figuring it out as we go.

It is a mistake to look at the complex, admittedly daunting physical factors of Southeast Florida’s vulnerability and declare there is no hope. That sort of determinism isn’t meaningful or helpful. That’s not to say that predictions about sea level rise aren’t valid or that warnings aren’t appropriate, they are. We’re fortunate to have a large and growing knowledge base about our geology, climate, and ecology to help us focus attention on the climate change problem. But leaping from there to predicting what our future will look like negates whole areas of human activity - economics, politics, culture, technology, governance, etc. which play an equally important role in shaping our future. We don’t know what society in 50 years will look like, except that it won’t look like today.

There are two big problems with this sort of determinism. One is that it leads to false conclusions about our options. It narrows the role of innovation and governance to simply managing the area’s decline, which undermines adaptation. If there’s no hope what’s the point in working on resilience or sustainability? Engineers must be hucksters. Everyone else must be oblivious hedonists. It’s possible to dismiss this as exaggeration, but it’s dangerous nonetheless because it injects the conversation with cynicism and disempowerment.

This is the second major problem, that pessimism releases responsibility for acting and erases the agency of affected communities. Lest we forget, other people around the world in the South Pacific, in the arctic, in the Netherlands, in Bangladesh are also vulnerable. So far the voices of those affected by climate change have mostly gone unheard because they were not from wealthy or powerful countries. If we are now seeing the impacts here then those emotions need to be channeled into action, not defeatism. Urgency can be useful, but panic is distracting.

So how do we understand adaptation in Miami then? By understanding that our context is unique, but there’s a lot we do already know.  We have been living with hurricanes, dealing with salt water intrusion and flooding, and fighting coastal over-development for a long time. For us, adaptation is a gradual and on-going process of figuring out how to live on this land and with each other, and it always has been. The fact that local scientists, engineers, environmentalists, government officials and urban planners have a deep knowledge and realistic view of our environmental challenges is evidence of this. That knowledge has been developed through decades of experience studying our environment, working to fix past mistakes like draining the Everglades, updating building codes, and building relationships and networks that allow things to get done. We may have a long way to go on adaptation in Miami, but we’re not starting from scratch.

It is certainly true that the politics has to change, at many levels. The state legislature has resisted passing a renewable portfolio standard, and ideological arguments about the size of government brought on a round of tax cuts which hit the South Florida Water Management District hard, just when its assistance and regional touch are needed most. But even in a difficult political environment the four counties of southeastern Florida having been working together since 2009 and have produced a plan with over 100 recommendations for adapting to climate change and reducing emissions. All Three of four county commissions have endorsed it. The Compact barely got a mention by Rolling Stone but it has been recognized by the White House as a model for regions, and members are being tapped for their expertise all over the country. Representatives from the South Florida Water Management District and the South Florida Regional Planning Council serve on the National Climate Assessment. Broward Mayor Kristen Jacobs was appointed to the National Ocean Council. These South Florida representatives are sharing their locally developed experience and knowledge for the benefit of the entire nation.

And even in state government climate change projects are happening. An important one is the Department of Environmental Protection’s pilot project with Broward County and Ft. Lauderdale to study the implementation of Adaptation Action Areas, which comes from legislation passed several years ago largely through the efforts of South Florida elected officials. The project is tackling the hugely difficult question of how to deal with the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise by developing a range of policy and planning options, conservation strategies, technical and communications tools. It’s not something you do lightly or quickly. What is learned from projects like this and others about adaptation will be invaluable in generating the knowledge needed to create new tools and approaches, not just for South Florida, but for vulnerable areas all over the country.

What this and other adaptation efforts will ultimately show is that the only realistic path to dealing with climate change is not one-size-fits-all, but instead the ability to develop nuanced approaches for different contexts that may vary neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. Most importantly, there are opportunities to adapt and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. On Miami Beach a coalition of neighborhood residents is pressing to make Alton Road more pedestrian and bike-friendly as an outcome of a current construction project that is installing pumping stations to deal with flooding.  Urban environments like Miami Beach where people regularly bike and walk to work are critical to reducing emissions now, not 10 or 20 years from now, which is what the experts tell us we need to be doing because the longer we wait the worse the impacts and the harder adaptation will be.

So what we’re going to do is use our creative energy to mitigate and adapt. A new generation is already coming up in Miami and starting to tackle the environmental problems it has long been aware it will inherit. Start-ups like the Borscht Film Festival and Coral Morphologic are merging art and science. Three thousand people are showing up for the Critical Mass bike ride to promote non-motorized transportation. Palmettos are reappearing on the dunes of Miami Beach. Madre Tierra radio is playing music of healing and justice. A regional planning summit drew hundreds hungry for a voice in the region’s future. All of these are either led by or have significant contributions of people under 35—a mash-up of young Miamians and transplants who are on their way to remaking the city yet again.

These are things which the doomsday scenario doesn’t capture, projects which have never been labeled as resilience, but certainly are. This is the energy that, along with the decades of experience our area has in adapting to our unique environment will show us the way forward for our challenges with climate change. There’s not one big solution, but instead there are thousands of things we can do, and everyone can do something. So if you are concerned about climate change, here are six ways you can help:  

1.       Know your carbon footprint and take steps to reduce it.
2.       Get involved. Lots of local non-profits have fun, educational events.
3.       Green your business with Miami-Dade County’s Green Business Certificate.
4.       Use responsible carbon offsets that don’t undermine indigenous communities or old growth forests.
5.       Call your elected officials. They need to hear that climate change is a priority.
6.       Attend the 5th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, Nov. 7-8, 2013.

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