Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Local actions to fight climate change in the Miami-Dade area set an example for the world.
It’s time to mourn Miami, for as Stan and Paul Cox grimly explain in the New Republic, climate change is submerging the city we used to know. No U.S. metropolitan area is experiencing the effects of global warming more viscerally.
In Miami Beach, the narrow, low-lying island municipality just offshore from the city of Miami, locals dread the full-moon high tides more than ever. The tides push saltwater into the city’s porous limestone foundation, flooding the avenues and gradually corroding buildings.
Across South Florida, beaches are eroding, and water supplies are getting saltier. Over the next 50 years, the Coxes explain, waters along the coast will rise by a minimum of nine inches to two feet. Most of Miami-Dade County is less than six feet above sea level. Altogether, the risk of flooding is tremendous: “Miami’s exposed property will far outstrip that of any other urban area, reaching almost $3.5 trillion by the 2070s.” It’s very possible that large swathes of the area will be uninhabitable by then, and that sometime after 2100, it will all be underwater.
For locals, having these changes roll in with the tide is a complicated experience. The journalist Ricardo Trotti writes in El Universal (link in Spanish, translation mine):
I live in Miami, where global warming lives and is felt. Here, the sea does not contain itself to the beaches. It regularly flood streets and avenues, causing solastalgia in the tourism and real estate industries, the economic engines of South Florida.
Simply put, the word “solastalgia” (a new-ish turn of phrase in environmental philosophy) means nostalgia for a place you never left, but which is changing all around you in seemingly unstoppable ways. It is also a longing for simpler times. The changes Trotti is watching are “complex, intractable and severe.” For his own solastalgia, he writes, “I self-medicate with a high dose of recycling.”
Solastalgia is brought on by experiencing dramatic shifts in the environment, and the feeling of powerlessness to stop them. So much seems to rest in the hands of the world’s leaders, who are so often tied by business interests, shaky before the challenge of a new low-carbon economy, or else dismissive of the whole idea.
The best example of this is how much rides on the upcoming Paris climate talks—dubbed “the last chance saloon” to save the planet. (Note: due to recent terror attacks in Paris, it is not clear how the talks will proceed.) The talks aren’t likely to yield an agreement that’ll do enough to stop temperatures from climbing past that two-degree threshold—the tipping point beyond which climate change is irreversible and catastrophic. Bring on the floods, droughts, storms, and even higher inequality. It makes you want to weep, contemplate the ethics of reproduction, or simply stick your head in the sand.
But for all the bad news, looking at what the Miami area is doing in response to climate change should be enough to wrest you from retreating into a solastalgic haze. In spite of a denialist governor, South Florida has made acting on climate change a truly bipartisan issue. Along with Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe Counties, Miami-Dade County is “part of a landmark 2009 compact that acknowledged the reality of climate change—a major achievement on a politically divisive issue,” according to the Miami Herald.
That’s helped local governments on their toes: The city of Miami Beach is leading the rest of the state in its actions to keep its economy from drowning, with a $400-million-plus project to raise roads and install seawater pumps along thoroughfares. Efforts to increase transit options and walkability in Miami have been substantial enough to land the city fourth on Smart Growth America’s future most walkable cities list. Business leaders are coming together to influence government. None of this will not stop climate change, or preserve Miami in amber. But they are serious actions to lessen the physical—and psychological—impact of climate change. Miami is not retreating yet.
Here is why this is so important: In aggregate, local actions like these could help make up the difference between where the world needs to be and what our world leaders are willing to commit to in Paris. This isn’t just bright-eyed over-optimism: The UN Environmental Program, too, has recognized and documented the effects that carbon-reducing efforts by local governments and businesses can create. “Non-state actors” are likely to feature more prominently at the Paris talks than in the past.
Miami has been able to take action on climate change partly because it is experiencing it as few other major cities are. But it’s not just that: Local governments have been wise to keep the conversation frank and action-oriented. We may want to mourn Miami, but Miami is not mourning for itself—and other cities following in its example could make a world of difference.