Does Miami actually care about sea-level rise?


With the constant din of sea level rise now officially near white noise across both the media and your friends in South Florida, it’s hard to openly discuss the internal process each of us goes through when justifying why we keep living here. My friends now blatantly joke of our salty demise in the not too distant future when Miami’s only tourists will be marine life and scuba adventurers.

Why do you stay here in the face of what has become almost a conversational presupposition, a guarantee, with even some more conservative estimates dooming Miami Beach over the next hundred years?

As a writer, I read each story about rising sea levels with a certain amount of terror at the fate of my beloved and native hometown. My family is here and this is home. But I also follow the climate change stories with a slightly selfish Romanticism. Doing and making work here is contributing to the narrative of this city. It’s both exciting and terrifying to think about having a clearly defined punctuation mark at the end of what I study: South Florida. But the next (and perhaps more important) question is of course; if you fancy yourself a historian of Atlantis do you really want to go down with the ship?

The question of whether or not sea level rise is happening is effectively no longer a question to people who study climate day in and day out. When asked about this, one of the leading scientists in the field of climatology, J. Marshall Sheperd, thinks the biggest challenge is “science and climate literacy.” Sheperd, whose resume includes NASA, NOAA and who is now the Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, thinks a “deficit in public science literacy means that people skilled at messaging can take advantage and mislead and paint the science as scary or misinformed.”

Meaning people who don’t believe in climate change, or want to use it for political gain, can easily refute it among people who are ill-informed.

And when you think about it, why would you listen to anyone but a climatologist? Experts are experts for a reason.  Sheperd goes on to explain, “many try to make the uncertainties in climate science out to be the smoking gun for dismissing it, yet we consume information with uncertainty every day that is useable.” Using some examples, he claims, “a 70% chance of rain has uncertainty with it but you grab an umbrella,” and a point even the most vehement skeptic follows, “the doctor’s diagnosis often has uncertainty, but you fill the prescription.”

And even the most hardcore climate change skeptic can’t deny Ice Ages happen (at least five at this point), or that geological shifts change the face of major landmasses. It’s not about constraining private enterprise, or whether or not our rampant industrial tendencies have caused this. South Florida is one of the last parts of the continental United States to rise from the ocean, and most experts generally agree we’ll be the first one back in the soup.

So why does an entire city ignore the veracity of these claims? It feels a bit like collective insanity.

Colin Ellard, Director the Urban Realities Laboratory and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo states, “that a city that is already inundated with water and, my perception is, happily so, might be slow to muster a response because, to some degree, people are already adapted to dealing with crises involving water” such as hurricanes, for example.

Then there is the problem of “they.” Those who we hope will figure it out. Ellard suggests that, “people sometimes have a blind trust that somehow ‘they’ will come up with a solution, though that ‘they’ is often not well-defined and people may not realize that they are connected to ‘they’.” But it’s the brutal reality that traditionally “they” in South Florida have not been a particularly trustworthy group. Do we really trust local and state politicians implicitly with our collective future and safety?

The bigger specter of “they” knows all too well this is happening. Dr. Sheperd talks of a study he took part in for the U.S. Navy for the National Academy of Sciences. He said they are, “concerned about climate change and national security. Most of their facilities are at or below sea level. They are concerned. And the Pentagon doesn’t spend time worrying about hoaxes.”

If the Pentagon is worried, shouldn’t Miami be? Or maybe we’re just not. As we see mega corporations and the international elite buying up and moving in, maybe we just think it’s not happening, or know and don’t care. And that’s the way we are.

It’s not an entirely fair hypothesis, because some actions are underway. You can read last year’s Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force Report and Recommendations (link here leads to PDF), but unfortunately this report mostly suggests, well, greater action. An official report on an increasingly dire situation that suggests doing more is a pretty frustrating thing to encounter. Plus this is the last thing the Task Force has put out into the world, see their minutes and actions here.

But as officials drag official processes along, what do the people of our city care about? We skateboard to the beach and paint warehouse walls. Personally, I think this is almost a poetic, hubristic avoidance. And maybe that’s what all great myths require. Atlantis, Mu, Doggerland, whatever you want to call it. Maybe we know we are sinking, and we sort of enjoy the drama.

Nathaniel Sandler is the co-founder and director of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city. He writes for the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, University of Miami Special Collections, Vizcaya, the Miami Rail, and now, The New Tropic.