Tallahassee, We Have a Problem: The Harm Done by Florida’s Climate Leadership Void

March 9, 2015 | 6:05 pm
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

What could justify the Governor of Florida, a state widely considered “ground-zero” for climate change in the U.S., to prohibit the use of that term by state staff?

In Florida, more than a million people live within 3 feet of the high tide mark. Sea level is expected to easily rise that much along Florida’s shores later this century. Thousands of homes and businesses are in the path of that rising sea, and millions of lives would be impacted. A leader entrusted with Florida’s welfare would treat this problem like the unfolding crisis it is, right? I can’t see what narrow politics motivate the Scott administration to do the opposite, but as long as such motivations hold sway, Floridians are going to be hurt.

Florida has the greatest number of people of any U.S. state - more than a million - living within reach of sea level rise projected later this century.

Florida has the greatest number of people of any U.S. state – more than a million – living within reach of sea level rise projected later this century.

I’m one of the lucky people that got to spend time in Florida this winter – in Miami and on Longboat Key. I was mostly in vacation mode. But you only have to know a fact or two about sea level rise to also be bewildered by what you see here: A landscape teeming with homes and businesses, lives and livelihoods, all well within reach of 21st century sea level rise. And many people operating like it’s business as usual. It is not.

Something’s broken

We saw a friend in Holmes Beach who had put his much-loved home on the market recently because he can no longer afford the flood insurance. (The house is about a quarter mile from the water, not that that matters much in Florida, the flattest state. All of Holmes Beach is now within the Special Flood Hazard Area.) He and his wife were discouraged, having put decades of time, money and care into the house. But recently retired and on a fixed budget, the jump to a $10,000 annual insurance premium was just beyond their means. And most of ours! That’s the sad part.

This is the bewildering part: the day he put his house on the market, a realtor offered him $400,000 cash. The plan? To tear down his house, construct a 7-bedroom replacement, and somehow sell it for profit – on land that could flood daily in 40 years’ time. True, the new house would probably be elevated in some way. But what does that matter if it’s surrounded by water?

In this example, one of presumably thousands across Florida, something fundamental is broken: sea level rise just isn’t part of the equation. Sure, it’s historically been safe to assume that land for sale will be dry land for the foreseeable future, but that is no longer the case. And we know it. So why, I wondered, is the real estate market acting like it doesn’t, and why are state leaders allowing this?

At the time I assumed state leaders were playing too passive a role, and failing to take strong action. We’ve since learned they may have been overseers of climate inaction, prohibiting the use in state documents of “global warming” and “climate change,” the very processes foreclosing on the state’s future.

Kept in the dark in the Sunshine State

We can expect the neighborhood where I stayed on vacation to be underwater during every high tide with two feet of sea level rise—the amount of sea level rise expected in 40-50 years. And you only need a street to flood during some high tides – which is possible decades earlier – for it to start to feel unlivable. That neighborhood is like many hundreds of neighborhoods along Florida’s coast – in easy reach of a rising sea.

This neighborhood of Longboat Key, with just 2 feet of sea level rise, could see daily flooding. (Source: NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, http://coast.noaa.gov/slr/)

This neighborhood of Longboat Key, with just 2 feet of sea level rise, could see daily flooding. (Source: NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer, http://coast.noaa.gov/slr/)

Every day, people in Florida are buying and selling homes that could face regular flooding within the lifetime of their mortgages. Every day people are making decisions for a future without climate change. But climate change is here. Editing it out of state documents and discourse serves only to keep people in the dark and increase their exposure to risk – financial and physical.

Some have suggested that, as flood insurance premiums begin to align with real flood risks (hard enough news for a great many homeowners), property values will start to decline. Others have suggested they will decline as people decide that living with frequent tidal flooding is too difficult.

Okay, but what happens then? A precipitous drop in values? Countless homeowners literally and figuratively holding underwater mortgages? The erosion of neighborhoods and communities as those who can get out do? And some suggest that the next major storm could force the issue, as hard decisions are made about what does and doesn’t get rebuilt.

But if this is what we’re talking about – waiting around for circumstances to overtake us – then the only people who should be invested in Florida’s at-risk coastal communities are those who can afford not to care what happens. If that’s where we’re headed, then regular people are going to get hurt.

Florida badly needs open-eyed policies that drive disclosure, better information-sharing, and a statewide conversation about the future of coastal communities. Now turn that inside out and you have what state officials have delivered.


Here the City Of Deerfield Beach illustrates how some of Florida’s teeming flat expanses are in easy reach of the sea. Photo: Hodgejr | Dreamstime.com

What climate leadership looks like

In Florida, the climate science has come through with stunning clarity – look at the problem from any angle and it’s the same thing: rising seas are going to claim large areas of this low, flat state this century (starting in the first half), and we have to do… something. But–with the notable exception of Southeast Florida’s hard work and other pockets–state leadership is behaving as if the science doesn’t exist, and insisting others do as well.

Now, Florida is a very big and populous state, and I’ve been told it’s like several states stitched together. Are the solutions obvious? No. Is it going to be hard? Very. That’s why we elect leaders.

Governor Scott, along with Senators Rubio and Nelson, should be playing Paul Revere on this issue, alerting anyone who will listen about the urgency, and appealing far and wide for help for their state. They should be passionately petitioning the federal government for aid for Florida’s vast coastal adaptation challenge. Stopping short of that, Governor Scott should be mobilizing state resources and capacity to the effort, and implementing policies to bring sea level rise squarely into relevant decisions. That’s leadership in the face of crisis, and exceptional leadership is what Florida needs.

What they have too often gotten, however, is a distortion of the facts, distraction from the issues, an unwillingness to act, and now, we’re learning, obstructionism.

Tallahassee, we have a problem and it’s you.