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Florida is already seeing climate change. New global report says it could worsen

Rising water left some Central Florida homes flooded after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Photo by Amy Green


Climate change has already changed places like Florida permanently and irreversibly — affecting coral reefs, leading to higher property values and increasing inequality for vulnerable populations in the state, according to a new global report from the world’s top scientists.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future,” says the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released on Monday.

The nearly 2,000-page report had a global focus, but Florida was repeatedly used as an example of a place where the impacts of climate change were already being felt, both economically and environmentally.

The report specifically mentions Florida multiple times, including:

  • Tidal flooding worsened by sea rise has led to almost $500 million in lost real estate value from 2005 to 2016 in Miami-Dade alone, “and it is likely that coastal flood risks in the region beyond 2050 will increase without adaptation to climate change.”
  • Miami-Dade’s efforts to raise roads and build stormwater pumps have raised property values, leading to inequality for vulnerable populations
  • Floridians could be forced to retreat from the coast as sea levels rise
  • Florida’s coral reefs are bleaching and dying as temperatures rise
  • As coral reefs die, Florida could lose up to $55 billion in reef-related tourism money by 2100
  • Harmful algal blooms along Florida’s west coast spurred by climate change led to massive economic losses

Those impacts aren’t news to residents of the Sunshine State. Repeated studies, many cited in this report, outline a future of more days where it’s too hot to safely work outside and sunny days where high tide alone causes street and home flooding.

Attempts to fix the problem by installing new stormwater pumps and raising roads and buildings may have actually made inequality worse by raising property values in Miami-Dade, research cited in the report showed. It was one of the global report’s key examples of “maladaptation,” when efforts to address climate change backfire by raising greenhouse gas emissions or making life harder for vulnerable people.

Natalia Brown, the climate justice program manager for Catalyst Miami, said the report made clear that the people most at risk from climate are not those who caused it, and it is also compounded by a history of segregation and racism.

“You’re not experiencing racist housing policy in a silo from climate change,” she said. “Many of these vulnerable communities are experiencing climate change and they’re carrying this historic legacy of environmental racism and redlining and distrust in government.”

Preparing for sea rise is expensive

Adapting to it all is doable, but pricey. Florida has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars raising roads, homes and seawalls to defend against the incoming threats, but the report noted that at a certain point, there isn’t enough money or technology to keep everywhere in the world habitable.

The report specifically mentions Florida as a place where people will likely have to move away from the coast as sea levels rise and make some neighborhoods and cities uninhabitable.

“Sea level rise is expected to lead to the displacement of communities along coastal zones, such as in Florida in the USA,” the report said.

The city of Miami recently scored more than $100 million in federal and state grants for projects to install flood pumps, raise roads and improve drainage in areas threatened by sea level rise. Shelby Buso, the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, called that funding “the tip of the iceberg” for Miami’s climate needs. Just preventing the worst flooding for the next few decades could cost more than $4 billion, according to the city’s stormwater master plan.

Buso said she appreciated that the report explicitly called for more investment in flood prevention and said she’s hopeful it will lead to more money for needy coastal cities like Miami.

“When we have this many experts at the table telling us this is an urgent need, that that will likely spur some motivation to actually change the way we are planning for and adapting to climate change,” she said.

The IPCC report doesn’t name a single event or global temperature that would tip the planet into an unsurvivable condition. Instead, it says that some ecosystems around the world, like coral reefs, have reached a dangerous point.

“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” the report said.

If the planet reached 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of global warming above pre-industrial levels, up to 99% of the world’s coral reefs will be lost, according to research cited in the report. But even under the best-case scenario, where the world stays under 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, 95% of coral reefs will be lost.

The world is currently at 1.09 degrees and an IPCC report issued last year suggested it could hit 1.5 degrees by 2040.

“The recreation value of coral reef tourism in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Hawai’i is expected to decrease by 90% by mid-century,” under some climate models, the report read.

This is the second of three IPCC reports in this cycle. The first, released in August, focused on the physical science of climate change. This report, which was a collaboration between more than 270 scientists from 67 countries reviewing 34,000 scientific papers, was about how climate change impacts people and the planet, as well as solutions. The third report, due in April, is about stopping emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Lowering greenhouse gas emissions still key

In a fiery speech, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” He railed against fossil fuels, the main source of climate change-causing greenhouse gasses, and urged the world to stop burning them immediately.

“This abdication of leadership is criminal,” he said. “The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson on our only home.”

But just because some parts of the world are irreversibly harmed doesn’t mean the planet is beyond saving, the report said.

A focused, well-financed push to help the world adapt to climate change — as well as an equal push to stop burning fossil fuels as fast as possible — could lessen the horrors for humanity in store with unbridled global warming.

Miami-Dade County’s sea level rise strategy, which calls for building higher and farther away from water, was described in the global report as an example of a community with a clear-eyed look at the risks of climate change.

Florida’s government has recently committed nearly $500 million to local governments around the state to help them adapt to rising seas and temperatures, although none of that cash goes toward helping lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“We simultaneously need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to reduce the impacts of climate change … and we have a very limited amount of time to do this,” said Adelle Thomas, a researcher at the University of the Bahamas and a lead author on the IPCC report.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.


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