What’s the Matter with Florida?

Graphic: Miami Herald

By Scott Nuzum

Over the summer, I returned to my hometown of Venice, Florida for the first time in five years. As I prepared for my trip, I was excited by the prospect of revisiting old haunts, reconnecting with old friends, and reminiscing about my childhood spent exploring the area’s coastal waters. But I also had prepared myself for the likelihood that much had changed during my prolonged absence.

To my great surprise, however, little had changed in a half-decade. Unsurprisingly, the weather was still as hot and humid as I remembered it, and the beaches, cafes, boutiques, and souvenir shops remained crowded with equal parts tourists and retirees. Beyond these superficial constants, the stasis was more subtle though no less significant. Five years removed from my last meaningful visit, it was clear that Florida hadn’t taken time to effectively reflect upon its high rate of unsustainable growth and development to accommodate the 2.2 million new Floridians expected to move to the state in the next five years.

Although Florida is booming, no one seems willing to spoil the party. In the past decade alone, Florida experienced massive disruption in the form of a real estate bust due to the Great Recession, powerful hurricanes, and a sixteen-month-long red tide (that scientists believe was exacerbated by climate change). Climate change has already impacted the state and the future looks even more fraught. Simply put, Florida is an early test case for how a rich nation like ours responds to climate change. By 2060, the state could see between one and three feet of sea level rise, though actual totals could be significantly higher. Moreover, residents face a future of freshwater scarcity as decades of excessive withdrawals from Florida’s once-plentiful groundwater supply have accelerated saltwater intrusion in the state’s massive aquifers.

Despite these very likely impacts, few Floridians seem to be heeding the flashing red warning signs. And that’s what’s the matter with Florida. The state hurtles toward an uncertain future with no understanding of what future conditions actually look like. Despite laudable work by a small group of municipalities and notwithstanding incremental progress in Tallahassee, there is little indication that the state as a whole is in any way prepared to contend with significant environmental challenges in the coming years. Rather, Floridians seem contented to simply bide their time, all the while benefiting from the some recent near misses that have spared the state from further devastation on more than one occasion. Likewise, few state elected officials seem willing to advocate for the systemic changes necessary to help Florida address future climate disruption. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, asserts that Florida must simply take an “adaptive” approach, which is more reactive than forward-leaning. But an incremental strategy really is no strategy at all; it is merely a means to delay action, lulling Floridians into a false sense of security over the state’s future while enabling the continuation of behaviors that have gotten Floridians into trouble before.

The reality is that even with drastic action to address carbon emissions and keep warming to 2 degrees globally, Florida’s future will look very different than it does today. As Carnegie Mellon professor Costa Samaras remarked on Twitter, “[o]ur infrastructure, our insurance industry, and our imaginations are not ready for this century.” In few places is this as evident as in Florida. Rather than wait for major environmental and economic catastrophe, Floridians must show resolve and face the future with a clear understanding of what the state is likely to look like in the next fifty and 100 years. This necessitates that Floridians be willing to listen to experts—people like Dr. Harold Wanless at the University of Miami, who has been warning of the climate impacts on Florida for the last forty years.

With finite financial resources—which are likely to diminish as property values decline due to climate change (recall that Florida has no state income tax)—the government will only be able to do so much to mitigate climate disruption. This will force state and local governments to prioritize certain activities and areas at the expense of others. Citizens and businesses will be required to exercise a certain degree of personal responsibility and live with the consequences of their decisions and actions.

Finally, Floridians must view the challenges before them as an opportunity to galvanize action. In his opinion piece, Senator Rubio criticizes those who would seek to mitigate climate impacts, asserting that “[d]espite the high costs, none of those advocates can point to how even the most aggressive (and draconian) plan would improve the lives of Floridians.” Unfortunately, the Senator is missing the point. Floridians really have no choice but to pursue mitigation and adaptation concurrently. Moreover, continuing to view climate change in exclusively negative terms and framing the challenge in Machiavellian terms is old-style thinking. There is no reason that Florida’s economic boom cannot continue, albeit on a different (and hopefully more sustainable) track. Rather than fueling growth via twentieth-century processes of building and consumption, the state should look for opportunities to lead in the emerging climate resiliency, mitigation, and adaptation spaces and seek to export those concepts to new markets across the globe.

Scott Nuzum is a Washington, D.C. based father, husband, strategist, and futurist. He previously worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (2009-2012) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (2012-2014).


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