Miami’s Dominant Climate Narrative

By Keith Kloor | July 14, 2014 5:08 pm

In 2013, Jeff Goodell wrote a long piece in Rolling Stone explaining how rising seas would eventually drown the city of Miami, Florida. The money quote:

“Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.

Later in the story, Goodell is with Wanless in Miami Beach when the skies open up. They watch flood waters stall a Toyota driver on a main road:

“This is what global warming looks like,” he [Wanless] explained. “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”

Call me crazy, but this sounds a tad hyperbolic.

In May, Coral Davenport in the New York Times wrote a much less shouty story on South Florida’s climate change-challenged future. But like the Rolling Stone piece, her story emphasized the seeming inevitability of Miami’s demise and the culpability of Florida’s leading Republicans.

This weekend, a long feature by Robin McKie in the UK’s Observer, a sunday paper that shares a website with the Guardian, covered much the same territory.* It even features some of the same characters in both the Rolling Stone and NYT pieces. Here is McKie quoting Wanless:

“Every day we continue to pump uncontrolled amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, we strengthen the monster that is going to consume us. We are heating up the atmosphere and then we are heating up the oceans so that they expand and rise. There doesn’t look as if anything is going to stop that. People are starting to plan in Miami but really they just don’t see where it is all going.”

Thus one of the great cities of the world faces obliteration in the coming decades. “It is over for south Florida. It is as simple as that.”

Michael Grunwald at Time magazine rues the catastrophic tone and depictions in the Observer piece, characterizing it as “climate porn” and “yellow journalism.” He also notes the Observer story featured a quote from a flooded shopkeeper that appears taken (without attribution) from Davenport’s NYT piece.

The bottom line, Grunwald writes:

I understand that stories about how climate change is already affecting our cities and our farms and our lives—even our wine–can make the issue feel more pressing to ordinary Americans. But fortunately, the effects are not yet calamitous; the reason we ought to DO SOMETHING is that they’ll get calamitous if we don’t.

Very true. But what bothers me even more about the Observer doomsday piece and the Rolling Stone and NYT stories is how they all virtually ignore a serious and sustained climate change-related campaign by South Florida leaders. Here’s essential information on that:

Fortunately, a thoughtful South Florida coalition is leading the nation’s conversation on sea level rise, a primary effect of a warming ocean. In November, at the fifth annual meeting of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, several hundred officials and concerned citizens gathered in Fort Lauderdale (at just a few feet above sea level) to debate and plan for the inevitable rising of the sea.

The Compact combines leaders from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Its work since 2009 has been recognized nationally and internationally. Member Kristin Jacobs, the mayor of Broward County, became the only Florida appointee to the new White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

“It’s not an abstract problem,” said Jacobs at the meeting. “and we’re at the forefront of these challenges.” She praised the Compact’s ability to work across jurisdictions and in a nonpartisan way.

That is from the Biscayne TimesMore on this trail-blazing effort here and here. I’m not going to say that whatever comes of this will necessarily be enough to save Miami later this century, but neither is it accurate to infer–as the Observer’s scaremongering story does–that South Florida has willfully turned deaf and dumb to the very real threats posed by climate change.

Government officials and various stakeholders representing the region know they are on the front lines of climate change and they seem to be facing up to this. That’s a pretty neat story, but obviously not as compelling as portrayals of Miami’s supposed doomed future.

* This sentence has been appended. I thought the Guardian and Observer were connected, but they are separate papers, even though they share the same website (and owner).

UPDATE: I’m sorry to see Michael Grunwald getting tarred like this:




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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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