Miami May Not Survive Climate-Driven Sea Level Rise
Photo Credit: Mike Licht (C.C. 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
Republicans in Congress are ramping up their assault on climate science, and seemed determined to undo decades of regulations that are designed to protect the environment. Part of the Republican strategy seems to be to censor the scientific community. All around the world we are seeing a proliferation and intensification of extreme weather events. The increase in the frequency and severity of extreme events, such as hurricanes and floods, has been linked to climate change. And another potentially disastrous, but less abrupt effect of climate change, is increased sea level rise.
Our next guest was amongst the first to alert the public to the growing risk of a trillion dollar housing crash in U.S. coastal areas. We are joined today by Dr. Joe Romm, who is the founding editor of Climate Progress, he is Chief Science Advisor for the Emmy-winning TV series, “Years of Living Dangerously”, and the author of nine books. Most recently, “Climate Change, what Everyone Needs to Know”. He’s also the author of the recent article; “Rapid Arctic Ice Melt sets the Stage for Economic Disaster under Trump”. Thank you for joining us today, Joe.
JOE ROMM: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, last week The Real News interviewed Dr. David Barber, a leading climate scientist in Canada, and among other things, Dr. Barber explained that the massive Greenland ice sheet is melting 600% faster than predicted by climate models. And that this will have potentially devastating consequences for coastal regions around the world.
And in December 2015, the global community came together to conclude a Climate Accord in Paris, France. That Accord established 2 degrees Celsius as the maximum temperature increase that the global community should tolerate, and set an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, the emission reduction targets, which the various nations brought to the Paris Accord, are not sufficient to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and could result in an increase well in excess of 3 degrees Celsius.
So Joe, if the countries that have signed onto the Paris Accord fulfill those emission reduction targets, but do not exceed them, what kind of sea level rise can we anticipate within this century by 2100?
JOE ROMM: Sure. Well, I think it’s safe to say that it, you know, if the nations of the world don’t continue ratcheting down their emissions through a negotiation process, then as you say, we are looking at, you know, 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, 3.5 to 4 degrees Celsius warming. And because, you know, as you talked to Dr. Barber and others, we’re now clearly headed towards faster sea level rise; faster melt of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets.
I think people would be saying we’re looking at, you know, five, six feet of sea level rise, potentially more. This is the kind of thing that people should plan on, if the world does not, you know, take climate change considerably more seriously.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Last week, Joe, The Real News interviewed Dr. David Barber, a leading climate scientist, and among other things, he explained that the massive Greenland ice sheet is melting 600% faster than predicted by climate models and in December of 2015, the global community came together to conclude a Climate Accord in Paris, France. And it established 2 degrees Celsius, as the maximum temperature increase the global community should tolerate.
It set an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But the emission reduction targets which the participant nations brought to the table are not sufficient to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees, and could result in an increase well in excess of 3 degrees Celsius.
And Joe, if the countries that signed on to the Paris Accord meet those emission reduction targets, but do not exceed them, what kind of sea level rise can we anticipate by 2100 within this Century?
JOE ROMM: Well, if the nations of the world simply stop, they don’t continue ratcheting down emissions and if, you know, Donald Trump is successful, let’s say, in killing the Paris Climate negotiations, which are on-going, to make deeper and deeper cuts.
Then, you know, I think most leading climate scientists, and particularly the glaciologists, the sea level will rise, experts would say, you know, we’re looking at four, five or six feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, and it will just keep rising after that. And that is, you know, not even counting the storm surges that we get from Hurricane Sandy type storms, which are also becoming more common.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And at a sea level rise of that magnitude, what parts of the coastal regions of the United States would be most affected, in your view?
JOE ROMM: Well, you know the most vulnerable, from the point of being the most valuable real estate, that is subject to inundation for that level, sea level rise, is South Florida. And we’re talking about the — all of Miami — the, you know, greater Miami area going up to Fort Lauderdale. So, if you’ve been down there, then you know the city is right there, you know, just a foot or two above sea level, and South Florida itself is exceedingly shallow, which is why there is so much swamp land there.
So, you know, that would be hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of real estate, that would be subject to inundation. You also have the city of New Orleans, which is to a great extent under water, as people, I think, learned during Hurricane Katrina. And the more the sea level rises, the more difficult it is to hold back the, you know, the sea using levies and the like. And the more vulnerable the city is to a big hurricane.
Other places that are vulnerable are, you know, the Boston area, the Carolina coastline, Kitty Hawk type area, but also going over to, you know, Galveston, Texas, and Houston. So, the East and Southeast coasts those are especially vulnerable. As you start to get up to six feet of sea level rise, though, you’re also, you know, endangering Seattle, San Francisco and the West coast.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Uh huh. And that level of sea level rise, and let’s just focus in on one market, because obviously there are distinctive characteristics to each of these markets that you’ve mentioned. Let’s focus on the most exposed, the Miami area. If we experience in the range of four to six feet of sea level rise, what impact do you expect that to have on the real estate market in Miami?
JOE ROMM: Well, Miami can’t survive, simply as we know it today, would simply not exist. And the question of when the real estate market would collapse, I mean, as you know, the Miami real estate market has been very, very hot, and $40 million condos and all of that.
People are investing, almost literally, as if there’s no tomorrow and on, “Years of Living Dangerously” you know, on our second episode, we sent Jack Black down to Miami to talk to scientists, to talk to real estate experts, to talk to a big real estate broker.
And yeah, I think, when you go to four to six feet, then you are talking about the exodus from South Florida. Because the thing to remember is that again, sea levels don’t just rise four to six feet and stop, they keep rising a foot a decade after that. So, that’s why the real estate market is in danger long before sea levels get to that point. The real estate market, which I wrote about on in, “Climate Progress” and in my book, “Climate Change, what Everyone Needs to Know”, that starts to get hurt, just when people start to think sea level rise and increased storm surge are going to be very hard to avoid.
And there is already preliminary evidence, that was discussed in the New York Times, has been discussed on the website of Fannie May, that the properties that are more subjected to coastal flooding are already seeing property values rising much slower than other types of properties.
So, you know, I think people should be quite worried if they have coastal property investment, if they know someone who does, if they’re thinking of it. That just sometime over the next decade, 15 years, something serious is going to happen to the coastal property market, and that bubble of over-valued coastal property is roughly, you know, a trillion dollars.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And you know classical economics would have us believe that investors are, you know, rational maximizers of their self-interest. You know, given the breadth, and just the power of the scientific consensus around climate change, and the way global governments are behaving, and particularly, you know, the ascendency of the Trump Administration, its hostility to the climate science community. One would think that rational investors would, right now as we speak, be ratcheting down dramatically their valuation of these properties.
How do you explain the fact — I mean you mention that, you know, some of the real estate, its value is growing more slowly, but there doesn’t seem to be in the marketplace, even in South Florida, an appreciation of the dangers that are at hand. How do you explain that in terms of the psychology of these investors? And is that even consistent with the notion that investors are rational maximizers of their self-interest?
JOE ROMM: Yeah, well you know, look, I think that, you know, Daniel Kahneman, who wrote, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work, pretty much showing that people aren’t rational. You know, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the housing market has been rational. You only have to go back ten years to see what happened when the entire economic, financial chain overvalued the housing market and we had the, you know, worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
You know, we do, as we said, live in a time where the President of the United States, the Governor of Florida, keep denying the existence of climate change. You know, to answer your question, I am quite certain that the smart money is already re-evaluating and not putting more money in. And it is this issue of whether, you know, and the reason I wrote the book, “Climate Change, what Everyone Needs to Know,” is we’re going to have the smart money, and then we’re going to have everyone else.
And ultimately, it is very hard to time any market. I just want to be very clear on that. I can’t tell you when the collapse is going to come. All I can do, is tell you that the existing market is, like, a trillion dollars over-priced, because that’s how much the national flood insurance program is insuring U.S. coastal properties for. Which is like, triple the amount that it was just, you know, a decade or two ago.
So, we are literally inflating artificially, the price of coastal property. That is not tenable, that cannot keep going. And like I said, if we had a Hurricane Sandy hit Miami, we would be looking at $50 to $100 billion dollars in insured property losses. And all of the insurers in the State of Florida, and the state itself, would declare bankruptcy, and you and I would all have to bail them out. So, you know, the future is — it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen. What I just can’t tell you, is when it’s going to happen. And I think people have to make a decision for themselves, what their level of risk tolerance is.
You know, according to the experts I’ve talked to, and according to the, you know, “The Years of Living Dangerously” TV series, which people can, you know, watch at, “The Years of Living Dangerously” website, is that a lot of this investment is from foreigners trying to pull their money out of other countries.
So, you have Russian investors, and you have Chinese investors, and they see coastal property in Miami as like, “Oh, a great place to put money.” And they don’t think a lot about climate change because they’re, you know, super rich, and this is just one investment among many.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Uh huh. So, you know, you talked a little bit about the safety net that’s in place. You mentioned insurance, and also you touched upon government forms of insurance. What is the level of safety net that is in place for coastal regions, for example, the one most exposed, South Florida? And, you know, is it adequate? Is it even remotely adequate, to make up the losses that would be experienced in, you know, some of the more dire scenarios?
JOE ROMM: Well, it won’t surprise you to know that the money needed for the actual paying off of damages in the event of, you know, a Hurricane Sandy like storm hitting South Florida, that money isn’t sitting there. It is the good faith and credit of everybody listening, of the federal government, which is backed by, you know, the taxpayers.
So, if there were such a disaster, and obviously such a disaster is pretty inevitable, I just can’t tell you when it’s going to happen. Then the taxpayers would have to bail out all of the people who were provided, you know… who were insured, who had their properties insured through the National Flood Insurance program. And you know, this would be a stunning economic shock to the United States. I think it would clearly send the signal that we can’t keep insuring property that is increasingly going to be subject to more storm surge, and higher sea level rise.
So, you know, we are currently in, you could call a Ponzi scheme, a bubble, whatever you want to call it, what we’re doing now can’t be sustained. It won’t be the way we’re doing things 25 years from now. Sometime between now and then, we’re going to see a radical shift, and you simply won’t be able to get insurance for coastal properties. I mean, right now, banks are starting to rethink this whole issue of, should I write a 30-year mortgage for a house that might be under water.
So, you know, this is really… it’s just been in the last few years, that we’ve learned how much faster Greenland and Antarctica are disintegrating than we thought. Coupled with, you know, the election of Trump, a recognition that maybe the world isn’t going to act fast enough. What the Agreement, that you talked about in Paris, that was the first time the entire world got together and made commitments just through the year 2025, 2030. But that Agreement said we need to keep coming back every five years, and coming, ratcheting down, the commitment of the world’s leading nations.
If, you know, Donald Trump says, we’re not part… the United States, the second biggest polluter, is not participating and Vladimir Putin, who is the fifth biggest polluter says, hey, we’re not participating either, then you know, the whole negotiation process could fall apart. And in that case, the notion that we might avert these worst-case scenarios is going to disappear. You know the best-case scenario; I don’t want to just be talking about the worst-case scenario.
The best-case scenario is, the nations of the world continue ratcheting down pollution, and we ultimately might only warm, as you say, below 2 degrees Celsius and then sea level rise is going to be much less, and it’s also going to be much slower. And I’m not saying we could still avoid serious harm, but we’d have more time to deal with it, and it would be in a more measured pace.
And, you know, as someone who was acting Assistant Secretary of Energy, for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, I am very blown away by the speed in which solar power, and wind power, and electric cars, and advanced batteries, and LED lights, have been entering the marketplace.
So, if the world wants to avoid catastrophe, the technologies are here. But, you know, if the Trump Administration, which is, you know, Donald Trump is someone who has denied the reality of climate science. He has filled his staff and cabinet with people who deny the reality of climate change. He says he’s going to spur the use of oil and coal, which are, you know, principal contributors to carbon pollution.
If that happens, then, you know, we’re not going to be in the best-case scenario, and we’ll be back headed towards the worst-case scenario.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. Well, it’s clear that the solutions are there, and that there is a disconnection between the attitudes of the policymakers and the science. That’s exactly why we at The Real News are in the process of creating a Climate Change Bureau.
JOE ROMM: Great.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Which we are going to be dedicating very considerable resources to in the future, with the help of our viewers, and I hope we’ll have you back on, Joe, to monitor the progress of the fight against the climate crisis. Thank you very much for joining us today.
JOE ROMM: Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.