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OPINION: Miami needs allies in its fight to survive climate change

Wednesday, 8 January 2020 15:11 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The city is facing imminent threats which will soon endanger millions more people unless we act now

Francis Suarez is mayor of the city of Miami and Patrick Verkooijen is chief executive of the Global Center on Adaptation.

Miami is a vibrant city facing a climate emergency. As the sea rises relentlessly and Atlantic storms become ever more violent and frequent, we have to be clear: Miami is fighting for its very survival. 

As a city, we are doing all we can to become more resilient to the effects of climate change – and fast. Two years ago, Miami’s citizens voted to raise taxes to finance climate-adaptation work. The city realized $400 million through the Miami Forever bond, which is being used to improve flood defenses, elevate roads and seawalls, create more pumping systems and improve drainage.

This sounds like a lot – it is a lot – but the magnitude of our climate emergency dwarfs the money we can raise locally. Consider Hurricane Irma, which caused $50 billion-worth of damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure in 2017. Miami cannot continue sustaining blows of this nature.

If we can’t defend Miami and the surrounding areas, Florida’s tourism industry – which supports 1.4 million jobs – will also be at risk. And it isn’t “just” property and jobs under threat, of course. We need to protect the quality of life of the 6 million residents in the Greater Miami Area. 

Serious as our problems are, Miami is not the only metropolis suffering the effects of global warming. Our climate emergency is not a local issue; it isn’t even a national one – it’s a global problem that does not respect borders.

But its impact across America is now undeniable: 2019 was the fifth year in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate-disaster events impacted the United States, from wildfires in California to severe flooding in the mid-West.

Next week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its annual climate change report looking at US temperature conditions and all the indications are that it will point to an acceleration of the impacts of climate change.

The destruction and disruption caused can no longer be tackled in isolation. It is time to consider unified solutions for the complex set of challenges that affect us all. We urgently need to work together at a federal level to develop a national and bi-partisan resilience plan to climate-proof our states and cities – not just for today, but for the decades and generations to come.

At its heart, this must include a commitment to invest heavily in climate-resilient infrastructure. This must be done wisely; patching up our creaking water networks, roads and bridges, which are more than half a century old, will no longer do.

We urgently need a public works program on the scale of that undertaken by the Eisenhower administration over 60 years ago, or Roosevelt’s New Deal program in the 1930s, which included the Hoover Dam.

Why does climate change oblige us to build differently? Because rising temperatures pose a danger to the structural integrity of thousands of bridges across the US, while a large number of the nation’s 8,625 power plants were deliberately sited near shorelines in order to have access to water, making them very vulnerable to rising sea levels. 

That is why we need to design and build new and more resilient infrastructure, developed with climate change’s effects in mind, to protect the country as much as possible from the dangers of a warming planet.

Climate change will overwhelm today’s roads, railways and flood defense schemes. Nevertheless, with the right political will, it is in our power to build new and better ones. 

We need to plan and prosper now, because the price of failing to address our aging and deteriorating infrastructure could be as much as $3.9 trillion by 2025, according to the latest National Climate Assessment.

Even if our infrastructure wasn’t already crumbling, targeted investment in climate resilience makes clear economic sense. According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, investing just $1.8 trillion to build climate resilience over the next decade will yield more than $7 trillion in net benefits.

President Trump has promised to spend $1.5 trillion on new infrastructure, which is both vital and very welcome. But failing to make climate change a central element of this strategy risks missing a crucial opportunity. This spending must be focused on America’s most pressing needs – to adapt to the impact of climate change – for the good of us all.

We will need to involve everyone in this resilience plan if it is to be effective. This will not simply be Democrats and Republicans working together. We will need everyone from engineers to mayors, from property developers to urban planners to unite, design and build the best future for our nation.

This cannot be a BandAid: we must reimagine infrastructure so that in 100 years’ time, our great grandchildren are able to use bridges and trains and roads that have stood the test of climate change. This is an exciting chance, and a challenge to which we must rise.

Miami is facing a fight for survival, and we cannot win it alone. But this is not just Miami’s fight – it is everyone’s struggle. United, we can beat this.