It is a must-read for anyone with children headed to the beach this summer. I was reminded of that article by a pointless semantic dust up over a powerful piece last Friday in the U.K. Guardian, “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away.” The article quotes Dr. Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami:
“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. Nor is it on its own,” Wanless admits.
We would have a serious chance at stopping this if we took the advice of many top climatologists and launched a World War II scale effort to rapidly bring CO2 emissions to near zero and then worked hard to pull CO2 out of the air (to bring us back to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the air — from the current level of 400 ppm). Failing that, we could stabilize near 450 ppm, keeping total warming as close as possible to 2°C, which would, at the very least, slow sea level rise dramatically.
But the forces of denial and delay — and their enablers in the media — have put the first option (which is arguably the most sane and moral) outside the Overton window. And they have made the second option all but untenable politically — even though study after study has concluded it could be achieved at virtually no net cost.
The grim fate for South Florida in a world of uncontrolled CO2 emissions is neither very controversial scientifically nor even very new. Last June, Jeff Goodell had a piece in Rolling Stone, “Goodbye, Miami: By century’s end, rising sea levels will turn the nation’s urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin.”
The latest research “suggests that sea level could rise more than six feet by the end of the century,” as Goodell noted, and “Wanless believes that it could continue rising a foot each decade after that.”
And that was before recent research on the collapsing West Antarctic ice sheet and the accelerated melting of Greenland made clear we are headed toward the high end of sea level rise projections this century and beyond.
Worse, South Florida rests atop “a vast and porous limestone plateau” (think Swiss cheese). That means you can’t save it with conventional sea walls and barriers.
So, hasta la vista, south Florida. Oh, and hasta la vista, Everglades, which will eventually need to be renamed the Neverglades.
Rather than trumpeting this reality, Michael Grunwald, TIME’s senior national correspondent — and a Miami resident — has decided to write a piece attacking the Guardian mostly on semantic grounds:
Well, we’re not actually drowning. We do get damp every now and then, but it’s hard to see how some modest sunny-day flooding in my neighborhood at high tide justifies The Guardian headline that’s been generating so much buzz: “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away.”
Hmm, if the waters are rising around you and your current course of action must inevitably lead to your total inundation and death, is that “drowning”? As purely semantic questions go, I suppose it might have some interest to linguists and journalists. As existential questions go, however, everyone in Miami needs to understand that the city simply is not going to exist unless we immediately start ignoring the do-nothing and do-little crowds.
As Wanless told the Guardian:
“The next two or three feet of sea-level rise that we get will do away with just about every barrier island we have across the planet. Then, when rises get to four-to-six feet, all the world’s great river deltas will disappear and with them the great stretches of agricultural land that surrounds them. People still have their heads in the sand about this but it is coming. Miami is just the start. It is worth watching just for that reason alone. It is a major US city and it is going to let itself drown.”
Ah, but what does Wanless know, he’s just a leading expert on sea level rise and chair of the science committee for the Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force.
In Vittone’s article on drowning, he quotes Dr. Francesco Pia’s description of what drowning actually looks like — from the Coast Guard’s “On Scene” magazine (emphasis in original):
Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help….
Drowning people cannot wave for help.
That sounds an awful lot like South Florida.