Climate

How The 2016 Election Could Literally Put South Florida Underwater

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LYNNE SLADKY

A cyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla. National and regional climate change risk assessments have used the flooding to illustrate the Miami area's vulnerability to rising sea levels.

When it comes to fighting sea level rise in South Florida, Jennifer Jurado has moved mountains.

With little to no help from her state government, Jurado — the director of Broward County, Florida’s natural resources division — took matters into her own hands. Teaming up with three other South Florida counties, she’s taken steps to raise buildings and parks; to install systems to prevent ocean saltwater from intruding into drinking water aquifers; and to build things called “backflow preventers” to stop flooded roadways.

But Jurado now worries that, in an instant, her team may no longer have the tools to prepare their state for climate change. That instant: The 2016 Presidential election.

“If the next term is eight years, there could be very significant decisions made that could undo our progress,” Jurado told ThinkProgress last week at the National Adaptation Forum, a conference where local leaders discussed best practices for adapting to a world with more severe droughts, flooding, heat waves, and storm surges.

For South Florida, adapting to sea level rise is a necessity. The ground lies low — so low that scientists have said coastal communities and barrier islands could be completely underwater in 100 years. But with current Governor Rick Scott and the state Legislature unwilling to recognize climate change as a problem, cities’ adaptation efforts have meant teaming up with the federal government at every possible turn.

Under the largely climate-friendly Obama administration, South Florida has been able to move forward on numerous sea level rise adaptation ideas. The U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, has given extensive support to the area’s groundwater monitoring effort — an important effort to fight saltwater intrusion into drinking water sources because of sea level rise. The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency awarded South Florida a $4.25 million grant to develop long-term sustainability planning. And, under the Obama administration’s Climate Action Champions program, The Department of Energy is giving Broward targeted support to plan for sea level rise.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supported the Unified Sea Level Rise Projection for Southeast Florida, a consistent, long-term model of how rising seas will impact the entirety of the region. The model has been adopted by all four South Florida counties, and is now embedded in nearly every plan for land use, transportation, and water supply throughout the region.

Perhaps most useful, though, has simply been what Jurado described as “informal support” — the unwavering access her team has been given to federal agency experts, who help answer various adaptation questions at a moment’s notice.

“The relationships that we’ve developed have been extremely important,” she said.

It’s unclear whether the four-county South Florida team — Monroe, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties — will receive that kind of support with a new presidential administration, particularly one that isn’t as climate-friendly. If the next president is chosen from the current field of Republican candidates, it’s almost certain the team would receive less.

But Jurado’s main worry is not just that an administration run by Marco “there’s no consensus” Rubio or Ted “zero warming” Cruz would be less likely to fund South Florida’s adaptation efforts. It’s that their administrations could make the state’s efforts essentially worthless by failing to reduce carbon emissions, thus ensuring a high-emissions trajectory that climate scientists predict would be catastrophic for the state.

In plainer words, all of South Florida’s efforts to adapt to sea level rise will mean nothing if the ocean rises more than expected.

“Really the biggest thing is the emissions question,” Jurado said. “Which one of these [warming] scenarios do we want to inherit? Which can we afford to inherit?”