Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sounded the alarm Thursday in Miami Beach about the potentially crippling effects that climate change and rising sea levels could have on the city, accusing skeptics of “avoiding reality.”
At a Thursday news conference, Nelson warned that if no action is taken, massive and expensive infrastructure projects – like the one that gave Miami Beach a new system of underground pumps to combat tides – could “be our future.”
Senators Nelson and Whitehouse came to Miami Beach as the king tide rolled into South Florida, a phenomenon when the sun and moon exact a powerful pull on the earth to threaten city streets. It used to mean about a foot of water on Purdy Avenue in Miami Beach, but thanks to a $15 million investment by the city in several permanent underground pumps, the street is dry.
"What we're gonna have to do on the coast of Florida, spend millions of dollars with pumping and trying to keep out salt water intrusion — that's gonna be our future," said Nelson, a veteran Democrat who grew up across Biscayne Bay from the site of Thursday's news conference.
Over the past 50 years, the sea level has risen five to eight feet in South Florida, Nelson said. "And that will continue to rise," he added, "unless we change the way we are treating this home we call planet earth."
Seventy-five percent of Florida's population lives near the coast. Sea level rise threatens the entire state, but its effects are seen most acutely right now, right here.
"We're really standing here at ground zero. There's just about nowhere else on the planet where there's more at risk from sea level rise so fast," said prominent marine researcher Dr. Mike Heithaus, who is dean of FIU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
The Union of Concerned Scientists released a map this week showing if seas continue to rise at projected levels, much of the west side of Miami Beach will be underwater by 2045.
Sen. Nelson was asked, “What do you say to your colleagues, so many of whom, including the governor of this state, don't seem to believe the science involved here?”
"Well, they're avoiding reality," Nelson replied.
Sen. Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, leads a Senate task force on climate change.
"By the way, 90 percent of the heat from climate change has gone into the oceans. There's no debate about that," Whitehouse said. "And unless you want to repeal the law of thermal expansion, the sea level's gonna continue to rise."
Speaking as students from Mast Academy at FIU tested the bay's waters behind them, both coastal state senators said every nation needs to cut carbon emissions.
Pumps and sea walls, they say, will eventually not be enough to hold back the sea. Climate change must be fought at its source.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, who was also in attendance, agrees.
"The time for action is now. The president has called for it, EPA is taking it," said McCarthy. "Folks, how are we going to pump our way out of this challenge if we don't start now to take action to mitigate the release of carbon emission pollution which is fueling this changing climate?"
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said the bay and the ocean aren't Republicans or Democrats. Everyone is affected by rising sea levels, and everything must be done to fight climate change.
He said his city's efforts are just beginning, and he plans on spending up to $500 million on pumps all over Miami Beach in the coming years.