The Soaring Cost of Rising Seas

Florida has the costliest climate change adaptation price tag in the contiguous 48 U.S. states, nearly double that of the next closest

No state will be more financially stressed by the impacts of invading seas than Florida.

That is according to a new study released this summer on the costs of sea level rise adaptation.

“Just for seawalls alone across the country, it’s $400 billion over the next 15 years,” David McDougal of the Miami Climate Alliance said. “For Florida alone, it’s $76 billion.”

Those figures are the results of research commissioned by The Center for Climate Integrity – a group of engineers specializing in climate adaptation working with geographic information system specialists from the University of Colorado.

The CCI study focused solely on building seawalls for threatened coastal areas. It’s the first of its kind putting an estimate on shoreline protection. Seawalls account for roughly 15% of the measures necessary for sea level rise adaptation.

Florida has far and away the costliest price tag in the contiguous 48 U.S. states, nearly double that of the next closest, Louisiana.

“Our entire operating budget for the state of Florida this year is $91 billion,” McDougal said. “So where does that money come from? Taxpayers alone can’t shoulder this, so we need to figure out who is going to pay and how that’s going to happen.”

That’s part of the problem that Jim Murley is trying to address. Murley is the Chief Resiliency Officer for Miami-Dade County.

“The long-term problem is the one that we’re in the process of evaluating and studying,” Murley said. “We’ll have a report at the end of the year on sea level rise strategies that we will propose back to the mayor and the commission.”

“Future budgets are going to address this. It’ll be billions, but it won’t be all in one year," Murley added.

Coastal resiliency is also the focus of Frances Colon and the Miami Sea Level Rise Committee.

“In South Florida, we have the most critical condition in terms of climate change impacts and what we’re going to see,” Colon said.

Colon has turned her career to addressing a changing climate. She spent 10 years at the U.S. State Department working in both the Bush and Obama administrations specifically on federal environmental policy and resiliency. She helped with the country’s entry into the Paris climate change agreement.

“We need to make a concerted effort to understand the enormity of the challenge and how we need to push for the big decision points," Colon said. "I see glimmers of hope. I know that the people are aware, but it is time to move."

Sea levels are rising globally. Regionally, our oceans are four inches higher than they were in 1994. Over the last 30 years, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated to twice the rate of the previous hundred years.

In South Florida, the effects are seen during periods of King Tides or sunny-day flooding. The rising seas increase the risk and intensity of storm surge – the deadliest threat posed by hurricanes. Conservative estimates show there could be between 11 inches and 24 inches more by 2100.

Those numbers are deeply concerning for Colon and many others.

“We have twelve years before we are going to have impacts on us that might be irreversible,” Colon said.

The scope of the problem is troubling, but Murley argues it is not insurmountable. Innovation will be key.

“We look out the window and we’ve spent billions to get where we are,” Murley said. “The people that came before us learned how to manage the water. They raised the land. And they kept at it. We need to start on that base and build on that.”

State and federal governments will have to pick up a lot of the tab. Local taxpayers will, too. Miami voters have already voted for $192 million in spending on climate adaptation.

Murley is hoping for help from the private sector.

“We as government need to engage the large foundational institutions and make them equal partners with us.  They have investments and we would benefit mutually from that kind of engagement," Murley said. "We all have the same threats and we share the fact that we may have these losses if we don’t move forward.”

“You just have to really up your ante,” Murley added.

While adaptation will be unavoidable, mitigation is equally important. Experts agree: we must address the root cause of sea level rise.

“What the science is telling us quite clearly is that the introduction of significant volumes of carbon into the atmosphere is accelerating the process of warming the atmosphere,” Murley said. “The ocean absorbs the heat of the atmosphere. It’s the biggest heat sponge we have.”

As saltwater warms, it expands and this increase in volume has resulted in half of the rise. The melting of ice sheets from Greenland and the Antarctic has resulted in the other half.

The carbon in the atmosphere is a part of the greenhouse gas effect largely produced by burning fossil fuels.

“We need to have better energy standards – clean energy standards,” Colon said. “We need investments in our neighborhoods and innovation so that we can face these challenges together and be resilient.”

“I think up to this point, we haven’t thought creatively enough about where the money is going to come from," Colon added.

Colon and the Miami Climate Alliance argue a creative solution is to have the fossil fuel industry substantively subsidize the cost.

“The industry needs to be held accountable,” Colon said. “They need to pitch in financially to help us solve this problem.”

With a proposed federal rollback of fuel economy and increasing oil production, that option would seem unlikely.

Meanwhile, for Murley, Colon and the Miami Climate Alliance, it’s a balance of remaining optimistic while understanding the urgency.

“There’s no alternative for the public, government and the cities not to try to do this. This is the basic quality of life of our community,” Murley said.

Colon was more direct.

“To see the slow pace at which we are moving locally and to see the complete indifference at the federal level from this current White House – it is frustrating. It is frustrating beyond belief. But I believe in this community," Colon said. "I believe that the work that needs to be done will start here and then what we do will be emulated across the country.”

“We need action now. We have no time to waste," Colon added.

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