Rising Sea Levels and the Threat to U.S. Coastal Areas

Thursday, December 15, 2016
Jason Reed/Reuters
Virginia Burkett

Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change, U.S. Geological Survey

James C. Cason

Mayor, Coral Gables, Florida; Former U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay

Merdith W.B. Temple

 Senior Advisor, Dawson & Associates; Former Acting Chief of Engineers and Commanding General, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Sherri Goodman

Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

As sea levels rise around the world, experts discuss the adaptation policies for U.S. coastal cities and the budgetary and national security implications of rising sea levels on U.S. coastal communities.

GOODMAN: OK, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for braving this season’s first polar vortex—(laughter)—to come and have a discussion with us on rising sea levels and the threat to U.S. coastal areas. I don’t know I that seems timely or ironic, but it’s going to be a great discussion. I can see already looking around the room we’ve got a great group here today. And we have a great, perfect panel to discuss these issues with us. We have a scientist, a leading scientist. We have an elected official from South Florida, a mayor who is also a diplomat. And we have a military leader, a warfighter, who’s also an engineer. So we really have got all bases covered here this afternoon.

So let me welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Sherri Goodman. I’m none of the above. I am a policymaker, a lawyer, founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board. But you have all that information. Let me introduce our panelists today and we’ll get started.

So Dr. Virginia Burkett is the associated director for climate and land use change at the USGS. And in that capacity—United States Geological Survey. And she has served in many capacities there, as you can see. She served on a number of IPCC reports. She’s been the lead author on many of the assessments. She’s the senior editor of the journal on regional environmental climate change. She’s also from Louisiana and she served at the state level there and has a broad range of experience conducting everything from carbon sequestration assessments to ecology work. So we’re very excited to have her here today.

Mayor Cason serves as the—has served as mayor or Coral Gables since April 2011, and in a very unique coastal region dramatically affected by rising sea levels. He’s also a retired foreign service officer, a diplomat who has served in many reports. And he’s also lived on Norfolk Navy Base, which is another part of the country very subject to rising sea levels.

And finally we have General Bo Temple, who served as acting chief of engineers, commander of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, has a lot of experience in rebuilding in New Orleans after Katrina, has been leading multibillion dollar infrastructure programs for many years. So he’s got a deep level of experience in this area.

So with that, let me start with—start with you, Virginia. And tell us, why are we—why are we even discussing this today at the Council on Foreign Relations. And is this a subject about climate change, risk, resilience, or all of the above?

BURKETT: All of the above, I would say, for sure. (Laughter.) The threats to our national security and our coastal habitats, our ecosystems, our heritage, our communities—more than half of the United States citizenry lives in what we call coastal watershed counties. Most of our GDP—$8.3 trillion in 2011—comes from these coastal watershed counties. And these low-lying coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to the rates of sea level rise that we’ve seen, and sea-level rise is accelerating.

If there’s a handout that shows the projections into the future, and you can see that in the past century the rate of sea level rise was about this much—1.7 millimeters per year. Well, that rate has roughly doubled. And depending upon the rate of warming of the atmosphere, the ocean takes up that heat energy and—so it expands—and the ice caps and glaciers, land ice, is declining, also contribute, you know, to the rate of sea level rise. And so we expect a projected increase of sea level into the future. So these are threatening. This is a huge threat. This is probably the most costly and most certain consequence of climate change for much of the world.

GOODMAN: Well, now, mayor, you’ve just heard that. And I know you’ve been grappling with this in your own city. So is this a story about climate change, or is this a story about schools and property values in your community?

CASON: Well, my community—a community of 100,000 people during the day. We’re a city that has a large amount of its wealth under four feet above sea level. We have 160 corporate headquarters there. So it’s—we’re a very prosperous city. A very international city. And it’s—sea level for us is going to be—sea level rise is really going to be an existential threat because if these projections pan out by the end of the century, and the four-county compact that I’m a part of projects 51 inches at least by the end of the century, that means that maybe half of my city is underwater, and would have to be abandoned. So it’s property values, it’s quality of life, it’s the whole future of South Florida from Fort Lauderdale down.

The biggest problem we have is geology, because unlike other parts of the country Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Miami Beach, we’re on limestone. We used to be 200 feet underwater. So when it raise, the water does down real quick, but sea level’s going to come up from below. You can’t build a wall around it like you can elsewhere in the world. So to my knowledge, there is no solution yet for South Florida, if the seas keep rising.

GOODMAN: Well, General, you’re our engineer. Can we engineer a solution to this? And how do we make communities like Coral Gables resilient to the ravages of sea level rise and coastal inundation?

TEMPLE: Well, I think it’s really important to understand what’s happening at each of these communities. And that’s a function of, as the mayor alluded to, not just sea level rise, but also land subsidence in some places. So it’s really incumbent on all of us to take a look at the data, use the data with good modeling, to try and become more predictive rather than reactive, so that you can then make appropriate plans at certain stages in the future, realizing that there’s not enough resources or money to do perhaps what you might want to do, you know, 85 years from now, at the end of this century, but you certainly will want to address near-term issues to buy time to figure out what to do next.

GOODMAN: Well, Virginia, coming back to you, you’ve been studying these areas for quite a time. What are our most vulnerable areas in the U.S. to sea level rise? Is the Gulf? The Atlantic Coast? The Arctic? And how do you—how should we understand, how do we compare those vulnerabilities?

BURKETT: Yeah. Well, Bo just mentioned, the areas that are sinking, or subsiding, are really hotspots, OK? Even Chesapeake Bay is sinking one to four millimeters a year. And if you add the sea level rise to that, and if it accelerates, you know, the loss of islands and the erosion of the bay the salt water intrusion of the bay, like we were talking about earlier, are likely to accelerate. So areas that are sinking.

Deltas around the world. And you know, all of our coastal systems, as we know them today, emerged in the past 8,000 years or later, in this period of relative sea level stability in the geological history. And so the deltas formed during this relatively stable period, and they’re intimately linked with mean sea level. So when sea level rises, they are becoming inundated. And they’re heavily populated in Asia and many parts of the world. Our Mississippi Delta is particularly vulnerable because it’s subsiding, and sea level’s rising. And so it’s the combination of drivers there.

The Arctic is another place in the United States—as you mentioned earlier, some of your work—you know, the 30 communities along the Arctic, Alaska shoreline, that are being threatened with their existence because of the decline in sea ice, which is accelerating erosion, rising sea level, and the decline of permafrost. The sentiments are bound there by ice. And as that ice melts, they’re just collapsing and calving into the sea, kind of like a glacier. So those are some of the hot spots.

GOODMAN: Mayor, what keeps you up at night in terms of the sea level rise and subsidence concerns for your city and the region?

CASON: Well, we just had a couple days ago a king tide. And I think in some of the materials is the picture of an octopus in the basement of one of the apartment building on Miami Beach. And our number-one park in Coral Gables was under two feet of water, and we had schools of mullets on it. So we’re seeing it. We’re seeing what’s going to happen. Our concern right now is to find our vulnerability. So what we’ve done is produce very detailed what they call LiDAR maps, which are accurate to 3.9 inches of the whole city, all 14 square miles, all our vulnerabilities. We put our schools, our pumping stations, our roads, our electrical, everything on it that’s critical, so that we know what is the most vulnerable.

And then the second stage is to get the citizens to understand that sea level is occurring. And they can see it because of the octopus—that’s the elephant in the room, the octopus in the room. (Laughter.) So they can see it. They believe it. They ask us, well, what are you going to do about it? And unfortunately, we have to say, well, science hasn’t quite figured it out. But you might have to start working—walking backwards someday. And so we have produced a very detailed legal study of the implications if they have to retreat like they’re doing some places in Alaska and Louisiana.

But we will be fighting to get the resources. We’re spending a lot of money now in terms of planning for building things up. But we’re going to need citizen involvement, which we don’t have right now. They basically don’t—they don’t send us emails. But what we need is in the future, when we have to spend big bucks on mitigation and adaptation, we’re going to need them to want to encourage the leaders to spend the money necessary to hold out as long as we can.

So we’re in the educational phase now, and the risk assessment. And we have to look at these charts and make up our own mind as a city, what level of risk are we going to build toward, and when do we think it’s going to happen, and start building. For example, if we build a pumping station, are we going to build it six feet above sea level or nine feet? They last for 50 years. So we have to start making big decisions right now.

GOODMAN: Do we have—do you feel you have the right standards in place upon which to make decisions, such as how high to build? I know there’s been updates to the flood standards in recent years. But do you feel that you have the right frameworks and the right governance structures to address this? And how would you want to—what kind of help do you need to close those gaps?

CASON: Well, I think, in the end, it’s going to be cities and municipalities that are going to have to do the work. We may get money from the state. Unfortunately, in Florida, our governor doesn’t believe in seal level rise. Doesn’t want to talk about it. We’re not getting much in terms of—other when there’s a disaster, the federal government will come in and help—but not given any money to prepare for reducing risk. So we’re going to have to do it at the municipal level. Luckily, we’re a very rich city with $15 billion worth of property.

So we will be able to spend on doing what’s required in our city. But the problem is the water will come in around and from below. So you really have to do it in a—in a regional level. We have a four-county compact, so we’re working together. We have sustainability plans. We’re going green, trying to reduce our carbon footprint, which is really all we can do going forward because so much of what’s happened during the industrialization era is already built into the water and it’s going to rise no matter what we do.

GOODMAN: Well, General, how would you advise the new administration to ensure that infrastructure initiatives are resilient to the kind of sea level rise, subsidence, and storm surge that the mayor has just described?

TEMPLE: Well, I think, as everyone here in this room knows, we’re really dealing with a wicked problem here, because it’s very complex and there’s no way you can predict with absolute certainty what may happen. So going back to this idea of gathering data and using the right models in order to predict what’s going to happen is very important. That said, military installation or base commanders, along with the communities that surround them, are going to have to make decisions. And they need to do it in a collaborative way, because the two entities are not in isolation from each other, despite the fact that most military installations have a fence, or maybe three fences. But it really doesn’t matter, because they’re all part of the same community with the same challenges with respect to either rising sea or subsiding land.

So I think, you know, we need to encourage governments at all levels—local, state, and federal—to examine the issues and take action in a collaborative way so that you don’t end up with islands of relatively well-protected entities and islands of not, because at the end of the day the two are inextricably linked in my view.

CASON: And I think the market’s going to make a lot of decisions for us. I think what we’re going to see is we’re not going to be getting 30-year mortgages for coastal homes in South Florida. And probably in four to five years they’re going to say, the risk is too great. You have to pay cash. Then you’re going to find the insurance, which is already going up exponentially, people are not going to be able to afford the insurance. They’re not going to be able to have a mortgage if they can’t—if they don’t have the insurance. So you’re only going to find very wealthy people with a lot of money who may say: I’ll take the risk.

But the people that are really at risk are the ones that don’t have money to get up and move. The rich guys can go to their home in North Carolina 100 feet up and make a new beach community. But the market is going to start sending signals. We don’t want to take the risk. You’re going to have to take the risk. And we’re finding relators are now starting in Florida to realize that they’re going to have to reveal to buyers that a known defect includes sea level rise, that they’re going to have to—because if you come from Paraguay, where I was ambassador, they don’t know anything about sea level rise.

But if you buy a house in Coral Gables and you suddenly find out the water’s coming in your basement and you got octopi—I guess you’d call them—(laughter)—in your basement, they’re going to start suing. So there’s a lot of legal things that are going to be involved as we move forward, and lots of case law’s going to be written.

GOODMAN: Mmm hmm. OK, so we know that the—you know, this might be more work for lawyers. It’s also going to be more work for engineers and city planners. What have we learned, General, from the responses to Katrina and to Superstorm Sandy about how to rebuild infrastructure more resiliently? And can you also—and, also, I know, Virginia, you’ve looked at this also—green versus gray approaches to infrastructure that address these challenges.

TEMPLE: Thank you. Well, I think, taking off on what Mayor Cason said about different approaches to this problem to include different financial approaches, you know, at the end of the day, no matter what is decided in terms of addressing these issues, it’s going to involve having to leverage funding or capital in some way. And we all know that there are limitations on the amount of dollars available to the federal government. So hear and have heard quite frequently lately about a desire to leverage private capital in support of government projects or programs. And I think that’s certainly a way, and Jim alluded to this earlier, in terms of levering other sources of capital to get after these sorts of problems.

That said, if you look at New Orleans and what happened during Katrina and then what happened afterwards with respect to the construction of, you know, 375 miles of barriers, pump stations, diversion channels, and the like, that was indeed delivered by the federal government, because it was mandated by both the president and Congress. But I don’t think we’re going to see very many $14 billion fully funded federal projects in the future. I think what we will see is a shared responsibility between federal, state, and local entities, and, as I alluded to earlier, private entities as well.

You know, the key to a successful public-private partnership, however, is there has to be, you know, a reasonably good payback scheme for the folks that invest, you know, their funds in that particular project. So, since every project is unique, some projects lend themselves better to that vehicle than others. And so we’ll have to be a bit circumspect with respect to how we leverage private capital in support of these kind of efforts.

BURKETT: And he’s talking about the gray infrastructure. And reflecting briefly in the green infrastructure, another thing we learned during Katrina is the value and the importance of—and generally storms make landfall in Louisiana, we’ve learned through the past, because I was director or coastal management there for a while, and wildlife and fisheries after that. And watching our coast erode, and so the storm buffer—the value of our coastal barrier islands and our marches to reach hard storm surge, as they deteriorate—you know, now the levy is not protected by a bald cypress forest that used to be out in front of it. And those levies broke during Hurricane Katrina.

And so increasing the resilience of your natural coastal structure, your landforms, is part of the solutions that, at least, the state of Louisiana has undertaken. And we’ve seen this loss of—we talked earlier about salt water intrusion, and the ghost forests that are cropping up along the coast because of the—the cabbage palm, for example, in many parts of Florida, even up in the Carolinas, where the salt water is getting in now to the forest. So it’s not just happening in Louisiana as, you know, Katrina. But these other areas are now becoming more vulnerable because of the loss of their coastal storm buffers, their natural systems.

GOODMAN: So as we think about infrastructure, we should also be thinking about the green infrastructure that helps makes these areas more resilient in the first instances to the threats we’re discussing.

BURKETT: The natural resilience, yes.

GOODMAN: Let’s talk for a bit about foreign policy and national security. We are, after all, at the Council on Foreign Relations. Now, mayor, as a diplomat, you’ve mentioned that there are indeed foreign policy and perhaps migration pattern challenges associated with sea level rise. Can you say a little bit more about that from your own experience?

CASON: Yeah. As you know, we get—in Miami, we get 2,000 migrants a day coming in from all over—all over the world, but mainly from South America and the Caribbean. You can imagine when sea level rise takes away the beaches in the Caribbean, the tourist—which the tourists go to, and which is the bedrock of their economies, and their ports, how are they going to live? Nobody’ll go there, because there won’t be any beaches for tourists. They’re going to end up coming to the United States, as they do now. So I think you’ll see a surge of illegal immigration to the United States, probably by boat. We have a lot of that as it. So you’re going to see a migration aspect to sea level rise.

Another one too is if you look at the—before I came I took a look at the elevations of the major bases in Florida. Homestead base, which was really hit by Hurricane Andrew, was over two and a half feet. Key West is roughly two and a half feet. Elgin Air Force Base is, I think, four (feet). And Special Operations Command is four of five feet. So some of our major bases from which we project force and which we use for humanitarian and other operations so that—from our military, are very much at risk. And they’re likely to go pretty early on as well. So a lot of B-52s and fly from some of these bases all around the world, they won’t be there.

GOODMAN: Right. Well, we know that the military in recent years has showed a lot of initiative in evaluating the impacts of sea level rise and other threats to military installations. General, can you talk a little bit about how you think in your experience, from—you know, from both Norfolk, which is a huge constellation of all services, not just Navy but Army Corps in there in force, as well as the Air Force, and other regions where we—where there’s an effort to address resilience and respond to the effects of sea level rise?

TEMPLE: Well, first of all, going back to what we talked about a little earlier, about this being a wicked problem, it does take a holistic systems approach, which really means you need a combination of both structural and non-structural capabilities in order to help insulate yourself against this combination if you happen to be unlucky enough to be in a place where you’re, you know, experiencing subsidence as well as rising seas. That’s certainly an issue.

Really, at the end of the day, climate change or climate variability, rising seas, it’s ultimately about water. And we need to look internationally at water security being an issue. You know, some people might say that the 2009 droughts in the U.S., Russia, and China, drove a shortage of wheat, and a shortage of wheat drove the prices up, which exacerbated the shortage in countries that couldn’t afford to purchase it, that then resulted, some might say, in the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. So this kind of instability, being driven by water security issues, is of great concern to combatant commanders and to the diplomatic corps throughout the world.

And it’s something that they need to address proactively, and are trying to address proactively, because otherwise you end up being in a reaction mode with respect to humanitarian crises, migration—mass migration crises, and ultimately terrorism-related crises, as we’ve seen in Mali and Chad and Niger most recently. So there is a tie between national security, water security, sea level rise, and climate variabilities, no question about it in my mind, anyway.

GOODMAN: One might even call it a threat multiplier.

TEMPLE: Yes. (Laughter.)

GOODMAN: Wonder where that term came from? (Laughter.) OK, well, but we also have the opportunity, I think, today, now that we’ve understood for 10 years that, indeed, climate change is a threat multiplier to create some force multiplier effects as we modernize, reset, make more resilient. And at the same time, dealing with the wide range of threats to our infrastructure from cyber. We know we need to upgrade our energy and water infrastructure to be more resilient to a wide range of threats they’ll face.

OK. I think it’s time to open up the floor to questions. To remind you all, please introduce yourself and offer a brief question. OK, Ruth.

Q: Hi. I’m Ruth Greenspan Bell from Woodrow Wilson Center.

I wanted to ask the mayor to kind of put on his political hat for a moment, or as sort of the sensibilities that come out of thinking through that, because you mentioned that you have a governor who doesn’t want to act on this. But you’ve also told us a bunch of reasons coming out of the community, coming out of business, coming out of hard facts and hard economics why you’re concerned. So why is it impossible and why is it so hard to get the state level working at this? Can you just ruminate on that a little bit?

CASON: My guess is that the governor is a climate denier because he’s afraid somehow that people won’t invest in the state. He’s very concerned about jobs. And maybe he’s afraid they’re going to scare people off. But I think it should be turned around. There’s going to be hundreds of billions of dollars to be made as companies come in, as universities start spending money on research to tackle the problem, to save the—South Florida as long as you can, until, maybe, someday you can’t, and you have to walk backwards. So you need to look at it the other way around. This is a business opportunity. I think the president-elect needs to look at this as a business opportunity. He has properties in Doral. He has properties right along the ocean. He has billions of dollars’ worth of his own properties, his own business interests in Florida.

But the mayors, we have to take a leadership position. We’re not very happy with the governor—the mayors in South Florida. Our congressmen, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart are very interested in sea level rise, because it’s their communities. And unfortunately, Jeb Bush and Rubio, who live one mile from where I live, didn’t want to talk about it either. But they should, because this is going to be—as I said, this is an existential threat to our communities, which have some of the highest quality of life in the world. And if we can’t find a way to start preparing for it and, hopefully, back to your earlier question, have a more precise model, instead of four lines that four different organizations say one of these will happen, have more frequent scientific modeling so that we can pick—you know, decide our own risk, and pick when we’re going to assume something’s going to happen and plan for it.

BURKETT: Let me add to—

GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BURKETT: This variability, the range here, the reason that we can’t give you a precise number—it would be probably the wrong number—is because we can model how the temperature—how the ocean expands due to the rising temperature, it’s the ice sheets, it’s the land ice that is the elephant in the room. And the rate of decline of land ice is why we have the range. And as the science matures, hopefully we can narrow that and give you better numbers. But right now, that’s why I always give you a range. And you select in that range depending upon the risk that you’re willing to take.

GOODMAN: But say a little bit, mayor, about the meeting you were describing with the university of Miami, and the opportunity they now see to advance research, as well as connect with the private sector, but understanding the challenge we’re facing.

CASON: Yeah. Coral Gables was a planned city—one of the first planned cities in the United States 90 years ago. We included—George Merrick, who designed the city, included a place for the University of Miami. About a year ago, the new president of the University of Miami came in, Julio Frenk, who was the minister of health of Mexico, and ran Harvard’s public health department. He came in. We, as a city, have meeting with the trustees of the university. My first meeting, I brought him a LiDAR map and with just his buildings on it.

And I said, Mr. President, we’re celebrating our 90th anniversary. But I don’t think we’re going to have a second one. And I showed him the map. And his buildings are three-feet above sea level. He went a week or two later, he had his inaugural address, and his third point was University of Miami is going to become a leader on sea level rise research and efforts to get people aware of it, our students, everybody else, because for us we see it. It’s our future. We got to do something about it.

GOODMAN: Steve, and then—or we’ve got two Steves here. Steve Cheney and then Steven Flynn, and then gentleman next to Steve Chaney. OK.

Q: Thanks, Sherri. Steve Cheney from the American Security Project.

Mayor, Doctor, General, you gave a great pitch. But I think unfortunately you’re preaching a little bit to the choir here. And you touched on it a minute ago about the mayors. It just seems to me, that if you can motivate the mayors—the mayors get it more than the states do, more than the national government does. So if you can motivate them to at least have more of a cry not just in your state but nationally, it would help. And, General, my question to you is obviously this president-elect respects generals, to a point. (Laughter.) How do you feel your fellow generals feel about climate change and the impact it has on national security? And are they willing to take that issue to the president-elect?

TEMPLE: Well, I’ve been out of the active community of general officers for over four years now. So I wouldn’t want to speak for them, either collectively or individually. All I can say is Department of Defense leadership recognizes this as a problem because it’s issued a Department of Defense directive that requires installation or base commanders to assess the vulnerability of their base or installation to sea rise, storm surge, and other disasters, and are expected to make plans to deal with them. But part of implementing a plan requires a good understanding of what might happen within certain boundaries, when it might happen, and then you’ve got to determine how much that plan’s going to cost, and then you have to have a reliable source of funds in order to deal with that issue.

Each installation is, you know, financed directly by its, you know, parent service, so to speak. So in the case of Norfolk it’s the Navy, or nearby Fort Eustis, here in Virginia, it’s the Army, and so forth. So it’s really incumbent on the commanders to identify the requirements so that they can be put in the budget in a way that addresses the issue. But as I said earlier, this wicked problem has got to be dealt with in a holistic, systematic way, and has to be done in concert with the communities that surround the installation, otherwise you’ll get a disconnect between solutions that may actually cause problems for neighboring communities, if you don’t work in concert with each other.

GOODMAN: Many currently-serving Defense Department employees are already feeling that they have to write climate change out of their documents and off their websites. And what that will result in, Steve, as you well know—and the General—it will suppress the requirements generation needed to address the problem, despite the fact that there is good policy and direction right now. So the larger political climate in which all this is occurring matters as much as the climate that’s actually changing.

Steve Flynn, a leader in resilience and many other fields.

Q: Well, thank you. Really honored to be here today. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the issues of incentives, or really disincentives that are now in place. This deals primarily, of course, with the National Flood Insurance, is usually a subsidy for people who live in these areas. That’s one issue. But I also want to flip the other side, because we often talk about the well-to-do who are basically exposed. But we have a real social equity issue, with many poor low-lying communities, and particularly places like here in the Northeast where we put public housing, for instance, in very low-lying flood areas here. And so now do we deal with both the, you know, incentives for folks who have the means to not continue to, essentially, embrace risk that we’re subsidizing as taxpayers, but also wrestle with some of the social equity issues that we have people living—who can’t move who live in these highly exposed areas?

CASON: Well, fortunately, my city is extremely wealthy. And we don’t have any pockets of poverty. So I really can’t answer it from—but in terms of disincentives, I think FEMA doesn’t—FEMA will come in after you’re—you know, a hurricane has destroyed your home along the water and will rebuild it, and they really probably shouldn’t. They should help you build it somewhere else. What we’re doing is trying to come up with resiliency plans and forward-looking plans so that we can get credit at least to lower the insurance cost, because only 23 percent of our citizens have flood insurance. So it’ll make it cheaper by things we’re doing, but again, those homes really in the future along the water are located in the wrong place. They should be somewhere else. But they’re $20, $50 million homes. They’re not going to move.

BURKETT: And the IPCC report most recently, the last one, concluded in spades that the poor disproportionately bear the cost or the impacts, because they can’t deal with them because—and this is looking globally, but it also applies here in America, where poorer communities—my parents lost their home in Hurricane Katrina. My dad retired Air Force, he could move inland. But the people behind, in New Orleans, for example, a lot of the poorer people who didn’t have insurance, they had a much tougher struggle than my parents did. And in the developing world, where they don’t have the institutional, the governance, the resources—they don’t even have the science to help with the modeling of what they’re going to be dealing with. You know, they will be disproportionately affected, so.

CASON: You know, the—one other country—I lived in 15 countries. One of them was Bolivia. And one of the things I’ve noticed there is all the glaciers have melted. And the water that used to go down in the valleys to—so that the small farmers could grow the things they’re growing, they’re having to immigrate now because there’s no—they can’t—there’s no water for their crops. And you’re seeing a lot more of them coming up here, or going to Peru, going elsewhere, causing, you know, voter disputes and conflicts with other communities that don’t want more competition for their scarce resources.

GOODMAN: Gentleman here and then at the back table.

Q: Good afternoon. Lieutenant Commander Will Cahill (sp), U.S. Coast Guard. Also, a former committee chairman for Miami Beach’s Waterfront Protection Committee under both Mayor Bower and Mayor Levine. And my two sons are fourth-generation Miami Beach. We still own a property there. Very near, dear topic.

It’s refreshing to hear you actually talk about retreat. The city was pretty recalcitrant when it came to discussing retreat. Specifically, what would be the trigger for an official policy of retreat for a city like Coral Gables?

CASON: Well, the reason we produced this legal study is because, first of all, there weren’t many legal studies addressing the question of retreat. And when we look at, as I mentioned, the geology, the timelines that—you know, within 40, 50 years most of us will be gone. You know, we really needed to start looking at the—when do we stop providing services? When do they stop providing taxes?  The whole question of taking so, I mean, can we be sued if we take?  It gets very—I’m not a lawyer. It gets very complex. So this 150-page study we did addresses all of that so that we’re prepared legally for things we might have to do.

I think Miami Beach is at the stage now that cities like Coral Gables will be later. They’ve put $400 million into pumps, but it’s—it’s just, you know, it’s like the thumb in the dike. It’s just they keep pumping the water out, it’s going to keep coming in. It’s the same geology, Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Key West are just so low that there will come a time where they just can’t keep it out by pumps. They’ll probably spend a billion dollars on pumps. I think most of the cities will spend billions of dollars, if they have it, to try to gain time and save what they can as long as they can. But there will come a time when you have to be realistic. You have to retreat. And they’re doing it in Alaska, they’re doing it in the island in the Chesapeake Bay that went under a while back. So it’s happening, and so we didn’t want to just put our head in the sand.

This is a living document that will be changed with case law as years pass. But I think the mayors have all been very eager to get this because all of us down there realize that there will come a time when we just have to give up and walk backwards. So I tell people to buy virgin land a hundred feet up in North Carolina, it’ll be the new beachfront. (Laughter.)

TEMPLE: Well, as you can imagine, as a military person and as a military community, we really don’t like the term “retreat.”  (Laughter.) 

CASON: It’s an Italian term.

BURKETT: Italian. (Laughter.)

CASON: An Italian term.

TEMPLE: “Relocation” is OK. And an interesting example of relocation that’s over 30 years old now is in Florida, it’s Homestead Air Force Base which was struck and devastated by Hurricane Andrew, huge storm. And the Air Force leadership back that long ago decided that this Air Force base that lies between two and three feet, you know, above sea level, we’re just not going to go and reoccupy it again. And I know it’s being used now as a reserve—Air Force Reserve base. But that said, the active Air Force decided to abandon the base. So, certainly, relocation is an option, but it’s one that I think you can understand people will accept it only as a last resort.

GOODMAN: The gentleman in the back

Q: Thanks. Fred Tipson. I’m from New Jersey.

GOODMAN: Hello, Fred.

Q: I’d like to make a political argument and get your reaction to it. Right now, of course, we’re in an environment where the political leadership is basically in denial or at least avoidance. The problem is too big, they don’t want to take it on or they worry about government intrusion, it implies all kinds of government activities that seem ideologically incompatible with many people’s philosophy.

I would argue, however, that because of things like the market impact from mortgages and insurance rates and a few more storms, and I’m talking about five to 10 years, because one of my pet peeves is we keep using these charts with 50, 100-year projections. This problem is going to hit us in five and 10 years, not 50 to a hundred. And people are going to flip. They’re going to start to panic. They’re going to realize that I can’t keep my grandchildren this close to the coast, you know?  It’s not in their interest. I’m not going to rebuild the restaurant so my granddaughter can run it because it’s just not going to be there.

And once that tipping point comes, I think we’re going to see a slippery slide into a whole new kind of politics where people are going to say, Coral Gables, you know, good luck, but you’re on your own. We’re not spending federal money to rebuild a city whose days are numbered. The Rockaways, the Jersey Shore, heaven forbid—I really think people’s attitudes on these issues are going to change completely and we’re going to start looking at it in the macros sense of, OK, what do we have to protect, you know, Norfolk Navy Base or whatever the choices are?  There are going to be choices made about coastal locations that are worth saving and those that we’re just going to abandon, not retreat, just abandon.

Now, I wonder what your reaction is to that and whether my timeframes are realistic?

CASON: I agree. I think—I don’t ever expect the federal government or the state government to come to rescue my city. They’re going to say you guys are rich and, you know, you’ve had the good life, we’ve got to put money somewhere else. In particular, we don’t have an engineering solution, if there’s no scientific solution, they’re not going to throw good money after bad.

I think we’re going to see in Coral Gables, a lot sooner than people think, some of the consequences of sea-level rise. I had a marine patrol count all of the boats behind bridges in Coral Gables. We have 301 boats behind bridges. Most of them can only get out at extreme low tide and you have an inch above the boat. So an inch or two more of sea level rise, the boats can’t get out, that’s a billion-and-a-half dollars’ worth of property that’s going to plummet. Then people are going to start selling, and then you’re going to have the mortgage companies and the insurance companies. So I think it’s going to be a lot sooner. Just a few more inches will make a big impact on people.

And like I said, we don’t have denial in our city, and everybody says that we understand it. But usually when I say—when I tell them about it, they say, well, what are we going to do about it?  And I say, well, I don’t know except plan for it and know our risks and vulnerabilities, and keep the cohesion that our commission has as to going green and reducing our carbon footprint and hoping the rest of the world does it.

But, you know, we have to keep an eye on the science, pick a risk level, pick a time, and start putting some money in. And so we put money—we’re putting money into buoys, into buoys to supplement NOAA’s so that seeing is believing. People can, as I say, take a look, look at your buoy, look at your tidal gauge to make sure that people don’t slide back and say, oh, we don’t believe it anymore.

BURKETT: And without 10 years or 15 years of a storm, you get into a complacency.

CASON: Exactly. Our last storm, the storm surge in Gables Estates was 13.8 feet, so that’s on top of everything else. So you had boats a mile inland on top of houses and everything. We haven’t had a hurricane direct hit in 10 years.

TEMPLE: We call that disaster amnesia. (Laughter.)

CASON: Yeah.

GOODMAN: Good point.

Gentleman here at the center table.

Q: Thank you. Scott Moore from the World Bank.

So a bit of an obvious point at this stage of the conversation. But, you know, there’s this, you know, the contrast between the gravity of what we’re talking about here in political discourse couldn’t be starker. And, you know, I’m struck by almost a painful irony between some of the things we’ve been talking about here, immigration, luxury real estate, and, you know, things that the incoming administration seems to care about.

But I’m kind of curious, what do you think, you know, from the four opinions that we might have on the panel today, how can we make a—do a better job of kind of making the case for climate policy on core economic and security grounds?

CASON: Well, I mean, if the president says he’s going to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, I mean, I think we could take a lot of that in South Florida, I mean, to gain some time. I mean, it’s private money and the taxpayers’ money that’s paying the $400 million for the pumps on Miami Beach. Our bridges are too low. We’re going to have to rebuild the bridges. Our roads average eight feet in South Florida, so they’re going to have to elevate, which they’re doing in Miami Beach, they’re elevating the roads, although when you do it then the water runs down into the property. And the insurance companies deny them coverage because it’s now a basement, so it’s very complex.

But I think that there will be a lot of money available for infrastructure. If you look at it, this is a business opportunity, opportunity for entrepreneurs, for universities. Sell is as a—on Republican grounds, this is the way we make money. Make a lot of money by getting involved in the construction and the mitigation and resilience.

BURKETT: I won’t comment on the politics of it as a scientist. But I know I’ve helped with the Millennium Corporation and USAID and the World Bank in this climate-resilient concept in trying to provide information that will help guide development investments that the State Department and others are making in other parts of the world. And that seems to be something that other countries are doing to that is logical. It has financial implications for your investments, and seems like a lot of the communities are doing the same thing now.

TEMPLE: Well, the mayor and I were talking earlier about business opportunities. And this might seem a little silly, but actually it isn’t, because if you do have to relocate, there will be structures left behind. And we have shown through, you know, today’s engineering technology that you can recycle up to 70 percent or even more of a building. So you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will take advantage of the opportunity to recycle those facilities or buildings or structures and use them hopefully in some useful way as communities make that hard decision to relocate, if they should do so. So that’s yet something else that could happen as a result of this.

GOODMAN: I mean, I’ve led an effort over the last decade, in which many of you have been involved, to address climate change as a national security issue with military leaders as voices of experience. And it’s been very successful in terms of the defense and intelligence communities taking these threats seriously and incorporating it into their plans, policies, and strategies.

It’s been arguably less successful at sort of changing the national dialogue on climate change overall. And, I mean, I think that’s partly because after a while people don’t want to hear just about the threat, they want to hear about, what are you going to do?  They want to hear, how does it affect me, and what are you going to do for me?

And so I do think there are elements in this discussion when we talk about what are the economic opportunities at the local level that directly affect you where you live. And again, and it’s not only about people living on the coasts. We could have a whole discussion about how the effects of climate change affect, you know, agricultural areas inland and the supply chain. There’s all of that to mention. And I think, you know, that it’s going to take that realization at the local level.

And part of this discussion has also referred to the possibility of there being those tipping points from the next storm or set of events that begins to really change politics at a fundamental level.

Alberto?  Former Navy general counsel, very in the thick of these issues.

Q: Very different question. Alberto Mora, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

What is the sea-level rise due to the water table in freshwater accessibility in South Florida?  Or is that a problem that’ll lag behind the encroachment of the sea?

CASON: It’s very much linked to the Everglades. What’s happening is the water flow in the Everglades has been reduced. You don’t have as much freshwater going into South Florida, into flamingo area, so the saltwater can come in. And we have a huge aquifer under South Florida, which is being infiltrated by saltwater, and a lot of the wells, particularly in Fort Lauderdale, had to be abandoned and moved farther inland. So the water’s coming underneath through the limestone, affecting the water supply, and until you can get a more adequate flow of water coming from the Everglades, instead of trying to push it back, I think the first thing that’s going to happen you’re going to lose your water before anything else happens, your freshwater. And you’re going to have to either go desalinization or truck it in or something else, or drink scotch or something, I don’t know what. (Laughter.)  At any rate, it’s going to be a—it’s very much linked. All those water issues are linked with the Everglades and the things we’ve been discussing.

BURKETT: We talked about hot spots of vulnerability. The islands, small islands are particularly vulnerable because of the water, saltwater intrusion into the freshwater lands. And just looking globally and even for the U.S. insular areas out in the Pacific, their freshwater will go before they’ll flood, most likely.


Q: Hi. My name is Miranda Peterson, I work at the Center for American Progress.

We’ve had a lot of discussion today about certainly the economic issues, investments, infrastructure. And building off of, you know, the discussion about equity, many local leaders who represent very low-income communities are not given really the luxury often in their day-to-day dealings of thinking about these long-term issues. I can’t really imagine a leader of a community, like Homestead, even though there is an Air Force Reserve base there, I’m judging by what you were describing, it’s a very large and very poor community. How would you—what are—how would you communicate to local leaders of these low-income communities to try and get them thinking long term about, you know, putting their own political capital into infrastructure investments, services, and just trying to get their community residents throughout the day to start thinking about these issues?

Because recently I was working with some of these grassroots groups, and it was the first time that I had ever heard people who really work daily in the arena of social justice use the term “threat multiplier” for climate change. Yeah, so I would just like to hear your perspective on that.

CASON: Well, I think you’re exactly right. We have 35 municipalities in Miami-Dade, and I would say maybe 10 and the more prosperous of the municipalities are the ones that are—have the luxury, have the money to do these studies that are—have so much more at risk in terms of the property values and their quality of life than the other communities that are struggling with poverty and homelessness and crime and all the other things that mayors have to deal with.

That’s why we created the four-county compact, which has got probably over a hundred different municipalities, trying to look at it regionally, sharing experiences. And what we’re doing is showing the examples of our LiDAR maps, which very few of the municipalities had done. These are very, very accurate, not like the cartographic maps that could be off four or five feet. So we’re sharing this, here’s what we’ve done, and here’s—we’ve seen our vulnerabilities and our risk, you ought to do it, and we ought to get grants from the federal government or the states or foundations to help those communities be able to show their citizens the risk from their elevations, and then come up with regional solutions. Because the poorer communities, they’re just not going to have the time, the resources, and they’re not going to spend their political capital. They don’t say a thing about it. They’re aware of it, but they’ve got other problems.

So I think—and for example, we can help them. That’s why we give our legal study to anybody that wants it, our LiDAR maps, which we produce in-house, and say—share experiences. And hopefully some of that they can do while we’re waiting for Godot, or somebody to give us some money. (Laughter.)

TEMPLE: Yeah. And this gets back to the point I made earlier about communities outside military bases for us is they’re really inextricably linked. And so they have the luxury of being able to leverage each other’s resources and intellectual power to look at these problems, if they so choose.

What they don’t have the luxury of, in my view, is to wait too late. And that has to be a collective decision. And if it’s a collective decision, then that means hopefully that the solution set they come up with is helpful to everybody within that community.

CASON: There’s a group called CLEO, which is Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunity, or something like that, that’s focused on what I think is the key thing now, at least in my area, and they are going out to schools, churches, and we’re talking to student body presidents, university students, because those kids—I have a cartoon that I did that shows two residents talking about the potholes, and they don’t have the speedbumps, and the water is up to here, and they’re not even focused on it.

The kids are going to—the water’s going to be up to here. It’s their future. Our grandkids are going to live to 90, so they’re going to, I mean, they’re going to see this. We caused the problem. So they’ve got to get engaged. And I’m very optimistic because they’re forming clubs, they’re coming to—they’re doing little studies. They’re very interested in it, as they should be.

The older people say, well, I’m going to die in a couple of years, let me whoopee and live it up while I can, or until you give me a solution I’m not going to get exercised. some of them unfortunately say, well, I’ll leave it to my grandkids. But I think the grandkids are the ones that, and our kids, that have to keep the pressure on the local governments and all levels of government to spend the money required to get prepared for the problems that are coming.

TEMPLE: And working problems like this do offer opportunity for innovation. And it’s the younger generation that’s going to address these problems, I think, in an innovative way that we might not even be able to imagine right here in this room right now. So like you, Mr. Mayor, I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll find a way to deal with these issues in a rational way.

GOODMAN: Well, on that optimistic note, do we have time—we have one more question?  No?  We’re out of time, unfortunately, but we’ll be here.

And I want to thank all of our panelists for this, and thank the audience. I do think, you know, this last question, that innovation is not only in the solution set, but it’s in how we organize and how we share the information, you know, in the Defense Department there’s something called a joint land-use study, and communities around military bases can engage in that, and that brings the community in with the military to do the planning.

There undoubtedly are other authorities, federal, maybe state, local, and other ways to organize, to engage some of the more at-risk, lower-income communities in being able to take advantage of some of the tools being developed by Mayor Cason and Coral Gables so that the—both the risk but the opportunities are made more widely available.

With that, let’s thank the panel and thank all of you for joining us today. (Applause.)


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