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Miami's Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe
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In Disposable City, Miami resident Mario Alejandro Ariza shows us not only what climate change looks like on the ground today, but also what Miami will look like 100 years from now, and how that future has been shaped by the city’s racist past and present. As politicians continue to kick the can down the road and Miami becomes increasingly unlivable, real estate vultures and wealthy residents will be able to get out or move to higher ground, but the most vulnerable communities, disproportionately composed of people of color, will face flood damage, rising housing costs, dangerously higher temperatures, and stronger hurricanes that they can’t afford to escape.
Miami may be on the front lines of climate change, but the battle it’s fighting today is coming for the rest of the U.S. — and the rest of the world — far sooner than we could have imagined even a decade ago. Disposable City is a thoughtful portrait of both a vibrant city with a unique culture and the social, economic, and psychic costs of climate change that call us to act before it’s too late.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Miami
“I can’t imagine my son, or my grandchildren, living anywhere else,” said the mayor of Miami to the former United Nations secretary-general. Perfectly tanned and impeccably coiffed, Francis Suarez was leading the soft-spoken Ban Ki-moon on a circuit of the city’s dazzling downtown urban core. Seated next to each other on the hard-backed wooden benches of a City of Miami trolley packed with reporters and civil servants, the pair discussed the uncertain future of the Magic City as the ungainly vehicle trundled along narrow downtown streets. It was February 2019, and I sat behind them, listening as they spoke about the future of my city.
Ban, current head of the Global Commission on Adaptation, took as a given that climate change was happening, that it was having serious negative consequences, and that it was time to get smart about mitigating impacts. Like an aging rock star who’d hired a new band and written a comeback album, Ban and his Global Commission were on a world tour. Their first stop was Miami, a city that—as you may have heard—is probably doomed. But the metropolis at the tip of southeast Florida, set to drown in the rising sea by the end of the twenty-first century, was not going down without a fight.
“We want to be the most resilient city on the planet, and a model for resiliency around the world,” the mayor told Ban as the trolley arrived at its first destination: a giant pump, smack in the middle of the Brickell Financial District, a pump powerful enough to drain a swimming pool’s worth of water every minute. Across the street from the gleaming pump rose the towers of Brickell City Centre, a $1.5 billion development owned by Swire Properties. Swire had recently announced an expansion of the complex. “They believe in the future of the city,” boasted the mayor.
“Impressive,” affirmed Ban.
It was the nicest, shiniest, most capable pump I’d seen. None of the people present commented on the fact that it was conveniently located next to one of the area’s most expensive commercial properties. Alan Dodd, the director of the City of Miami’s Department of Resilience and Public Works and a former colonel in the US Army Corps of Engineers, pointed out that the pump was connected to a giant sump, an underground chamber that cleaned the water the pump drained before moving it to the ecologically vulnerable Biscayne Bay. He then instructed one of his employees to open the gate to the sump, allowing everyone to peer into the vast cistern. As I listened to the water trickling down into the sump’s cavernous depths, all I could wonder was, “Will it be enough?”
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
I started writing this book in the summer of 2015, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was teaching English in Zhengzhou, China. Zhengzhou is what the Chinese term a “second-tier” city, a metropolis of eight million people that functions as the Middle Kingdom’s equivalent of Cincinnati, Ohio. To me, climate change was, up until that summer, a vague nagging, a topic I could learn about later—maybe—when I had the time. And then one high-summer morning, in the middle of Hunan Province, at the center of the Middle Kingdom, on what otherwise should have been an unremarkable day, I stepped outside and found myself unable to see the skyscrapers on the other side of the street. I could barely see the sun. The black, acrid smog was that nebulous and thick.
It stayed that way—inexplicably hazy, ominously overcast, difficult to inhale, for days. Even with a breathing mask it felt like I was swallowing handfuls of cigarette ash every time I opened my mouth. I could smell what humans were doing to the earth. It smelled like exhaust. I could taste it. It tasted like ash. I could breathe it—but just barely. The thick haze covered more than just Zhengzhou. That summer I traveled across the breadth of China—from Shenzhen in the south to Beijing in the north—and the smoke and haze followed everywhere I went. This was more than mere pollution. This was climate change. But what did it mean for my plan to move back to Miami at the end of the summer, a city whose vulnerability was already making headlines?
What you’re reading is the fruit of the research that I started in that Zhengzhou hotel room, with my laundry drying in the bathroom and the high summer sun obscured by smog. In the course of writing, I’ve interviewed more than 150 sources, made half a dozen public records requests, reported on two hurricanes, helped catch a python, kayaked up the Miami River, investigated a nuclear power plant, and followed in the wake of quixotic public officials showing off a shiny new piece of infrastructure meant to hold back the inexorably rising tide.
This book’s title comes from a conversation I had with a lobbyist in January 2017 while working as a freelancer for a local media outlet on a story about affordable housing. On the phone with Ben Solomon, a squint-eyed, blond-haired real estate lawyer who sits at the nexus of power of realtors, construction companies, and developers in a city run by realtors, construction companies, and developers, we talked for almost forty-five minutes. Even though Miami was in the midst of a housing crisis, he pooh-poohed the idea of the county mandating that developers build affordable homes. (The state legislature would later take away municipalities’ power to do such pesky things.) Close to the end of the conversation, I asked him, tangentially, what he thought about all this climate change stuff. He started talking about Miami as if it were a patient suffering from a terminal disease.
“Look, the press, the city, everybody here needs to have a good bedside manner about this issue [of climate change],” Solomon said. Sea level rise is “definitely going to affect the market here,” he assured me. “I just hope that this thing is far enough away that we still have at least five or six good business cycles left.”
Solomon’s cynical calculation shocked me. Property development, as we will see, is big business in Miami. But developers don’t often hold onto a building for very long after they complete it, so they’re relatively insulated from the risk of constructing thousands of condominiums in a city with a shrinking future. The conversation with Solomon cued me in to one of the fundamental conflicts around climate change that this book seeks to address.
For too long, discussions about what humans are doing to the climate system have been framed in terms of belief or disbelief. That’s created a situation in which a vast asymmetry of information exists. Cynical actors are taking advantage of that asymmetry. For them, climate change isn’t about believing or not believing; it’s about winning or losing, and they plan to win.
Many of these cynical actors have little immediate incentive to mitigate carbon emissions. Some don’t even feel compelled to adapt—perhaps they think they’ll die of old age before climate change gets too bad, or that they have enough money to protect themselves from its effects. But all of the people who don’t understand what is going to happen with the climate are going to get screwed. As Los Angeles and San Francisco burn with wildfire, as Phoenix broils, as Jakarta sinks into the sea, as Johannesburg and Chennai, India, stumble from thirst, human-driven climate change presents Miami, unique among them, with a looming existential threat. Porous local geology means there is no stopping rising water here.
The region’s policymakers, politicians, and local stakeholders either minimize the problem or preach a gospel of resilience and optimism out of touch with the situation’s gravity. The media is struggling to clearly communicate the risks to the public. At stake, in the South Florida region alone, are six and a half million lives, hundreds of billions of dollars in real estate, and the place I call home.
A SPONGE IN WATER
Former mayor of Miami Maurice Ferré was giving a speech. It was January 2019. Ferré was dying of cancer, so when he talked, people listened.
His city was dedicating a park to him. The park is a jade rectangle wedged between skyscrapers and the dirty-blue bay. Joggers with dogs on leashes run along its promenade. At night, lovers would leave the museum next door and wander in, holding hands. Only a few years prior, the city had proposed bulldozing the park to make room for a soccer stadium. But on this day, hundreds gathered—politicians, businesspeople, civic leaders, curious passers-by. There were cameras and reporters. There was an expectation that Maurice Ferré would perhaps not talk very much. He was dying, after all. And what does an old mayor, long removed from power, have to say, anyway?
“I have often said that you have to think of Miami as a sponge in water,” Ferré remarked a few minutes into his speech.1 South Florida is a quirk: of climate, of culture, of excess, but, most importantly, of geology. Under the park being named after Ferré lies limestone, rock made from the hard calcium exoskeletons of ancient creatures. Long ago, organic acids and ghost shrimp ate holes into this rock. Now water—both salt and fresh—moves through those holes. “The key operating word is water,” the ailing former mayor noted.
Ferré was mayor from 1973 to 1985, during the Wild Years. They’re the stuff of popular myth: crime, cocaine, neon, Art Deco, leisure suits, and heaps of ill-gotten money. He was mayor during the riots, when Miami burned because white cops beat black insurance agent Arthur McDuffie to death and a white jury acquitted them. He was mayor for the Mariel Boatlift, when Castro opened his port and 125,000 Cubans crossed the Florida Straits in a flotilla of leaky boats. He was mayor when artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped eleven trash-strewn mangrove islands in floating hot-pink skirts and put this city back on the map. He was mayor for six terms: twelve years. But he didn’t talk about any of that. This day, Maurice Ferré talked about water.
“All of southeast Florida is surrounded by water,” Ferré said. Not only on all sides but below as well, he went on to explain. “Because of the limestone formations that, along with silica, make up one hundred percent of Florida’s subsoil, and because of its porosity, the distance between our noses and lungs and [unlimited] water is never more than a few feet.”
Life in Miami takes place on seemingly solid ground, yet, as on a cruise ship, the landscape has been manufactured. A hundred and fifty years ago, this land was a swamp so beautifully difficult and deadly that Native Americans were able to escape genocide at the hands of the US Army by hiding in it. Today, the eastern third of that swamp is drained, the western third is cattails and pythons, and the southern final third—what’s left of the Everglades—is dying. The success of the gleaming city behind Ferré has come in spite of the swamp and the water. Water management—in the form of one of the world’s largest flood control systems—has made it all possible. But the flood control makes it easy to forget, in this subtropical Oz, that water can never be fully controlled, only managed, diverted, negotiated with.
And now the water is rising. Humans are changing the climate with their industrial activities. And Ferré’s city—my city—home to some four hundred thousand people, major economic node of the Miami Metropolitan Area, which houses some six and half million souls across three counties, has porous subsoil and an average elevation above sea level that hovers around six feet.
This is quite possibly Maurice Ferré’s last public address. Other aging politicians might have used such an opportunity to crow about their accomplishments. But Ferré uses it to raise the alarm. Water—its level, its quality, its temperature—will determine the future of Miami. “Or whether we have human life habitation in South Florida at all.”
To talk about Miami in the early decades of the twenty-first century is to pose a series of existential questions: Is this place going to make it? Can the region’s clannish political elites, many of whom are loath to even use the phrase “climate change,” get it together enough to adapt? Can more than one hundred municipalities within the metropolitan area, each with its own set of mayors, commissioners, legal codes, and administrative staff, adapt in a coordinated fashion? Can the citizens here, who have some of the lowest levels of non-electoral civic participation in the country, become engaged in the process?
For generations, the image of this city in the popular imagination has been one of leisure and sun and good-time sin. To twenty-three million people who visited as tourists in 2018, it is still a vacation destination par excellence. But now it is also a front line, a possible future Atlantis, and a metonymic stand-in for how the rest of the developed world might fail—or succeed—in the climate-changed future.
Miami is a crossroads—a subtropical enclave of immigrants—at a crossroads. It has just begun to feel the effects of anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change. It has just begun trying to adapt. Miami-Dade County is a majority-minority county that communicates in English, Spanish, and Kreyol. Slightly more than half of the people here, myself included, are foreign born. We face the prospect of being uprooted once again. In Miami, your Venezuelan Uber driver is an asylum seeker who used to work as a civil engineer. Your nurse left Haiti after the earthquake. Your new neighbor fled the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria. Your best friend is the child of Cuban exiles. And when you tell them about Miami and climate change, they all want to know how much time the city has left before it floods.
But the economic effects of the changing climate will hit hard even before the city drowns. The City of Miami has the busiest cargo air terminal and busiest cruise ship terminal on the planet. There’s a thriving real estate sector here that caters to international investors looking for luxury homes. Increasing temperatures, stronger hurricanes, and sky-rocketing insurance threaten all aspects of the local economy.
And if you look closely, you’ll notice that much of the urban core is littered with half-empty condo towers. They’re a by-product of the region’s inequality. As Ferré puts it, “Miami has one of the worst economic divisions in America, separating the poor and the rich.” Southeast Florida in 2019 has thirty-five billionaires and a minimum wage of $8.46 an hour. The City of Miami has a relative rate of inequality similar to that of developing countries like Paraguay and Colombia. Forty percent of the households in Miami-Dade County are working poor, people with little savings and few assets. Nineteen percent—nearly one-fifth—live below the poverty line.2 When it comes to confronting climate change, these inequalities are as dangerous as the city’s low-lying topography and porous geology.
Here, tourism is big business, which means the service sector is one of the main drivers of the local economy. The average South Floridian is likely a nurse, a waiter, a hotel maid, or a line cook. Median household income is low—just shy of $46,000 a year.3 And the cost of living in paradise is high. Almost half the households in the county rent their home, and the half that rent are some of the most cost-burdened renters in the country, often paying up to two-thirds of their budgets for housing and transportation.4 Public transit in the region is anemic. The urban sprawl is robust. Other Sunbelt cities, such as Phoenix, face similar low-income issues. In Miami’s case, the situation doesn’t leave people a lot of money left over to deal with the aftermath of a hurricane.
The economic divisions that Ferré mentions are also disproportionately racial divisions. When you’re talking about Miami, you’re talking climate change—and you’re talking racism. A 2019 study found “major disparities in wealth accumulation and income across various racial and ethnic groups in metropolitan Miami.” Predictably, non-Latinx white households are by far the most prosperous on average, with a median net worth of $107,000. The next-closest group, Cuban households, have a median wealth of $22,000.5 Miami’s vast divisions have been shaped by Jim Crow terrorism, redlining, race riots, and freeways built over bulldozed black neighborhoods. And now the city’s urban core minority neighborhoods are being gentrified by folks scrambling for the previously undesirable higher ground in a race to get away from the coasts.
You can’t get the towering skyscrapers of the Brickell Financial District without the precarious labor of brown-skinned immigrants from Central America. You cannot enjoy your Miami Beach vacation without the services of black and brown hotel workers who sometimes spend four hours a day on public transit commuting to and from Miami Beach. The brand of capitalism that built Miami, and countless other modern cities, is as tied to the modern environmental crisis as Miami is to the water that surrounds it: James Watt’s coal-fired steam engines were used to power looms that wove cloth from cotton picked by slaves. The palm oil in your chocolate bar comes from tropical forests that were slashed and burned for profit, their native inhabitants displaced or murdered. The capacitor in your iPhone contains minerals from strip mines run by Congolese warlords.
Miami is a damn beautiful city, and it rests on a sodden foundation of merciless racial and environmental exploitation. A lot of folks in this place won’t take kindly to confronting that idea. They believe that capitalism is the tool for the betterment of millions, and they or their fathers or grandfathers took up arms to defend their rights to property and freedom. Now they live here in generations-long exile because of that struggle. But these ideas—that capital was accumulated through vicious exploitation and that some find that system defensible—are not mutually exclusive. Capitalism literally created Miami. The deregulated capitalism that we have practiced since the last decades of the Cold War has fueled this city’s meteoric growth. But now it’s killing this city. And the emissions produced by capitalism, as we currently practice it, are endangering the continued existence of complex Homo sapiens civilization on planet Earth.
This is a city cut from the swamp, segregated by wealth and privation, and kept alive by international flight capital. It’s a region where multi-million-dollar luxury condominium complexes are still being constructed at sea level. Mortgages are being written for single-family properties that may very well be partially underwater in thirty years. Yet polling from 2018 indicates that more than a quarter of the residents of Miami-Dade County don’t believe that climate change is being caused by humans.6 Many politicians here prefer to speak exclusively about “sea level rise,” as if the ocean were rising of its own accord. Their myopic vision absolves us of the guilt of our emissions and focuses us solely on adaptation. Although adaptation measures are necessary, they are not sufficient. We need to reduce emissions, and we need to reimagine a capitalism that stays within its biological limits locally and globally, as well.
Toward the end of his speech, Ferré makes a curious call to action: “For us to reclaim our great future, we must reverse our century-old quest for Manifest Destiny and reclaim our republic.” South Florida was one of America’s last frontiers. Long after the western American frontier was settled, realtors were selling swampland there with Native Americans still living on it. Native claims to the land were either ignored or subverted in the name of profit and progress. Today, a similar chauvinism undergirds the refusal to price carbon emissions and environmental degradation into individual transactions. One of the fundamental challenges in adapting—or ethically abandoning—Miami is the very one Ferré raised: moving beyond this chauvinism and reversing our hundred-year quest for Manifest Destiny. Or as he put it: “Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he proclaimed that America was to be the ‘Empire of Liberty.’ Empires are always oppressive, dominating and based on racial superiority.”
This is a city that the Empire of Liberty built in the middle of a swamp. Its growth over the past century has been an unquestioned fever dream. But, in another generation, what will people talk about when they talk about Miami—of a place changed but thriving? A city struggling to keep its head above water? Or a drowned artifact, a city doomed by dysfunctional politics and lack of imagination?
The city Ferré led through dark times now faces a series of stark choices. So do the county and the region it belongs to and the rest of the country. And, if we’re being honest, so do we, in choosing to live here. We must all recognize the possibility that Miami could do everything right and still end up doomed. Because not only does averting disastrous climate change demand a global effort, it also involves radical and swift action. We’ve frittered away decades ignoring the warning signs, and every day wasted increases the awful probability of an outcome in which—try as we might—we hit the tipping point when Miami cannot be kept from drowning.
But before we can get to any of that, we need to run through some basic climate science, and in Miami, there’s no better way to do that than with Caroline Lewis.
“The truth is that the scientific data is becoming urgent,” says Caroline Lewis in her lilting Trinidadian accent. “The reports that the scientists are writing are finally factoring in the feedback loops that accelerate climate change and sea level rise.” A feedback loop is a self-reinforcing cycle. Sweating when you’re hot: that’s a negative feedback loop, because it decreases the reaction and tends toward homeostasis. Global warming, on the other hand, is a positive feedback loop: it’s like fruit ripening, where the ethylene gas produced by one bad apple increases the reaction and causes the whole barrel to spoil more quickly.
I’m sitting next to Lewis in an empty cafeteria on an early August morning in 2017. It’s an echoey room in the Cushman School, the arts and sciences private school where she works. The walls of the cafeteria are covered with laser-etched cardboard cutouts designed by the students and milled on-site with 3D printers and electronically controlled lathes. Lewis, a lifelong science teacher and the director of the Cushman School’s upper school, is also the founder of a climate change education nonprofit called the CLEO Institute, whose mission is to educate the general public about the looming environmental catastrophe. She is also a key regional player in southeast Florida’s preparation for sea level rise, having helped found the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, one of the few regional planning bodies helping the area to prepare.
At her core, Lewis is a whiz at breaking down climate change in a way that anyone can understand. She explains that there is greater scientific consensus about the future negative effects of climate change than there is about the dangers of smoking, obesity, and texting while driving. Climate change is caused by our use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Ever since the eighteenth century, when James Watt figured out how to make a coal-fired steam engine spin a wheel, we’ve been able to harness the energy stored in long-dead life-forms very effectively. But to release the energy contained in a fossil fuel, you must burn it. That combustion puts out lots of carbon dioxide. Though CO2 is still far from the most plentiful gas in the atmosphere (that distinction belongs to nitrogen), a little of it goes a long way. Because CO2 is good at reflecting certain high-energy wavelengths of light, higher concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere decrease the amount of energy the earth reflects back into space—its “albedo”—by increasing the amount of energy the atmosphere reflects toward the earth. In short, it traps heat.
“It lowers the earth’s albedo, which increases how much light we absorb,” explains Lewis.
That’s a bad thing if you’re a species whose complex civilizations developed during a period when the earth’s climate was uncharacteristically stable, geologically speaking. Known as the Holocene, this latest eleven-thousand-year span has witnessed a relatively narrow range of temperatures and consistent sea levels. But that all started to change some two hundred years ago. Atmospheric carbon is measured in parts per million, and since 1800, the quantity has shot up from 283 ppm to almost 415 ppm. In 2018 alone, humans put 37 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and we show no signs of stopping. For comparison’s sake, the last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, the oceans were a hundred feet higher and global temperatures were an average of 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) warmer.7 Called the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period, this ancient temperature spike stands as stark evidence of a distressing fact: CO2 in the atmosphere works like the earth’s thermostat. When there’s more of it, the earth warms. When there’s less, it cools.
Humans have known for a long time about the mechanism that drives global warming. Called the “greenhouse effect,” its physical mechanism was first worked out by a Swede named Svante Arrhenius in 1896. Using his knowledge of physics and chemistry (he won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903), Arrhenius first put forward the mathematical relationship between CO2 and atmospheric temperature as a way to explain past ice ages, by comparing infrared observations of the moon against temperatures on Earth in order to figure out the effect of the planet’s atmosphere on its temperature. His observations led him to theorize—correctly—that human industrial activity would increase the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere. Versions of the equations Arrhenius developed are still in use today. The hypothesis about the relationship between CO2 concentrations and Earth’s atmospheric temperature—which his equations eventually helped prove—is now an undisputed tenet of paleoclimatology, and his body of work stands as a challenge to those who would claim that the current changes to the earth’s climate system are not anthropogenic.
For at least fifty years, scientists have been able to accurately project the relationship between atmospheric CO2 levels and temperature. In fact, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report back in 1990 detailed a positive feedback loop for CO2 because of the greenhouse effect. The panel predicted an average 0.3 degree Celsius rise in global temperature per decade if humans kept emitting high levels of carbon, a prediction that has been borne out by the observable changes to global temperature since 1980.8
The IPCC functions as a sort of gold standard for climate science. Its working groups collect, synthesize, and assess knowledge about climate change. Every few years it issues reports meant to guide policymakers. A recent report, titled Special Report: Warming of 1.5 Degree Celsius
"A forceful depiction of a global crisis viewed through the lens of one of the world's most vulnerable cities."
- "Ariza blends recent research from scientists, conversations with residents, economic trends and history in a richly reported odyssey of one city's response to a growing crisis. Weaving in his own deeply personal narrative, Ariza shows the effects of the rising tide aren't just about environmental and infrastructural change -- they also impact individual lives."—Discover Magazine
- "Disposable City is a vivid and well-executed portrait of a city undergoing climate metamorphosis."—Julian Brave NoiseCat, Fellow, Type Media Center
- "Few places on earth make clearer the danger we're facing as a civilization: this absorbing tour of Miami (past, present, and future) will leave you insistent on joining the fight to slow down global warming!"—Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Bold Type Books