August 2, 2013 6:32 pm

Miami: the gathering storm

Why the prospect of Miami’s destruction through climate change bothers me, by Simon Kuper
Illustration of Miami by Luis Grañena©Luis Grañena

Miami does have a certain appeal. One balmy night recently, we were eating shrimps on a hotel terrace beside the ocean. The people were pretty, the mosquitoes were behaving and I gazed along the art-deco waterfront and thought: “I could live here.” Then you remember hurricanes (peak season starts mid-August), and the predictions that climate change will sink Miami. The Venezuelan couple we were with agreed that a hurricane might destroy their apartment, a block away. Yet they weren’t worrying. “If that happens, we’ll just go,” the man shrugged. “I have a little box with our things in it.”

Visiting Miami for a decade now (my wife’s from here), I’ve found: this city lacks the instinct for self-preservation. It’s too short-termist even to try to avert destruction.

I used to struggle with Miami. I’d never seen a place before where people didn’t communicate through conversation. Partly it’s because you never know who here can speak your language. Consequently, Miami English favours a 500-word vocabulary, often pronounced in a Hispanic accent even when the speaker speaks no Spanish. Meanwhile Miami Spanish is suffused with Anglicisms, like “carpeta” for “carpet”.

Most Miamians instead prefer to communicate visually – through cars, clothes and bodies. “Miami,” an elderly matron explained to me, “is all about breasts.” Like many elderly Miami matrons, she was a gorgeous blonde. Plastic surgery is a traditional local craft.

I’ve gradually learnt that in Miami, you just have to sit back and relax. I grew up in the cold and rain. There’s an unparalleled joy in slipping into the pool on a January evening after work, with the prospect of stone crabs on the beach later.

That’s why the prospect of Miami’s destruction through climate change bothers me. An article in the journal Science in 2010, by Morris Bender of the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others, predicted a near doubling of “the frequency of the strongest hurricanes in the Atlantic” by 2100 “despite a decrease in overall number of hurricanes”.

What climate scientists talk about now

Thomas Stocker, co-chair iPcc Working Group 1

If the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is still rising, why has global warming slowed down?

Then there’s the rising ocean, and growing problems with drinking water. Already, in heavy rains, some streets flood knee-deep. Just before I got to Miami, Rolling Stone magazine outlined the threats in terrifying detail. Yet the topic hardly dominates local conversation. TV news here leads with murders.

The problem isn’t just the future. It’s the present. Climate change may increase Miami’s risk from extreme hurricanes by perhaps 1 per cent a year, notes Roger Pielke Jr, professor at the University of Colorado who studies climate policies. But, he adds, the amount of people and property at risk here grows by about 7 per cent a year, as Miami expands. In 1950, greater Miami’s population was under 500,000. Now it’s 5.5 million. And the developers won’t stop. Building real estate is the economy here. Anyway, complacency has set in, after nearly eight years without a hurricane hitting Florida – the longest such stretch since the 1860s. No wonder the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development identifies Miami as the world’s city with most assets exposed to coastal flooding ($416bn in 2007).

. . .

Possibly Miami couldn’t protect itself anyway. Better dykes would have helped New Orleans, but here water will seep in from the Everglades and through the porous limestone beneath Miami itself. But that’s academic, because the city isn’t even trying to save itself. Miamians just won’t pay. Last month, the mayor, Carlos Giménez, binned plans to raise property taxes, saying: “People are not in favour of any increased taxes, in any way, shape or form.”

He’d only been trying to save some libraries and animals in shelters. Saving Miami itself would cost rather more. Florida’s governor Rick Scott (not a green) won’t fund it. And Washington might eventually tire of rebuilding Miami after hurricanes. Pielke thinks Miami will seek protection – after disaster strikes.

The essential problem is Miami’s short-termist transient soul: few Miamians feel a stake in its distant future. A Colombian woman, who has lived here since childhood, told me, “There are no permanent inhabitants in Miami.” In the last US census, Miami-Dade was the only county where most residents were foreign-born. (Nowhere else on Earth was that the case when the UN checked in 2004.) For many Miamians, the heart lies elsewhere: in New York, Havana, Caracas or Moscow. Homes here are overwhelmingly paid for in cash by international buyers, says Jessica Weinkle of the University of Colorado, who researches the insurability of hurricanes. Nor are there many big old local companies or institutions that plan on being in Miami in 30 years. This isn’t exactly a city; it’s the world’s biggest holiday resort.

In Rolling Stone’s scenario for the late century, Miami had become “a popular snorkelling spot where people could swim with sharks and sea turtles and explore the wreckage of a great American city”. That may sound fanciful. However, Detroit and New Orleans have shown that even great American cities with much deeper roots can fade away.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter@KuperSimon

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