In 1977 my father and pregnant mother, and I arrived in the United States and landed in the town of Clewiston, Florida. The community of barely five thousand sits on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, squeezed between the high grass of the Everglades and the sugar cane fields. The tallest structure in the town is the sugar mill, which happened to be the region’s primary employer.
When you entered the town on the only highway that cuts through the community, US Highway 27, a sign would welcome you that read “Clewiston, America’s Sweetest Town.” I was five when we arrived. And for most of my life, this strange place nicknamed the Sunshine State would be my home.
So when I say things are changing, I’m talking about change from simple observation. Throughout my life, I don’t remember Florida being this hot. I don’t recall flooding issues getting this bad. The climate crisis is real because I’ve witnessed the change over the last five decades.
That’s why I’m filled with anxiety about the future. As of the publication of this story, I’m living in Miami. This city is bursting at the seams with more and more people fighting to get their piece of paradise. They know what’s happening. It’s hard not to hear the warnings. It’s all over the news; the area is at significant risk.
If sociologists want to understand the unreasonable behaviors of people in the face of risk, then study Miami. Why would you buy a half-million dollar home (an average home, not a mansion) knowing that in twenty to thirty years, that home, your neighborhood, could be underwater?
Thinking about the future of South Florida is like seeing a hurricane in the distance heading directly for you. And that’s one of the things I hate most about hurricanes. You know they’re growing out in that warm ocean and moving closer and closer day by day. The anticipation rattles you to the bones. When it hits, you just don’t know what to expect. When it’s over, you’re never the same.
Planet Earth 2072 is a podcast and a novel that looks at that future. One does it from the lens of science, and the other is a self-indulgent practice in trying to guess what the future could look like, or in other words, a science fiction story.
You can read some of that novel on this site or on Wattpad under RadioHost. The podcast is on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, Amazon Music, and Google Podcasts.
In the podcast’s first episode, I wanted to start with a bigger view of the issue of the climate crisis, so I began with one of the reporters covering it for the New York Times, Christopher Flavelle.
We spoke with Christopher in the earlier part of 2022, shortly after Congress and President Joe Biden passed an infrastructure bill. Billions were set aside for climate and energy projects. We started by asking Christopher how significant this money would be to solving the problem.
Christopher Flavelle: Let’s take a glass half full, glass half empty approach. It is, by any measure, the most money ever provided by Congress for climate resilience and adaptation writ large, tens of billions, depending on how you count some of the programs. So definitely good news for people who were worried about how this country can protect its residents. Glass half-empty take on it is that it doesn’t begin to come close to what is needed. I think the question with the bill is how intelligently the various federal agencies spend that new money. Do they look for ways that new projects can not just be bigger versions of past projects? The narrow way of looking at that money is, OK, we’re going to build even bigger culverts, seawalls, or elevated roadways to do the same thing, but a little more. Right? That would be the narrow way. Can federal agencies, in partnership with regions like South Florida, find ways to plan, pitch, fund, and build novel approaches to reducing exposure to hurricanes, sunny day floods, wildfires, heat, etc.? And that’s a tough one because, almost by definition, no one knows what that looks like. But one recurring theme in adaptation is we haven’t done a great job either funding it or thinking through what it should mean. We can now focus on the question of what adaptation looks like. And if I’m sinking into semantics, by all means, pull me back out. But this is a really interesting point in adaptation that I think most people haven’t got their heads around. There isn’t much agreement on what adaptation means or how it compares to resilience. Resilience is the more straightforward term and is usually meant as a catchall phrase. How do we protect the ways of life that we already have? Right? If you want to make Miami resilient, you find ways that it can be less shocked by hurricanes or by sunny day floods or heat waves or whatever, right? Adaptation is different. Adaptation asks how we can change how we build the places we live or our lifestyles and patterns so that we are less hurt and inconvenienced by severe weather and changing weather patterns. Well, that’s great, but it raises the question, what counts as success, right? The cleanest adaptation is let’s all leave the coast, right? If you’re exposed to a hurricane or storm surge, you don’t live there anymore. That’s an adaptation that probably isn’t what anybody wants. So I think the thing that the United States really is behind on and has to work on isn’t just finding the money coming back to the infrastructure bill. It’s about having a conversation between different levels of government and residents about what level of disruption we’re willing to accept in our lives, how much we pay for it, and if we can’t do it everywhere, how do we choose? So I think that’s sort of the next big challenge, just making those decisions about what we expect from our elected officials and how much of our current lifestyle we want to try and hang on to. And that’s way harder than finding 50-odd billion dollars to spend on these projects.
When it comes to cutting emissions and trying to curb the temperature increase, are we actually spending enough? Can you put a dollar amount on that?
Christopher Flavelle Yeah. The whole reason as a reporter, I focus on adaptation, which the decision I made years ago was that it sure seemed clear to me. It still seems clear that we will not cut emissions nearly fast enough to avoid significant harm from global warming. And you know how fast we cut it? I don’t know. No one knows. Are we going to come close to a 1.5-degree target? I don’t think so. It’s really challenging to discuss the dollar figure we should put on every avoided ton of CO2 emissions. Clearly, we should try harder than we are. But I think you’re almost debating different visions of the future that are somewhat divorced from anything we can observe today. It’s just so hard to know, right? One could take away from the fact that I focus on adaptation. A degree of pessimism on my part is that we’re not going to find a way to cut emissions fast enough to save anything like our current way of life, the way we like it right now. But this is a certainty. We’re not doing it fast enough to avoid significant harm like the ones we’re seeing now; we are getting worse.
Like many other communities, Miami-Dade aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The problem is the experts; even community leaders now know we can not accomplish those goals. Can we really hit net zero? Is it even worth having that kind of goal?
Christopher Flavelle In the name of objective truth, it’s probably worth pointing out the consequences of Miami and Miami-Dade’s success or failure at getting to net zero by any particular year; the consequences of that in terms of planetary warming are indistinguishable from zero. So it’s not about changing the outcome in Miami because Miami is reducing emissions, all kinds of air quality benefits. But in terms of warming, any one city doesn’t matter. That’s not a reason not to try, for sure. And I think in real terms, any city that pushes can come up with new solutions that can be copied elsewhere and move the needle globally. To me, as a reporter, the thing that makes Miami worth watching for the rest of the world is not how much progress is made on reducing emissions; it’s how it answers these questions on adaptation. To what degree can you maintain a desirable quality of life as a coastal city in an age of sea-level rise and worsening storms? That’s where Miami’s actions matter immensely to its residents and future, but also as a model, right? Most coastal cities don’t have the resources that Miami has, and they don’t have skilled people working in government thinking about this. So I think what makes Miami a leader and a city to watch is how it wrestles with that adaptation resilience question more than I think the net-zero thing. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, it’s crucial, but I don’t think it will make a difference globally.
Does every community have a different approach because of geography, or are they sharing and learning from each other? Are we trying to figure out how we will protect these big cities?
Christopher Flavelle: There are many ways of slicing and dicing cities. They’re different in significant ways. Number one is geography. Miami, of course, is exposed to rising seas and very low terrain. It’s also subject to sunny day floods because of the limestone it’s built on. And so it just doesn’t have the ability really to stop the water with a wall. Miami is unusually exposed, and of course, its drinking water comes from an aquifer that is very shallow and so very subject to saltwater intrusion. So Miami has lots of problems but also lots of money. So I think, if anything, Miami is an unusual test case, not just for the range of threats it faces. Like Miami Beach and other small county jurisdictions, it has an enormous capacity for money and skill and, going forward, a tax base to do something about it. I think what makes Miami a fascinating city and community is that if there’s anywhere in the U.S. that can find ways to tackle this and remain livable and enjoyable, Miami’s got a good shot at it. And New York is also in the same sort of unusual category of significant exposure, especially in Manhattan, but also significant resources. So I think reporters like me watch Miami, not because it’s a bellwether for what other cities will do. Many cities can’t afford whatever Miami Beach comes up with, but it’s sort of a test in the perfect scenario where you’ve got access to significant sums of money – what do you do with it? And are there lessons that come out of Miami that others can copy in some form to the degree they can afford it? And really, we don’t know yet. It’s just not clear whether Miami will a.) find innovative solutions with pumps to deal with sunny day flooding or b.) just figure out that you can live with this somehow; maybe change the way you build, and suddenly have roads underwater a few times a year isn’t a big deal. It’s a big unknown where Miami will go with this.
I want to ask you about the idea of managed retreat. When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, it destroyed some more minor, weaker communities. The state said, OK, we’re clearing that out. We’re going to try to just put that back into a more natural setting, and maybe we could use that as a barrier. The question is going to come up at some point; if it hasn’t already been here, maybe there are neighborhoods we’ll have to clear out, and we’ll have to then say to people, this neighborhood isn’t safe anymore. Do you see that as a big problem in the coming decades, not just in Florida but anywhere where we’re going to have to shove people out because nature is going to take it anyway?
Christopher Flavelle The thing that I’d love to really just drive home for anyone to listen to this is, the question is, not do we engage in some sort of pull back from vulnerable areas? The question is how and when. And as anybody who studies managed retreat will tell you, the alternative to managed retreat is not – no retreat – it’s un-managed retreat. It’s a situation where a big storm comes, you can’t protect everyone, and people get forced out of their homes without regard to what they do next or where they can afford it. The goal from policy experts is – how do we do it in a way that at least reflects some sort of equity goal and fairness goal and helps people get somewhere safer and isn’t just some sort of like anarchic flee and good luck. I think that will be an increasingly important question once we get our minds around the fact that some places can’t be protected indefinitely. Louisiana, in fact, I think is farther along than Florida in thinking about this because, of course, relative sea-level rise is so much faster in Louisiana because of subsidence. They’re already coming up with blueprints, schemes, and designs and at least ideas for how to fairly decide which areas to pull back from and how to help people find new homes in new or built-up communities. It’s happening piecemeal in Florida. County officials are already deciding which roads to raise in the Florida Keys because of sea-level rise. On its face, the most benign decision. Nothing to object to. But the reality is since they don’t have money to raise every road, they gotta choose. Well, what are you choosing? What else are you deciding when you decide which roads to raise? You’re deciding which communities and which homes will still have dry roads. You are effectively deciding which places you will protect and, by extension, which places you will not. So mandatory takes many guises and has many triggers and catalysts. So I wouldn’t want listeners to leave with the impression that this is some future discussion. This is happening now. And the question is, to what degree do we want officials forced to make infrastructure decisions to decide these things on their own versus having a broader conversation about, well, how should we begin to choose which areas to protect? And then, it won’t feel like it’s being thrust upon us? So again, I think the thing lagging the most in this debate is not the technical or policy questions. It’s the issue of how you make it inclusive and make it a conversation with voters and residents. That’s where it seems like the U.S., South Florida and elsewhere remain slow.
I want you to imagine we go forward into the future 50 years. You see the country; you see Miami. What does it look like to you?
Christopher Flavelle: At the risk of saying something obvious, I would advise anybody to be suspicious of people who claim to know what Miami will look like in 10 or 20 years, let alone 50 years. The one thing we can be sure of is we don’t know, and the one thing that we can be almost sure of, it probably won’t look much like it does now. You can imagine a world where you’ve got incredible technology has been developed that can magically keep out the ocean from storm surges and also from the ground, like some sort of hermetically sealed bubble. You can imagine a world with a cluster of wealthy people living in floating towers. You can imagine a world where it’s just shantytowns where the people who stuck around are the ones who couldn’t. You couldn’t afford to move. I think the one sure thing is we probably shouldn’t wait to find out before we do something about it. And also, we should keep in mind that officials and residents have tremendous agency over the answer to that question. What Miami looks like in 50 years is not just a question of what the world will thrust upon us. It’s a question of what sort of climate-adjusted world and city do you want? And what are we willing to pay for? And what are we willing to accept as close enough to fair? And let’s start pushing in that direction. The problem with not talking about retreat now is it only gets more complicated. The panic wave gets more likely later. So I think the more forethought goes into it, the more rational discussion over which place you protect and how much you’ll pay for it. Who do you charge for it? And what are you willing to accept in terms of destruction and distraction to your life? If you answer those sooner, you can get closer to the world you want. So rather than saying here’s what things will look like in 50 years, I would just end on what I think is a hopeful note of people still having significant influence over what cities like Miami will look like. But it gets harder and harder to exercise that agency. The longer we wait, or the longer that we pretend we can just maintain the status quo and we don’t have to make any changes. That seems like the most pernicious idea here. I think that’s the question man will have to answer if it wants to make Miami in 50 years now look as good as it can. What happens if, to save the thing that you love, you lose what you love about it?