Episode 6: What will climate change look like, and how will it affect the poor?

Climate change will not come as a massive tsunami. This won’t happen like an enormous storm that freezes the world, like in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. Climate Change moves too slowly for there to be an exciting movie. 

Let’s remember that climate change is not a future problem. It’s something that’s happening right now. I’ll give you an example. I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1972. Fifty years ago, there was an average of two weeks out of the year when the temperature reached 90. Most of the year, the weather was delightful. Today, about 110 days out of the year when the temperature reaches 90

Think about that for a moment. Fifty years ago, it only got hot in Puerto Rico for two weeks. In fifty years, the average number of days when it got hot went up 800 percent. There’s a reason that most people back then didn’t have air conditioners. 

Climate Change has been going on and continues to do so.

We start this latest episode with a conversation with Professor Ben Kirtman from the University of Miami. He’s the Director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, the Deputy Director of the Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC), and the Director of the IDSC Earth Systems.

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Is Miami and South Florida the epicenter of the climate crisis? Is the rest of the world looking at us?

Ben Kirtman Yeah, we’re the exemplar. And we have an opportunity here to be the exemplar for the nation or the world, even in adapting and mitigating the challenges associated with climate change, but also just natural climate variability. We’ve been dealing with hurricanes for years during El Ninos. The southern tier of the US is much better than average, Florida included. During la Ninas, there tends to be a significant drought. Those things could be exemplars of how to deal with those things if we choose to. 

 aOne of the things when I talk to people about the issue of climate change, a lot of times, I hear that climate change is a problem that’s coming. It’s down the road. And yet we see how the world has changed significantly over the decades. Is there something you could point to and say, no, it’s not something that’s coming? It’s happening. 

Ben Kirtman It’s clearly in our face. I mean, it’s right there. The days we’re starting to see clear sky flooding on the beach have accelerated. The evidence is unequivocal there. The nighttime temperatures sound like a funny thing, but nighttime temperatures it’s unequivocal. They’ve warmed up. And people know that. If you start to probe and talk to people, they go, oh, yeah, I used to be able to open my windows a lot more at night, and I can’t do that anymore. And that sounds like, OK, what’s the big deal now? I’m running my air conditioning 24/7. You know, that’s a problem, but it’s not a big deal. But when you think about it on a socioeconomic level, some people economically count on being able to turn off their air conditioning, and communities can’t do that anymore. So it’s here. We experience it in the built infrastructure, too. We have saltwater intrusion in a lot of fresh water wells. Once that salt water gets into that fresh water well. It’s no longer potable. It’s it’s done. The investment to make that well potable again is too big. You may be able to use it for farming or something, but you’re certainly not going to use it for drinking water. So we have a lot of wells that have been corrupted due to sea level rise in the saltwater intrusion on land. So it’s here, and we must deal with it daily. 

There are questions about how this will happen when we hear scientists tell us it could be one, three, four, or five feet in the next century. How is that going to happen? Is that a gradual rise, or is that in spurts? As those waters rise, what can we expect in the next 50 or 60 years? How is it going to come in? 

Ben Kirtman, there’s a tremendous amount of confusion about this, and we need to change the conversation when we think about and how we talk about sea level rise. One of the things my research group has been working on is a little bit different way to start thinking about this. One challenge for people is how many days during the year there will be street flooding in front of their houses? That’s going to create a problem. So I think about it: how many days is there going to be six inches of water for over six hours in front of my house? Is that going to be 10 days a year, 20 days a year, or 30 days a year? Instead of thinking about, well, it’s rising five feet, ten feet, whatever, that I don’t think really helps people vote when they think about how many days is it going to be that I actually get in and out of my house is going to be a royal pain. Let’s go across the threshold and say there’s a 70 percent chance that there will be 70 days a year and that you have six inches of water in front of your house for six hours. That’s the way we should start talking about that. Now, as the sea level rises and many inches are up to feet, that’s what’s going to make that street flooding problem. We have to change how we talk about it because the sea level rises two feet doesn’t mean there are two feet in front of your house twenty-four-seven every day. It means you’re increasing the number of days you’ll see six inches of flooding for six hours a day. If that timing is terrible, then kids will have to climb through that to get to school. It’s going to be a problem for you to get to work and around your house. You’re going to have to worry about sandbagging all kinds of issues. That’s how we should start having this conversation – how many days a year will it be six inches of water for six hours in front of my house?

I wanted to ask about that incident a couple of years ago, before the pandemic, when you had the king tide in Key Largo, and that water sat there for over 100 days. Is that an anomaly, or is that something that we could expect? 

Ben Kirtman Well, we had some of the most prominent king tides just before the pandemic. We could talk about how we should be discussing sea level for days. But what we saw there were 90 days. What we saw there was an exceptional amount of flooding due to the tides. They depend upon the planetary relationship with the sun, moon, and all these things. And there’s a low-frequency fluctuation. And some of those things will give you a higher than regular king tides season. Also, natural fluctuations of the ocean circulation can produce that King Tide. And then there’s the chronic problem of sea level rise. So all of these things came together, if you will, for a perfect storm of sea level rise. That’s going to happen more and more. Right.

The chronic problem is getting worse. The ocean circulation part might also get worse as the climate changes. There will always be flux epochs that are much more significant than that flat, smooth curve that we provide to the public. That’s a misrepresentation. It’s going to be high-frequency ups and down wiggles. There will be periods when it’s a lot bigger and when it’s going to go down a little bit. And we’re, again, not communicating that, but people say it’s going to be 17 inches in 2040. That means the king tide in 2040 points can only be 17 inches. Maybe, maybe not. It could be tidal fluctuations, should be circulation changes, and all kinds of things that could lead to an even more significant increase in sea level rise in 2040. 

I’ve seen several of your speeches on YouTube, and this is one that you had at UM; I think somebody had asked you whether you predict these things. Can you predict these things? 

Ben Kirtman What we can do, the planetary part, the gravitational pull part, we can do quite a bit with. But what we can do one year out and maybe even five and 10 years out is provide more detailed information of a plume of possible outcomes that’s more refined than what we do now. We provide this smooth, smooth curve. And that runs the risk of people being overconfident in what that curve tells you. And there’s nothing worse than overconfidence. I’m sure it’s going to be 17 inches and nothing more, and you start building things and spending a lot of money to protect yourself for 17 inches, and all of a sudden, twenty-five inches comes in, then you’re in big trouble. And so we can use models. And some tools give us a more refined estimate of what that range will be at sometimes five years, 10 years. We can do those things. 

I wanted to return to what you said earlier about what Miami is trying to do to prepare for the future. There are always the conversations of pumps, walls, more mangrove trees, and even natural settings to try. I know there was the piece recently in The New York Times; I believe you were even quoted in from the Army Corps of Engineers saying to build a wall. And I know it is controversial with a lot of people. But I mean, when you look at Miami, when you look at South Florida and our geography and the way we’re set up and also the fact we’re on top of an aquifer, we at the Everglades and the other side, is it possible to protect this city, this region from water? 

Ben Kirtman, I think there are things we can do on what I would call sort of the adaptation time scale, the adaptation time scales century, the 20, 50, 60. There are things we can certainly do to make sure Florida, southern Florida, is a place we want to live and work and vacation. And beyond that, you really need to embrace the mitigation problem. So now you’re getting into the mitigation timescales. And so adaptation, the way I think about it is that adaptation is the specific amount of climate change that’s going to happen. How are we going to adapt? One way we will respond to a sea wall is what we will do to respond to a sea wall. I’m not particularly fond of that precise solution, but there are engineering solutions and adaptation solutions that you should put in place. Beyond that, the longer time scales, the mitigation problem is that we need to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere and stop the warming. And so, if we remain on this trajectory beyond 2060, we’re in deep trouble. We’re in deep trouble. And to get off this trajectory, I think we’re looking at net zero emissions in about 15 years. 

We talk about sea level rise, but we talk about the heat, too, and how temperatures are changing, as you said, especially at night. How about the weather? How much do we understand how climate affects weather and living in Florida hurricanes? 

Ben Kirtman, In a lot of extreme events, hurricanes are extreme events, that part of the science of understanding how climate change affects those kinds of extreme events is a lot harder because we have shorter records, and they’re episodic things. However, there are some things we know will happen with hurricanes. We’re confident. The first is that we will see more Category four and five storms. So the total hurricane counts are likely to be pretty similar. We do not see a significant change in the total number of storms. What we’re seeing is stronger storms, a lot more strong storms. That’s a big problem, right, in terms of coastal impacts. So that’s one issue that we’re pretty confident in.

Another thing that we’re pretty confident in is that the atmosphere is going to hold more water. There’s evidence that these storms are slowly moving forward. And that means you got a lot more water to fall out of the sky. So what we call the compound flood risk, that’s storm surge combined with sea level rise, of course. Then rain falls out of the sky, which compounds flooding risk; if you saw hints of during Harvey and Irma and Maria and all that compound flooding opportunities, we expect that to increase with climate change. So those are significant issues. Those are big challenging issues. 

So as we finish up here, you know, it’s part of this podcast is, you know, talking with the youngest generation around today because they’ll be around in 50 years. They’ll see Miami in 50 years, and there’s anxiety there. And I’ve asked them about their biggest concerns are their anxieties. Should they be petrified of the future?

Ben Kirtman Scared, I don’t think it’s the right emotion; it’s not necessarily a productive emotion for them to dig in on. What I think they should be doing is demanding from society and their politicians and their leaders and their decision makers that they’re the ones that have to live with this mess. And so they should be demanding action. That’s what I think they should be doing. I don’t think they should be in fear. If you’re too fearful and you think there’s nothing I can do, you’re going to buy a Lamborghini and a bottle of Scotch, get in a car, and drive off a cliff. And it’s not hopeless. There are many, many things that can be done on this adaptation time scale. And if we really embrace this mitigation problem and work to net zero emissions in a reasonable amount of time, we can avoid this problem. So I would want them to say, look, I know how to solve this problem for my generation. You guys better get your act together and help us do it. 

I want you to imagine somehow you and I will make it to 2072, or we will just take a time machine there. Either way, should you step out, tell me what you see. What do you think Miami will look like in 50 years? 

Ben Kirtman Well, I’m a very optimistic person. So what I think Miami will look like is a place where we live with more water, but we figured out how to live with more water. More people will live on the water permanently, with pods and things like that, permanent structures in the water. We’re going to have a lot more canals. Our transportation system will have much more water because people will drive less and more co-located with public transportation. And I’m optimistic that in 2070 people will still want to come to Florida to live, work and play. 

Those are some interesting points. Remember that Climate Change is already happening. But the effects we’ll be experiencing will come in spurts. Kirtman put it. It will come down to how many days of flooding we will have to live with, determining how bad neighborhoods will become.

What will that future look like? We turn now to someone who will likely be alive to see that day, Ganzer Maya Gowda. She’s a senior at Gulliver Prep in Miami-Dade. She’s also part of the Cleo Institute. She spoke with us about what scares her but how she’s hopeful that the changes needed for the world to be better are within reach.

Do you remember when you first learned about climate science and climate change? 

Maya Gowda The first aspect of climate science I learned about was mosquito-borne illnesses and their relation to rising temperatures. I started researching in seventh grade for this passion project I was doing. I wanted to find a way to reduce the transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses in Miami because I knew it was a very prevalent issue here, as well as in many other communities around the world. And that’s when I started looking up malaria, dengue, and Zika. And I started researching how the rising high temperatures around the world were causing more illnesses to be transmitted quickly. So that’s when I first started learning about climate change and how that was causing the global temperature to rise. When I learned about this, I wanted to educate the people of Miami and the communities in Miami. And that’s why I joined the CLEO Institute, where I started to learn more about climate science. 

Tell me a little bit about what you do with Cleo. 

Maya Gowda When I was in my freshman year, when there was no covid, I got my climate speaker certification from the CLEO Institute. I was able to give presentations about climate science to people in my school and other schools. And one really nice program that CLEO has is clear: CLIP, Climate Literacy Information Project, where I’ve recruited a few students in my school to give climate science presentations to lower grades. 

How much do they teach you about climate science in schools right now? Is it part of the curriculum?

Maya Gowda It’s only part of the textbook when we’re learning about environmental science; if you’re taking an environmental science class, that’s when you learn about climate change. Still, it’s only in some science curricula. 

What would you say, Maya, is the attitude of most students you’ve met regarding climate science? What do most young people think about it? 

Maya Gowda, many students don’t know much about it, and some teachers don’t believe in climate change. They’ll tell people that we’re just in this cycle. And it’s not that big of a deal that the temperature rises. I must say, I’m surrounded by kids who are more privileged and feel like they are not affected by climate change firsthand because they have those resources, fortunately. So they need to see what’s happening to our community. That’s very unfortunate. 

Let me come back to something you said a second ago, and how many people, whether classmates or teachers, you know, who don’t believe in climate change?

Maya Gowda, I would say at least a few teachers have said that they just don’t believe in climate science because they don’t read it and don’t understand it. 

Maya Gowda, I try to say that it’s saying right there that we see these rises (in temperature) are an unprecedented rise. And you can see the effects it has disproportionately affected low-income communities and people of color. And I think these teachers don’t see it. Like many adults don’t see it because they haven’t experienced it. And it’s very hard, I think, for people who haven’t done outside research and are just hearing specific news channels and don’t have all of those perspectives to fully understand what climate change is. 

What will you do when you approach your school to have a renewable plan? How will you convince school leaders and parents that this is a good idea? Jump on board. 

Maya Gowda, I haven’t talked about it to the club yet because I started thinking about it after Miami-Dade had passed, and this was towards the end of the school year. But I did talk about it with one of I think he’s the dean of Gulliver. I think that’s his title. And he’s very pro-climate action. And he said that it would be a good idea, but there’s a lot of research. And I was talking to Miss Lewis about that. You know, she’s the founder of the CLEO Institute. And so, I’m going to do more research about it over the summer and come up with ways and how members of the Environmental Club and I can all work together to promote or to plan a proposal for the head of schools to look at it and see what we can do. 

You’re halfway through high school. What would be your dream to study later in life? What do you want to do? 

Maya Gowda, I want to study the health impacts of climate change and policy regarding that and work on an international scale. I think that would be really cool. 

What would be like a dream job, or have you ever thought of that? 

Maya Gowda I’ve thought about working for organizations like the World Health Organization and in the climate health sector that, you know, like promoting equality through that. 

So tell me how besides the work that you do at CLEO, tell me how much you read and follow the news regarding climate change. And whenever a news story comes out, or a new study comes out, how much are you following it? Or is it something that it causes too much anxiety for you?

Maya Gowda, I don’t think it causes any anxiety or worries for me. I follow up as much as I can. What’s really lovely is the kind of groups we are part of, like WhatsApp group chats. So they’ll send in articles, and I’ll get to read from there. And that’s where I’ll learn about the Miami-Dade passing the reuseable plan and things like that, where I will usually read it from. But I need to get into it a little more on my own. 

So many of you have a WhatsApp group, and you’re all talking to each other. Yeah, OK. And then you’re sharing articles and stuff. That’s pretty cool. Wow. I don’t know if you saw it and if you didn’t, that’s OK. But I’m just curious. How do we protect this city? And as you said, how do we protect some of those vulnerable communities?

Maya Gowda, I think the respective state governments, Florida’s state government, needs to start allocating resources to these local communities because people in those communities don’t have the resources to start fighting climate change for themselves. These are folks more worried about putting food on the dinner plate and having access to clean water. They’re not thinking about when the next hurricane will come and making sure they have the money to pay for hurricane damages. And I think that’s something we need to consider because those are the communities facing climate effects right now. And they have for a while. And we can’t just keep ignoring that. 

What are some things you do to reduce your carbon footprint and be an example for everybody else to say, look, this is how you do it, and we’re doing it? 

Maya Gowda So we try to do a lot, like promoting environmental awareness and reducing our carbon emissions through the Earth Day campaign, and we have themes for each day of the week. And one of the themes was having Meatless Monday. So we had an entire vegan cafeteria menu, which was really lovely. And through the Raider Voice, our school newspaper, we have a broadcast show for our school. And we created a video to promote what we would do for Earth Week the week before. We had “Reduce your Fossil Fuel Friday,” and that’s when people would send in pictures to the environmental club of them carpooling, biking, or walking to school. And that was really nice. And we also had something where if you showed your teacher that if you were bringing a reusable water bottle, you could get a specific price at the end of the week. 

I read some articles saying that your generation, in general, does feel a bit of stress and anxiety about the future because we don’t know what’s going to happen. But you’re not worried? 

Maya Gowda, I do have a few worries, especially like right now, because communities of color and other local communities are facing these threats. The government is not paying enough attention to them, and we really need them to pay attention. But overall, I have a lot of hope because more students are becoming more educated about climate change. And I’m trying to push that initiative in Miami. And more kids are going to join the movement. And more adults also realize the importance of it. And I think that maybe by like 2050, everyone is going to – not everyone, but a lot of people are going to make the conscious effort to be sustainable. 

So I want you to imagine it’s 2072, and let’s say we’re standing on a building’s top. Overlooking Miami, Maya, tell me, what do you think the city will look like in the future? 

Maya Gowda, I feel like we’ll have a lot of, you know, sustainable changes by then. I feel that in the engineering sector, for instance, they’re working more on building more sustainable items, like Tesla having electric cars. Hopefully, those will become much more affordable. I think we’ll focus on having more greenery around. That definitely helps, like having green rooftops and not cutting down trees. And I think that having a climate education, the curriculum will also be definitely present, especially in a city like Miami that needs it. And I feel like, at a young age, kids will start to understand the climate crisis and, hopefully, how they can help. And families themselves will make their own sustainable changes at home, like having a compost station. They got their house and started biking more and things like that. I can definitely see my own population doing that in 2072 hours. 

Research Used For This Episode


University of Miami

Yale School of Environment

Cleo Institute

Climate Central

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