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Mr. 305: Miami Beach’s Questionable Climate Change Policy

Miami Beach has often styled itself as the perfect tourist destination by the ocean; a modern day Atlantis. But this comparison may soon be all too accurate. Miami Beach is at the epicenter of the climate change crisis in South Florida, a regional ground zero for the expected real life consequences of rising sea levels. Coastal flooding will likely have a devastating impact on a Miami Beach’s economy: commercial real estate, which has seen a boom in recent years. In fact, sea level rise alone will damage roughly $15 billion in property and real estate along the South Florida coastline. Simultaneously, coastal erosion will put enormous pressure on beach-based tourism, one of the area’s largest revenue sources. Miami Beach’s speedy $400-million-dollar rescue plan spring which includes storm water solutions and flood prevention structures–has received international media attention and praise. But in reality, while the plan is well intentioned, its cursory and questionable foundations show that this fast-tracked plan might not be a viable option to keep Miami Beach dry.

Miami Beach is one of the lowest-lying cities in the nation, with most of it built just two feet above sea level. The long barrier island has faced increased rates of sea-level rise for the past 10 years, and the rises don’t seem to be slowing down. Scientists at the University of Miami have analyzed tidal records, insurance claims, and rain gauges to conclude that rain-based floods have increased by 33 percent, while tidal flooding has increased by 400 percent since 2006.

The fear of a submerged city has provoked massive worry among local government officials – most notably Mayor Philip Levine, widely lauded as a pioneer for his work addressing rising sea levels through seawall expansion programs and public works overhauls. However, many Miami Beach citizens are skeptical of the change Levine claims he will bring to the city. Mayor Levine heavily relied on public concerns over increased storm water flooding to gain support during his mayoral campaign. He even filmed a campaign commercial showing him kayaking home on a flooded Miami Beach road.

Nevertheless, Levine’s plans’ have developed fairly quickly – Levine even described parts of it as “fast and furious.” Talk of installing new water pumps and valves began in 2013, the first year of Levin’s mayoralty. Eventually, such talk turned into action, and the city was soon defining the parameters of the plan by 2015. Implementation officially began in 2016, with Miami Beach City Engineer Bruce Mowry noting that the speed itself was a necessary part of the response, saying “You can’t take a city and say ‘we’re gonna wait until the last minute’.” City government officials gladly welcomed Mowry’s proposal to approve the investment plan, lest Miami Beach sink overnight. Levine and Mowry do have some scientific backing for their claims–South Florida faces water influxes from the coast and from underground. Seawalls are struggling to stop water flow, so rapid investment in protective infrastructure seems to be warranted.

The world has also noticed the city’s push to protect its coasts. Susan Torriente, Miami Beach’s Resilience Officer, has been inundated with requests from European media, international nonprofits, and city engineers to see the city’s progress, as Miami Beach’s land composition provides an especially innovative case study. And unlike other coastal cities at risk of mass flooding, such as New York City and Charleston, South Carolina, Miami Beach stands on porous limestone, making levees and storm surge barriers useless in blocking seawater flow. Miami Beach is also an island, rather than part of a delta, like cities such as Guangzhou and New Orleans, Lousiana. For this reason, progress in Miami Beach could have a great impact on similarly densely populated island and peninsular cities–Galveston, Texas, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi. But the media attention being given to this potential impact tends to ignore the basic flaws in Levine and Mowry’s plans.

The rapidity of the overhaul has led to major environmental issues within just the last year. Miami Beach citizens have photographed and filmed what looks like silty dead zones surrounding pipes that spew out more than 7,000 gallons of water per minute at the height of flooding. Henry Briceno, a geologist at Florida International University, says that the pumped water itself is also heavily polluted. As a result, metals, pesticides, chemicals, and bacteria are being pumped into Florida’s Biscayne Bay. But the city has chosen to focus on preserving its aesthetic, rather than addressing the toxic water scares. Miami Beach hired Pininfarina, an Italian industrial design firm behind Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, to overlay the new saltwater pumps to give them South Florida charm and Miami Beach style.

Alongside the prospect of polluted water is the specter of a corrupt city government. For instance, Levine’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Sea Level Rise originally included scientists and researchers who considered numerous long-term solutions to the sea level crisis, many of which were largely supported by Levine and the city government. However, when proposed timelines included end-dates several years in the future, Levine choose to abandon long-term solutions in favor of short-term quick fixes such as pump station expansion. And fittingly, the policy shift happened after the scientists on the panel were replaced by an architect and a luxury real estate agent, and a new director was appointed to lead the council.

The big picture of a sustainable Miami Beach involves long-term solutions, but Levine is largely unwilling to pursue the self-preservation measures that the city needs. As a candidate, his promise to address rising sea levels secured him the mayoral seat, but scrutiny surrounding his background in real estate development has led to some suspicions among residents that Levine may have a conflict of interest. Some worry that Levine might be in bed with wealthy real estate moguls, many of whom funded his campaign, but who also have large incentives for personal property protection against any possible flood waters. In particular, Levine’s expedited policy process and close ties to developers have led many to speculate that the plan has inappropriately cost Miami Beach taxpayers through the use of no-bid contracts which  guarantee contracts to private companies who charge exorbitant rates in non-competitive markets.

Levine’s plan also relies on real estate developers to finance the city government’s projects, another risky gamble considering the impacts of climate change. Since South Florida receives most of its public infrastructure funding from real estate taxes, Levine argues that property development could adequately support the city’s ambitious environmental goals. He estimates that real estate development will continue to fund road pumps, oceanside dunes, and seawalls, buying Miami 50 years. During this time, Levine hopes that scientists will develop revolutionary methods to combat the sea-level rise that will erase the need for his numerous pumps, valves, and raised roads. Based on existing research and environmental public works, such optimism seems misplaced. Far worse than the political concerns, the city doesn’t know how effective these pump installations will even be in keeping flood-prone roads dry. When asked if he knew whether the public works projects would keep pace with or outpace sea-level rise, Levine admitted he was unaware.

To make matters worse, many specialists have already criticized the plan as unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami’s geological science department, asks, “Why would you put $100 million into infrastructure that won’t even survive the next flood of sea level rise?” Furthermore, Wayne Pathman, an environmental attorney, finds the plan economically difficult due to an expected increase in insurance costs, which may deincentivize developers as well as property buyers, thereby counteracting the expected gains from property development investment. Worse, the plan fails to address compounding infrastructure problems that will arise from swelling seas. Keren Bolter, a Research Coordinator for Florida Atlantic University Center for the Environmental Studies, projects oceans are expected to rise by seven feet by 2100. At that rate, flooding in Miami Beach could lead to major destruction of underground sewage lines and septic tanks, along with pollution of fresh water reserves. The plan’s short-term scope fails to address these issues, many of which could nullify the flood reduction impacts of Levine’s projects. As for the dirty ocean water, other viable solutions do exist for Miami Beach, such as using biodiverse habitats near pump evacuation points to reduce water toxicity. However, that type of solution would require the city to obtain state and federal permits for building into the bay, a bureaucratic nightmare that Miami Beach is unwilling to take.

On the one hand, Levine’s efforts thus far are laudably ambitious; on the other hand, his plan is also incredibly short-sighted. When hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, the city must ensure that pump systems work for more than just 10 years, and minimize additional pollution. Levine and the city of Miami Beach would be better off taking a step back to consider more viable options rather than fighting a growing ocean.