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Clear skies above but water below, a woman on a moped navigates a flooded street corner on Miami Beach, an all-too-familiar sign for residents of this iconic peninsula where the ocean seems more likely than ever to swamp Ocean Drive one day.
If there’s an image that starkly illustrates the threats of climate change, it’s this photograph, which was included in the recent National Climate Assessment released by the White House. It is noteworthy because the flood is from exceptionally high spring tides – not heavy rains. Tidal flooding like that is relatively new. And scary. “People in Miami Beach are living climate change,” said David Nolan, a meteorology and physical oceanography professor at the University of Miami. “They’re on the frontline.”
The people of Miami Beach didn’t need the National Climate Assessment to tell them low-lying south Florida is “exceptionally vulnerable to sea level rise”. The city is already spending $206m to overhaul its drainage system.
The day after the White House released its climate change report, Miami-Dade County’s commission passed a 6 May resolution that calls on planners to account for sea level rise. Local officials across the four counties of south Florida are making similar moves. Almost anyone who lives in south Florida has a nagging fear about climate change. It’s both abstract and, at times, very real.
I grew up with Nolan in one of the most vulnerable places in South Florida: Key West. Both of our mothers’ homes were flooded by hurricane Wilma in 2005. It was the first flood of its kind in my lifetime. And Wilma was the last of an unprecedented eight hurricanes that damaged parts of Florida in 13 months. Talk of global warming mounted after those back-to-back mean seasons. No hurricanes have directly hit since. Widespread discussion about climate change subsided.
Here’s what hasn’t gone away: rising home insurance rates, which have increased in part because insurance firms do believe in climate change. And then there’s the concern that the one investment that we see as the fulfilment of the American dream – our homes – will be impossible to keep or will be so devalued in 30 years that they won’t be worth passing on to our children.
Sea level rise threatens our drinking water supplies, farm fields and the main driver of tourism: beaches. But in the absence of a disaster, it’s easy for many of us to forget about the long-term risks until a report such as the National Climate Assessment details them. But while local officials are talking about solutions and planning, politicians farther away from south Florida aren’t. The issue has become an ideological fault line on the state and national levels. In the state capital in Tallahassee, Republican governor Rick Scott stalled efforts to grapple with the issue.
In Washington, Republican senator Marco Rubio is emerging as a leading sceptic of man-made climate change. A potential 2016 candidate for president, he said that scientists sometimes get it wrong. “Some of these people were predicting a new ice age in the 1970s. Imagine if we had acted on that.”
In the Democratic-leaning Miami area, people are not inclined to side with Rubio. But many hope that he’s right. Hope does nothing to stop the seas from rising. “Climate change is real,” said Nolan. “It’s here.” And it’s clear to anyone walking around South Beach when there’s high spring tide.
Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald‘s political writer
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk