Pulitzer-Winning Writer Elizabeth Kolbert: "There's No Such Thing As a Plan" for Sea-Level Rise in Miami

It's clear that Miami's leaders have no plan to deal with sea level rise, says New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert.
It's clear that Miami's leaders have no plan to deal with sea level rise, says New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

This month in the New Yorker, writer Elizabeth Kolbert makes it painfully clear that the city has essentially no battle plan to combat rising sea levels in South Florida. Between Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s wholesale denial of the problem and civic figures waiting on the savior of innovation, very little is being done in the present to fix Miami’s flooding and freshwater problems.

A staff writer for the magazine, Kolbert looks boldly into the eye of the storm in her piece "The Siege of Miami," the latest in her extensive reporting on climate change and mass extinction. Earlier this year, she received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for The Sixth Extinction, a profile of climate change and death on Earth. New Times reached Kolbert to discuss the problem climate change poses in South Florida, the “surreal” discourse of the American climate debate and the unprecedented challenge of planning for climate change.

New Times: Why were you drawn to this story in Miami?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I was drawn to it for two reasons I guess. One is all of the recent news about sea level rise, what's going on in the Arctic and Antarctic, which seems pretty scary and important and not necessarily as widely known as it should be. Second of all, always when you're writing about climate change — as I do a lot — there's always this sense people have of 'well, it's something that's distant and it's gonna affect other people in some other, foreign land.'

I'm always looking for ways to illustrate that that's not the case, that climate change is here and now and it's affecting people right now, people very much like you and I.

There's also the cruel irony of dealing with an intense sea level rise in a state that even denies the phrase "climate change." 
Yes, yes. As I believe Al Gore put it, the irony is — I can't remember the exact phrase — ‘exquisitely painful,' or something.

What does that do to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection when they can't even say ‘climate change’ in a memo? What message does that send?

That's another very interesting aspect of this story — the way in which you can look right at something and say black is white or white is black. But it unfortunately doesn't change the facts.
There's a surreal level of discourse in this country about this issue in particular, where we can see very dramatic impacts. And it's not really complicated science that we're talking about here. You're heating up water and you're melting ice and you're getting higher sea levels. There are certainly some subtleties and there are a lot of unknowns. That is absolutely true, but there are also undeniable effects happening right now and yet we seem to be able to deny them. And that's really kind of astonishing.

According to the Brookings Institute, Miami has the fourth highest income inequality among U.S. cities. When rising sea levels start to cause more significant damage in Miami, how might that inequality play out?
I'm going to punt on that one. I really don't know. One of the interesting things to me about Miami and where everyone lives and all that is I went out one day at a very high tide and the waves were lapping up on the lawns of houses that were worth $10 million. If there's great income disparity in Miami, there's also going to be this interesting way in which it's not just going to be the rich or just going to be the poor, there's going to be a lot of people affected.

Elizabeth Kolbert has written extensively about environmental catastrophes.
Elizabeth Kolbert has written extensively about environmental catastrophes.
photo via University of Montana

In Syria, with the extreme drought prior to the Arab Spring and civil war, we’re already seeing a relationship between climate change, conflict and a refugee crisis. Obviously, there are other factors in Syria, but is a refugee scenario feasible in America with a city like Miami? Not to fearmonger too heavily, but is that a possibility?
I think that's how Hal Wanless [the chairman of the University of Miami’s geological-sciences department] alludes to it at the beginning of this piece. He described the people of South Florida as the new Okies. A lot of people who have $10 million homes probably have $10 million homes somewhere else. So you can say, 'well I'm not worried about them too much.'

But as you point out, there are also a lot of low-income people who are going to be affected. It's going to start in a patchy sort of way, depending on where you are. I think that the fear — and I'm not a real estate developer or whatever — the fear is that you slip into a market where no one wants to buy and people lose all their money. You get very severe economic repercussions ... Florida has been through real estate boom and bust cycles before and they have a very, very significant impact.

It seems like the people involved — Miami Beach’s city engineer Bruce Mowry, or Harvey Ruvin, the chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Sea Level Rise Task Force — are banking on some innovation to come in and save the day. But is that funding, or interest, there to create the means for innovation?
That's the big question and that's sort of the big question of our time, I think. You have people in all these issues surrounding climate change, surrounding the way that we're changing the planet, which is unfortunately not limited to climate change. One answer is always ‘we're gonna figure something out before the proverbial shit hits the fan.’

Is that true? That's an empirical question and one that we can't really answer in the abstract ... Will our luck hold? Is that true? Can you just bank on that? I don't know. We're really intent on finding out. 

But, the other side of that, the flip side of that is: are people really putting the money in that's commensurate with the problem? Well, there the answer is clearly no.

Speaking with city and state officials, did any solutions strike you as realistic? 
It wasn't that any solutions struck me as realistic or unrealistic. People didn't have them. I do think that that was pretty striking — there's no such thing as a plan. Those things don't even exist. Which I have to confess, I was somewhat surprised by.

It seems that Miami’s porous limestone base creates a problem that’s not in New Orleans or the Netherlands. It's a unique issue.
I don't think it's unique. It is unusual. But it's a probably that the Maldives have. It's the problem of coral atolls. It's the problem of a lot of low-lying places in the world. 

Writing about the end of the American climate change debate, you say: “If Florida is a guide, the answer seems to be never.” That's such a bleak answer, but it's true. Are there proactive governors or state legislatures in other coastal states that are more effectively dealing with this?
If you want to say the cliché that the first step toward solving a problem is acknowledging that you have a problem, then the answer is certainly yes. That gets back to the question about the Scott administration, which is pretty out there in terms of its deep level of denial. 

But, we've seen a similar fight — I think it was in North Carolina — where the legislature actively interfered, actively refused to build sea level predictions into state code. It was a pretty big deal three or four years ago. That's another coastal state in heavy, heavy denial.

I think that there are places, New York is one of them. [Hurricane] Sandy really, seriously prodded people to have more active planning and discussion.

Moving to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, because the agreement is not legally binding, if a Republican president came into office, would they be able to ignore pledges that the United States agreed to at the conference? 
Yes, the answer is sadly yes. And even more fundamentally, the American pledge rests on regulations that could — not easily because they'd have to go through regulatory processes again — but that could be undone. And could also be undone in litigation, of which Florida is one of the litigants. Unfortunately, it could be rolled back, yes.

What sets you apart from other journalists in your field is your ability to express an understanding of time in relation to climate change. In an article called “If We Burned All the Fossil Fuel in the World,” you write:

We routinely invoke events, like the American Revolution, that took place hundreds of years ago, and we think about, or at least we ask our kids to think about, events like the Peloponnesian War, which took place millennia ago. And yet, as a society, we seem to have trouble planning more than a year or two in advance. 

Why is that planning so difficult? We can plan and sign a 30-year waterfront property mortgage in South Florida, but can’t create a plan to ensure that that house will be habitable?
These are really profound questions that I can't answer. I think we've created a certain incentive, or society has a certain incentive. We all sort of know what they are. You can make money off a 30-year mortgage, but we haven't exactly figured out — when we rely on our collective actions — how to do things that actually often cost us money. We'd all have to participate in the end to save us all money. And it certainly would. But we're very bad at making these collective decisions that require us to come together. It's very easy to stop action. It's not so easy to accomplish it. 

When speaking about mass extinction and climate change, it’s common to hear the dissenting argument that ‘humans will be fine, we’re a species set apart.’ How does Miami’s situation complicate the idea that our culture, civilization and cities will be fine?
I don't subscribe to the We'll Be Fine school of thought. Surviving and being fine are very different things. It's quite likely that people will survive, but it doesn't mean that there won't be severe dislocation and potentially even society-challenging crises along the way. There have been throughout history. On some level, climate change is just a new challenge. Whole societies have risen and fallen, we know that very well. Sometimes it's through causes we can't identify retrospectively, but we certainly know that it's a possibility.

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