Phil Stoddard quoted in Feb. National Geographic on sea-level rise

Climate Change Economics: Treading Water

Florida’s bill is coming due, as the costs of climate change add up around the globe. Adaptations will buy time, but can they save Miami?

One way to keep the building boom going is for civic leaders to not look too far into the future. Thus the four southern counties’ focus on 2060 instead of 2100. There’s a certain logic to that. The average life span of most buildings is 50 years, and Miami, a mere 119 years old, is continuously rebuilding itself.

“They don’t want to look beyond two feet of sea-level rise. This was a deliberate thing not to be too scary,” Wanless says. “So there’s going to be a lot of throwing money in the ocean before we realize it’s time to move on.”

Phil Stoddard, in his third term as mayor of South Miami, is one of the few politicians willing to talk about when that time might come. He met me at his house, a one-story stucco bungalow with stone floors (Flood Prep 101), solar panels on the roof, and a large pond that takes up most of the backyard, where he and his wife swim with Lola the koi and an eight-year-old bass named Ackwards.

“I tell people to buy high, sell low,” he says drily, pausing to allow the joke to sink in.

Stoddard, also a biology professor at Florida International University in Miami, came up with his own scenario, doodled during a long, dull meeting about climate change that dwelled on sea oats, a native grass whose roots hold dunes in place. “I said to myself, We’re looking at something majorly disastrous here—and we’re talking about sea oats?” he recalls.

He drew a graph with three lines that show population, property values, and sea level all rising. Then abruptly, population growth and property values plummet.

“Something is going to upset the applecart,” he says. “A hurricane, a flood, another foot of sea rise, the loss of freshwater. People are going to stop coming here and bail.”

He thinks a real estate sell-off is inevitable. Before that happens, he wants his constituents to be informed. “People ask me this question, ‘I’m X years old. I have X amount of net worth in my house. What should I do?’ I say, ‘If you need the value of that house to retire or to live on, then you want to cash out at some point. It doesn’t have to be this year. But don’t wait 20 years.’ ”

Not long ago Stoddard attended a meeting where Wanless presented his analysis showing that the accelerating disintegration of the ice sheets will lead to a more rapid rise of sea levels—faster and higher than the federal government’s projections. That night, as Stoddard and his teenage daughter walked on moonlit Miami Beach, he shared what he’d heard.

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