The Miami-Dade County government has some clever mapping tools to help people visualize the impending climate risks—rising seas, swelling groundwater, flooded buildings. But too much detail can distract from the bigger picture: Miami is drowning.
In 2020, a report from the climate think tank Resources for the Future declared Miami the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world.
Of course, the city’s future is uncertain—we don’t know quite how much sea-level rise we can still prevent or how well we’ll adapt in place. When I visited a few years ago to talk with people about climate change, many told me that they were sick of outsiders parachuting in to tell them they’re screwed. I get that. And yet in the coming decades, many of the county’s 2.6 million residents will leave. Maybe most of them.
Preparing for Miami’s evacuation would help them immeasurably. Just as important, it would force municipalities across the United States to get serious about hosting climate migrants in egalitarian ways.
Climate conversations about moving out of harm’s way often use the concept of “managed retreat.” People debate how to help communities stay or leave and how governments should buy out groups of vulnerable homeowners. Sometimes tenants get a mention. But the bigger challenge is managed arrival: building huge quantities of green, climate-friendly housing in existing urban and suburban spaces while reconstructing communities to feel even more like home.
The scale will be vast. Matt Hauer, a climate demographer at Florida State University, has shown that millions of Americans will be displaced by rising seas this century, largely from South Florida. Millions already live in areas threatened by wildfire. Even more face a future of unimaginable heat and drought. And worldwide, countless people will flee a “catastrophic convergence” of violence, poverty, and climate change. Much of that can be traced to American imperialism and carbon. In the US, we should aspire to resettle tens of millions of climate migrants in the coming decades.
No one knows how to do this. At a minimum, it will take massive investments in social housing, public transit, community infrastructure like green schools, and unionized care workers to support people living well amid traumatic change.
And yet, right now, the US doesn’t have a just—or even functional—policy for immigrants and refugees. It’s still struggling to support Indigenous communities facing displacement from environmental calamities caused by colonial settlers. And the US has handled domestic movements for freedom terribly. In the last century, the emancipatory promise of the Great Migration was savagely curtailed by segregation and mass incarceration. Leading sociologists and scholars of environmental injustice called this racial violence a form of apartheid. Today, a surge in climate displacement threatens to deepen this eco-apartheid.
Miami reveals what’s coming. There, community groups, backed by scholarly research, have identified a pattern of “climate gentrification”: developers moving into communities of color that are safer from the effects of climate change, like the historically Black neighborhood of Little Haiti, which sits on higher ground. MacKenzie Marcelin, the climate justice manager at the progressive group Florida Rising, told me that in Miami’s working-class communities, climate displacement is a distant worry. “Folks are being pushed out of the areas where they’ve lived for decades,” he said. “And where do displaced people tend to go? Areas that are affordable but more prone to flooding.”
The organizers and community members that Marcelin works with are focused on the struggle to stay put with dignity. We should support them. We need anti-displacement protections for tenants paired with green investments in their homes and communities. We must also recognize that Little Haitis will be appearing countrywide, as rich climate migrants push people out to build their emerald enclaves. The wealthy aren’t waiting for public permission to plan their next moves.
It’s urgent for governments and social movements to start planning for millions of people to land in new places. Prepping Miami’s evacuation is a perfect starting point. Its residents are a multiracial, multinational, and multigenerational assemblage that spans the class spectrum. Tragically, many of them are already climate migrants—like Puerto Ricans displaced by recent hurricanes. If cities around the country were forced to plan how they’d integrate arriving Miamians into communities flush with public green investment, they’d get a head start on planning for climate migration generally. This would also trigger conversations about zoning for density, enshrining tenant rights, upgrading infrastructure, taxing the rich, building green banks, and battling racism and police violence.
We can’t build a multiracial working-class movement against eco-apartheid by playing defense. The wealthy are on the march. We need to beat them to the higher ground.
Daniel Aldana Cohen
The quip is tired; we Floridians have all heard it. It’s the one that goes “Why not just let Florida get swallowed up by the sea?” First, if you haven’t recently battled a palmetto bug or nonchalantly kayaked around a gator, shove off; and second, because Florida—Miami especially—could and should be at the vanguard of climate adaptation.
Climate change has already transformed South Florida. “Sunny day floods”—when tides rise at least 1.75 feet higher than average without rain and force water up through storm drains, flooding roads—are happening four times as often as they did in the early 2000s. The rising water table has burst pipes in Fort Lauderdale’s sewage system, spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage into the streets. Seawater rise is overtaking the salinity controls in freshwater canals, threatening the potable water. Algal blooms are triggering mass die-offs of sea life and spreading toxins through the air and drinking water.
None of these problems are unique to South Florida. But because the region is on the front line of climate change in the wealthiest country in the world, its handling of these threats can set the tone and timeline for global efforts. Any city’s successful experiments in climate action can inspire others, but Miami, with its resources and international status, can be an especially crucial model for the world. As the investigative journalist Mario Ariza writes in Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe, “Much hinges on how well—or how poorly—the City of Miami sets an example for managing the problem.”
Shortsighted, surface-level adaptations aren’t going to save metropolises like Miami; we need to reimagine coastal living. The United Nations estimates that over 1 billion people live in low-lying cities vulnerable to coast-specific climate hazards.
Miami, therefore, has a lot of work to do. So far, the metro area’s attempts at resiliency have been green-lighted and financed in such a halting, disjointed, and uncoordinated way that they have resulted in a faulty patchwork of projects.
Several schemes to elevate roads in Miami Beach, for instance, did not account for the surrounding properties’ drainage capacity, resulting, ironically, in flooded homes. Miami is not even adequately prepared for its most obvious extreme weather threat—rain. The city can withstand up to three inches of precipitation per hour before the pumps fail and the city is flooded. We’ve seen a series hurricanes far exceed that: Harvey, Emily, Imelda. And projections indicate that storms are only intensifying.
One major problem is that Miami’s finances are yoked to continued development. Even managed-retreat efforts have been thwarted by developers: A 2019 program, supported by millions in government grants, to buy out areas in Miami that frequently flood was dissolved after developers purchased the targeted properties and began new construction projects. Because there is no state income tax, public works are largely funded through property taxes—resulting in a self-defeating cycle that was compounded by a recent decision by the city to cut taxes to the lowest they’ve been since the 1960s.
Before we give up on Miami, we should focus on fighting real estate interests, which threaten progress nationwide. Developers and landlords often undermine the changes needed to adapt to climate perils, from wildfires to droughts. Unraveling their political influence in Florida could allow the region to build a functioning public transit system, which will get carbon-spewing cars off the streets. The state needs to restore wetlands and mangrove forests—and rely less on the engineered solutions like seawalls and bulkheads preferred by the companies that construct them. Natural barriers are cheaper and more effective. Prioritizing protection and restoration offers a short-term defense against storm surges and the long-term benefits of carbon sequestration. This may entail relocating people who live directly on the shoreline and restoring the land they leave behind to its natural ecosystems. But it doesn’t mean abandoning the whole city.
Of course, Miami residents can’t do this if they are held hostage by the state government. In 2021, as Governor Ron DeSantis touted his commitment to conservation, he signed into law SB 1128/HB 919, which prohibits local governments from, among other things, pursuing a 100 percent clean energy strategy. The legislation has prevented Tampa from doing just that. For Miami to survive, the state must allow the city to help itself.
At some point, if South Florida doesn’t change its approach to navigating climate change, evacuation will be necessary. But by withdrawing from Miami too soon, we will lose a vibrant city that could have become a training ground for learning how to adapt to the planet’s future. It’s not just South Florida that is facing climate catastrophe; it’s Los Angeles, New York City, Mumbai, and many other places. Tremendous human effort created Miami, and if we act soon, that kind of effort can save it too—and show the world how it’s done.