Retreat is such an un-American concept. Rhymes with defeat, and considered synonymous.
Yet as we move further and faster into the time of climate change, Florida will need to embrace the concept of retreat from the rising ocean, scientists and planners say.
“It is what a lot of cities will have to do because a lot of neighborhoods are not defensible,” Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, recently told The Washington Post. “You either protect people or you get them out of the way. There just isn’t a choice.”
Oppenheimer has listed Jacksonville, Miami and Key West as among the U.S. cities most threatened by rising oceans brought about by climate change. His comments to the Postwere in reference to Boston, but could just as easily be applied to coastal Florida.
Climate change will force Florida leaders to make tough decisions, and none tougher than this: Which lands to protect and defend, and which to surrender to the rising waters?
Public officials in Monroe County — the Florida Keys — are already grappling with this issue, and they are finding that they can’t afford to raise all the roads and buy out waterfront property owners threatened by sea-level rise.
In other words, for some, retreat is the best option.
These decisions can be made rationally by using flood zone maps to identify the most vulnerable locations. Florida is funding dozens of vulnerability assessments in coastal cities to help make the best decisions on what to save and what to surrender.
Best to do this now, to stop building in areas that will flood in future years, and to avoid spending vast amounts of public money to shore up what, as the sea continues to rise, will become indefensible.
This is also a time for honesty. Vulnerable landowners need to understand the risks that sea-level rise holds, and realize that taxpayers cannot and will not bail them out of, literally speaking, underwater investments.
Sounds logical enough, but we must be ready to fend off a counter-offensive by affluent property owners and land developers, who will not surrender easily. We should expect them to mobilize their reliable allies in the Florida Legislature to thwart intelligent land use planning.
Frankly, rational planning for land use is not Florida’s strong suit. Indeed, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature trashed the state’s growth management apparatus back in 2011, and there have been no efforts since to revive the state’s authority to manage growth.
There are no easy answers here, but there is one certainty – without prompt and honest dialogue and intelligent planning, crucial decisions on what to protect and where to retreat will be delayed.
And, as the future unfolds, those decisions will be made under duress by the politically powerful, not the scientifically astute.
John Burr has more than 30 years experience as an editor and reporter in Northeast Florida, and is a member of the Jacksonville chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.