By Kevin Mims, The Business of Climate Change
The Invading Sea recently spoke with Dr. Philip Stoddard, professor of biology at Florida International University and former mayor of the city of South Miami, as part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state. Here are some of the highlights from the interview.
Tell me about how climate change has affected South Florida and the challenges local governments are facing as a result.
The water table is rising, particularly on the properties near canals. The soil is saturated, the septic tanks aren’t working right, and on a rainy day down near Snapper Creek you may see people out in their front yards with their noses wrinkled walking around with looks of disapproval on their faces. There is nothing worse in your life than flushing the toilet and having it resurface in the bathtub. That’s what happens when we get rising seas, rising water tables, and failing septic systems, and it is pretty expensive. It’s affecting our lives and this is just the beginning. Not many people realize how little FEMA reimburses a municipality for the cleanup work we have to do on our streets.
Climate restoration bonds are your idea that you believe will help government and the private sector at the same time. Why do we need them and how do you believe they will help?
We need some mechanism to make sure the taxpayers are not on the hook for the costs of private development. If the profits are privatized, why should all the costs and liabilities be put on the public? That’s the way it is right now.
What do you mean when you talk about cleanup?
When a property is declared to be an unsafe structure, that gives the municipality or the county the authority to remove the building. Typically, what happens is an unsafe structure gets demolished, the slab gets removed, all the debris gets taken away, any toxins on the site have to be removed. The costs can mount up.
Where are you now in this process? Are CRBs still conceptual at this point, or are there communities already on board with the idea?
Our new Miami-Dade County Mayor Danielle Levine Cava has asked me to work with her staff to develop the idea. Right now we still have pieces that have to be worked out. There’s the question of how you finance the restoration: Is it done entirely as an escrow account? Or does there have to be an insurance backup in case, say, a hurricane comes earlier than expected and causes the damage and maybe causes the developer or property owner to go bankrupt and be unable to pay?
Are there specific areas of Florida right now that should be looking at CRBs?
There’s a lot of communities that have discussed putting a moratorium on development and they’re obviously the first ones that would be interested in this, because this is really an alternate to a moratorium. We have to create the structures that allow the private industry to take care of itself. Laissez-faire is not going to work anymore.
Another place I think this idea has some merit is in the oil and gas industry. Right now, the floor of the Gulf of Mexico is covered with uncapped oil wells and gas wells and they’re leaking methane. It’s a terrible environmental disaster, particularly for the climate, and there’s absolutely no reason why CRBs could not be required for any oil or gas exploration.
How would the costs be determined for developers with this plan?
To start with, you go to the back end and you look at the cost of restoring a site. You figure out what that is in today’s dollars. You factor in inflation, but then also factor in the interest on the money.
What kind of support would local governments need from the state legislature to facilitate the creation of these climate restoration bonds?
We’re not sure at this point whether it requires enabling state legislation. I think the first thing is to come up with a plan that works and then see if it’s compatible with existing state legislation or not.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.”
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state. It is supported by a grant from the Environmental Defense Fund.