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Optimism, Opportunism, and Climate Denial Combine as Florida Keeps Building Condos

University of Arizona/2009

Florida’s coastal real estate may be poised to deliver a wake-up call on climate change, at a time when sea levels are rising, new condos are still being built, and not everyone seems to see the severe risk lurking right around the corner.

Vermont-based author Megan Mayhew Bergman assesses the situation in a recent post for The Guardian.

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“Science has given us the foresight we need to make decisions that will reduce the future suffering of other species and ourselves, but we don’t heed it,” she writes. That’s because “humans tend to respond to immediate threats and financial consequences.”

But the Florida peninsula “has outsized exposure: nearly two million people live in coastal cities. On the list of the 20 urban areas in America that will suffer the most from rising seas, Florida has five: St Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach, and Panama City. In 2016, Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100, a loss of US$413 billion in property.”

Yet when Mayhew Bergman visited the state in December, she encountered “a bewildering mix of optimism, opportunism, and denial in the real estate market: luxury condominiums going up in flood-prone South Beach, and property values rising [2] in the vulnerable Keys, post-Hurricane Irma,” she writes. “And though the House of Representatives passed a bill to require real estate agents to disclose flood risks, the Senate has not reviewed it, and a culture [3] of ‘systemic, fraudulent nondisclosure’ persists in high flood risk areas.”

The visit also revealed “the massive benefits of privilege, and the way it allows a homeowner, particularly a second home owner, to afford the risk,” she adds. “You will see emerging issues like Miami’s climate gentrification, where previously low-income neighborhoods like Little Haiti are rising in value and under pressure from developers because of their higher ground, resulting in the displacement of people and place-based culture.”

Mayhew Bergman recounts the rapid increase in the proportion of potential buyers who ask about a property’s elevation before they commit, with one anonymous developer fretting that “we’re one bad storm away from a rush for the exits”. And she cites Laura Geselbracht, a senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, who describes real estate as a “huge economic driver” for the state and sea level rise as a risk that people just don’t want to believe.

“If you’re not a millionaire and you own a property in a vulnerable area, it may be a wise decision to think about moving before the masses think about moving,” she said.

Mayhew Bergman points to the “high-stakes gamble” in counting on clean technology to mitigate the impacts, tracing the foreseeable risks for the state’s infrastructure and the steps some millennials, in particular, are taking to anticipate and adapt. More broadly, “the climate change-induced real estate crisis is imminent in the [U.S.] south, and it’s going to have a brutal impact on those who can’t afford new insurance, relocation, lowered property values, or bandages such as private sea walls,” she writes. “It will have an outsized impact on homeowners who live in flood zones or near over-heated superfund sites and toxic factories, and those who can’t afford to pay taxes on submerged land where they can no longer make a home.”

In that light, Mayhew Bergman stresses that “the moral imperative to act is not about salvaging expensive second homes on the waterfront. It is about taking responsibility for human action, helping frontline communities solve a complicated economic and cultural challenge, and doing what we can to help species whose survival is imperiled by our lack of foresight.”