What climate change means for Florida's future

"The tide is coming in"

A global heat wave is pushing Florida ocean temperatures into unprecedented highs
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Over the weekend, a marine heat wave warmed Florida's surface ocean temperatures to the mid-90s, reaching as high as 97 degrees Fahrenheit off Johnson Key. The high temperatures are "threatening delicate coral reefs" and "depriving swimmers of cooling dips," The Associated Press reported. The sweltering summer conditions come after a particularly volatile storm season in 2022, which included Hurricane Ian, followed by Hurricane Nicole, the first November hurricane to land in 36 years. Are Florida residents having a streak of bad luck, or are they facing a climate crisis?

How is climate change affecting Florida?

Florida is "uniquely at risk to rising temperatures, increased sea levels and extreme weather events," Nikki Fried, the commissioner of the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services, said in October. The state "juts out" into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, right into the pathway of storms that sweep across that area. As a result, it has experienced more than 40% of the hurricanes in America, more than any other U.S. state, according to The Economist. Hurricanes are intensifying due to warming oceans, "with the impact already being seen throughout the state," Fried said, adding that Florida has experienced "above-normal hurricane activity for seven consecutive years."

Rising temperatures also damage Florida's coral reefs, and the state could lose $55 billion in reef tourism money by 2100. And with the second-longest coastline of all American states, Florida is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. Tidal flooding from sea level rise has already cost Miami-Dade County $500 million in lost real estate value, according to a report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Levels are rising at a rate of one inch every three years in Florida.

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What areas are most at risk?

A task force of experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA forecast that coastal flooding in Florida will increase rapidly over the next 30 years. By 2050, the sea level may rise by up to 18 inches. Cities like Clearwater, Port Canaveral and St. Petersburg might see levels rise by up to a foot over the next two decades.

Dr. Harold Wanless, a geologist and professor at the University of Miami, told CBS News that his research indicates that 60% of Miami-Dade County will be submerged by 2060. Some scientists are worried the lower third of Florida will be submerged by the end of this century, The Guardian reported. "The tide is coming in, and eventually it's not going to go back out," Wanless said to CBS News. "It's a beautiful place to live right now, but it is so vulnerable."

Are people leaving?

No — quite the opposite. Between 2010 and 2020, the population growth rate in Florida surpassed the national average, with more than 2.7 million people moving to the state over those 10 years, per The Washington Post. The Villages retirement community in Florida was one of the two fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. The population of the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area has increased by 623% since 1970. And there's no sign of a slowdown. Based on census projections, Florida and surrounding states could see their most significant population increase between now and 2040.

University of South Carolina economist Joseph Von Nessen told the Post that new residents, primarily from New England, are attracted to the southeast because of the lower cost of living, milder weather and manufacturing jobs. "Severe weather events are certainly one cost people are considering, but based on the data, these benefits, at least for many, seem to clearly outweigh the costs," Von Nessen said.

Climate advocates fear that people moving into the area do not know the full scope of the danger of coastal flooding. Realtors can keep a property's flood history private, and that information can be challenging for potential buyers to gain access to on their own. Many of FEMA's flood maps are outdated and don't consider rising sea levels or flooding from sudden storms.

How are government officials responding?

Florida's top elected officials have a history of opposing climate legislation, The New York Times reported. Last year, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted against President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law that dedicates $50 billion to help states prepare for severe weather due to climate change, saying the bill was a waste of money. They were also part of a group of Republican senators who voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, which seeks to invest $369 billion in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the root cause of the climate emergency.

The state's recently reelected Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, appointed a chief science officer to "prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis," per an ABC News report. He also created the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to assist communities in dealing with rising sea levels. But he has prohibited the state's pension fund from accounting for climate change when making investments, declaring that politics should not influence financial decisions. Last year, he announced a program that will provide $1 billion over the next four years to help local governments address flooding and rising sea levels. However, he seems unwilling to allot funds toward changing the underlying behaviors contributing to climate change.

Steven Cohen, the director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, told ABC News that DeSantis is "spending a lot of money on adapting to climate change. But what I think he needs to think about is there's only so far you can go on adapting to climate change; we do have to mitigate it."

July 12, 2023: This article has been updated throughout.

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