On a rain-lashed evening in Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood, a group of residents has come together to discuss the biggest threat to their community: flooding and rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Jim Murley, chief resilience officer for the surrounding Miami-Dade County, stood up to outline his plans to protect this corner of South Florida, as one local explained how his property had been flooded more than a dozen times this year, even though he lived miles from the sea.
“Climate change . . . is always on our minds,” Mr Murley told the gathering this month at a community college. “The county’s entire $8bn budget is based on [increasing] resilience” to climate-related issues such as more frequent floods and hurricanes, he added.
These threats are having a profound effect on politics and city planning in Republican-leaning Florida, a state famed for its coastline and wetland Everglades whose highest point is just over 100 metres above sea level.
Republicans in Florida, including Carlos Giménez, Miami-Dade’s mayor and Mr Murley’s boss, are making a concerted effort to tackle the problem, investing money and political capital. This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who has labelled efforts to tackle climate change a threat to American jobs and recently moved to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord.
Even Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Trump-loving governor who won his party’s nomination by positioning himself as a hardcore acolyte of the president, is taking climate change seriously. Shortly after taking office this year he appointed Florida’s first chief science officer, and he has lamented how climate change has become “politicised”. “My environmental policy is just to try to do things that benefit Floridians,” he was quoted as saying in local media this year.
Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami climate scientist, contrasted that with the views of Rick Scott, the previous governor. “There is a sea change difference in the state government. There were components of [Mr Scott’s] administration that were saying: ‘You can’t even talk about climate change’,” he said.
That Florida Republicans are putting climate change at the heart of their programmes — just as a Republican president prepares the ground for his 2020 re-election campaign by playing down the same issue — underlines the complexity of a subject that has divided the country.
Studies have shown that US voters are some of the least worried in the world about climate change, which has given Mr Trump the political space to loosen environmental regulations and ditch the world’s foremost climate agreement.
But low-lying Florida is different because it is so vulnerable. The state is exposed to the Atlantic hurricanes that scientists say are intensifying and becoming more frequent owing to climate change.
Rising sea levels also threaten to leave tens of thousands of homes in south Florida underwater within decades, including the multimillion-dollar properties that line the coastline, while hundreds of thousands would be at greater risk from catastrophic flooding.
A recent UN study predicted sea level rises of up to one metre by 2100 if the world continued with “business as usual” levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of its efforts to tackle the issue, the city of Miami this year launched a $400m “forever bond”, with half the proceeds going to address sea level rises.
One of the first projects funded was in the upmarket Coconut Grove neighbourhood, where wealthy residents can dock their yachts a few steps from their front doors.
The city administration is installing pumps, improving infrastructure to prevent water from bubbling up through the storm drains and raising the sea walls. This had an immediate impact and cut tidal flooding, even though the project is far from finished, said Jane Gilbert, chief resilience officer for the city.
Yet Prof Kirtman questioned whether Miami should be prioritising this sort of spot-fix approach. He said only a huge public works programme on the scale of that undertaken during the 1930s, when the Hoover Dam was built, could avert the “fire-hose of disasters” that the city faced.
“We are fighting this existential threat and only looking three years ahead. To me, that is a major problem,” Prof Kirtman said, adding that it was imperative that private capital was involved.
The reality is that even under the best-case scenario, not everything will be savable, the professor believes. “There’s going to be parts of our local built infrastructure that we’re going to have to return to their natural environment,” he said. This would mean some people having to abandon their homes in a “managed retreat”.
Yet, elsewhere, there is still optimism about the future. At the meeting in Little Havana, as the rain continued pooling in the streets, Mr Murley pointed out that Miami only existed because Floridians learnt how to manage the water and build around it.
“We don’t look the same today as we did 100 years ago. This was a swamp,” he said. “It doesn’t look good today, but we can still be here 100 years from now.”