Miami is the ‘magic city’ for good reason – it is magical that 5.5 million people can squeeze into a narrow 55 mi2 strip of land between the wetlands of the Everglades and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean while maintaining a quality of life which exceeds that of most US cities. Our air quality is excellent, owing in part to a flat landscape, coastal breezes, and an absence of heavy industry. Our water quality is also superb because it comes from our Biscayne Aquifer which is recharged by the Everglades.

While settlement of Miami was driven by the desire to reside in its lush tropical paradise, spaces that connect people to nature are fewer and farther between than most cities.  The result is a fundamental disconnect between the people of Miami and the pristine resources that surround them.  During dry spring days, we feel the effects of ozone spikes from car emissions which could be readily curbed by a more extensive public transit system and more green space. Miamians waste money on bottled water when the local tap source is cleaner. Though Miami should be applauded for its successful efforts to increase recycling, use of plastics remains inexplicably high in our city, particularly as we learn about the severe impact of plastics on the very resources on which we depend (i.e., clean water, seafood).

Hopefully, environmental literacy programs in our schools and universities will foster an inter-generational cultural shift that will improve the prospects for a sustainable future. Additional investment in naturalizing our urban environments while we continue to urbanize nature should also increase that likelihood. Green Government and Development initiatives in our county provide thoughtful plans for ecologically, economically and socially sensitive living. It is time to invest in these solutions for improving the quality of life in our cities.

While Miami, bounded by the incredible expanse of natural resources of the Everglades and ocean, boasts excellent air and water quality, thoughtful plans for sustainable resource use, there is an elephant in the room – or literally, a “manatee in the backyard.” The relentless, unequivocal, rise in sea level for which Miami will be ground zero, is the greatest threat ever faced by human civilization. Thanks to the effects of climate change, the flood waters we watch encroach on Miami Beach on King Tide Day will be an everyday occurrence 50 years from now.

Rising seas will influence every aspect of livelihood in Miami. Ocean water will invade our streets and our porous limestone aquifer which is already depleted of freshwater due to historical Everglades drainage. Balancing the needs of urban development, the Everglades Agricultural Area, and Everglades in the face of rapid global change is perhaps our most existential challenge. Miami has a choice: panic or plan.  Fortunately we have turned to the latter and seized the opportunity to become the successful global model for how cities can adapt to, and help mitigate, the effects of climate change.

Learning about plans for adapting to rising seas has never been easier. Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami Beach just hosted the 6th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, coordinated by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact — an innovative partnership among South Florida counties and municipalities. The Summit showcased current climate science and policy developments from regional, national and international levels, and provided an avenue for deep conversation among governments, businesses, and academia to advance solutions to rising seas. Compact-wide and city-specific plans exist for creating a sustainable future in the face of rising seas. These plans were recognized by the 2014 National Climate Assessment and applauded by Dr. John Holdren, Director of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke to a captivated audience about the systemic risks delayed response to climate change poses to the economy. With every decade of inaction there is a 40 percent increase in the costs of dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Thankfully Miami has a plan, and municipalities are working closely with schools, universities and the private sector to build public awareness of our complex vulnerability and exposure to climate change, to reduce uncertainty in local projections of change, and to test and implement solutions with a long-term vision for an economically and environmentally sustainable city. We cannot afford to wait to implement these plans but must aggressively and responsibly invest now to not only exist with the vibrancy and vitality in 50 years as it does today, but also provide a model for climate-vulnerable cities throughout the world.

Evelyn Gaiser is the interim executive director of the School of Environment, Arts and Society at Florida International University.

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