maimi city view
Copyright 2008, Ross Cobb: 305.235.7051

In the face of rising seas and a changing climate, Miami must remake itself into an extremely climate resilient city in the 21st century. What does that mean? In its simplest forms, climate resiliency means that Miami must become a city better prepared to recover from disruptive events, such as major storms, flooding, droughts, to name a few. In more complex forms, it means preparing for what lies ahead, given sea level rise, global warming, and health impacts from climate change.

Of course, who wouldn’t think: Isn’t Miami already a climate resilient city? Haven’t we always bounced back from disruption? Although we’ve gone 10 years now without a hurricane, we have had major storms that have certainly disrupted life in South Florida: Andrew, Wilma, Camille, Katrina and Donna, just to name a few. And the city recovered.

However, as global climates continue to change, and the planet’s temperature continues to rise, scientists predict that disruptive events may become more severe or more frequent, or both.

And Miami is certainly not alone in facing this challenge. At a presentation given at the U.S. pavilion at COP21 today, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and others who live climate disruption on the front lines of climate change discussed resiliency: the president of the NGO Council for the Marshall Islands and former mayor of Bikini Atoll, and a tribal environmental manager and councilwoman from Kotzebue, Alaska. As an aside, Secretary Jewell mentioned she had seen both areas in the same day, an extreme visual tour of different types of climate disruption.

Residents of these areas are experiencing climate disruption in the form of seeing their coastlines move, and are now living the challenges of food security and cultural harm.

In Alaska, the councilwoman said the sea ice is thinner than it ever has been, from a record minimum of two feet down to 12 inches this year, meaning that the residents cannot safely go out on the ice and hunt for seals or fish, two important food sources for the residents. Caribou, their primary food source, are shifting their migration patterns. With the melting of land and sea ice, the residents’ sea and bordering river coastlines are eroding, meaning their houses must either be moved or be destroyed by these forces.

In the Marshall Islands, climate disruptions such as simultaneous sea level rise and drought are also resulting in food and freshwater security issues. For example, the council president noted, on one island, the only way to get food to the island is via cargo ship, and when the king tides come and the water is rough and high, there is no way to get supplies to the island, or anyone on or off the island. Rainwater is the major source of freshwater, which is collected at the airport. But when the king tides come, they leave the airport under 2-3 feet of water, and no way to collect and store the water.

So what can community members do about strengthening resiliency? From the U.S. federal level, Secretary Jewell said the Department is “thinking about it in everything we do.” She gave three main points:

  1. To mainstream coastal resiliency, to work to include it in every activity. Such as when landscapes are damaged, that native seeds are replanted to mitigate invasive species. Toward that end, they keep a seed bank of native species.
  2. To actively address actionable science: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The Department has public sets of data that they are working with private sector innovators to leverage for general public use.
  3. Partner with communities, with the goals of mutual learning and feedback loops, and empowerment of local communities. Here, citizen science becomes particularly important, as local knowledge is so important to inform policy decisions.


In Alaska, they have formed a 12-village association to deal with the food security and erosion issues. For example, they are working with multiple tribes to come up with plans to mitigate the migration change of caribou. In the Marshall Islands, they are educating the youth in the islands—including bringing some to the COP21—to help them become storytellers and innovators, thinking creatively about how to share this story and spur global action.

Those of us affiliated with the SLSC know we are all working on strategies to make South Florida more resilient. And we’re not alone, as communities across the world struggle with climate disruption.  But there’s certainly more we can do, for example in terms of community partnerships: particularly in working with groups with traditional knowledge and expertise, as well as empowering local communities. Climate change is a global issue, and it will take a global community to address it.

For more information on sea level rise impacts on the Marshall Islands, check out this recent article in the New York Times.


COP21, Florida, News