Climate Change Is a Huge Risk to Florida Property

by | July 28, 2015

By Jenny Staletovich

Florida has more private property at risk from flooding linked to climate change than any other state, an amount that could double in the next four decades, according to a new report by the Risky Business Project.

By 2030, $69 billion in coastal property in Florida could flood at high tide that is not at risk today, the report found. That amount is projected to climb to $152 billion by 2050.

While projections for rising seas are not new, for the first time researchers tried to quantify the economic damage wrought by climate change by better understanding the risks to business and a rebounding economy. Growth in manufacturing and energy production have created a mini boom in the Southeast and Texas, the report said. But climate change threatens to undo that progress and cause widespread damage to the region's economic pillars: manufacturing, agriculture and energy.

For Florida, the blows are significant and not only for property. Higher temperatures and rising seas could slow labor productivity, stress the energy industry and dry up cash pumped into the state by tourists.

"The sea-rise numbers are out there. The heat numbers are out there. What this study has done for the first time is really look at this from a business perspective," former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who co-chaired the project, said in an interview with the Miami Herald.

The report arrives as the Obama administration makes a new push on climate policies in advance of the United Nation's fall talks in Paris -- on Monday 13 companies including Alcoa and Walmart committed to cutting pollution and investing in green energy. But by looking at the bottom line, Paulson said the project tries to leave aside the politics that frequently make climate change a partisan issue.

Co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer and Paulson, the Risky Business Project is a collection of business and policy leaders that crosses political lines. This year's committee included former University of Miami President Donna Shalala, a Clinton administration alum, and George Shultz, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Rutgers University climate scientists Robert Kopp and University of California, Berkeley, economist Solomon Hsiang led the team using climate modeling, private sector risk assessment and economic data.

"We approach this not on a partisan or political basis. We are not recommending any government policy solution," Paulson said. "We are just simply looking at the risk."

Whether Florida Republicans heed the message remains to be seen. State employees have said Gov. Rick Scott's administration warned them not to use the phrase climate change in state documents. And in South Florida, where a four-county compact has been working for years to address risks, Miami-Dade County only this year agreed to have Mayor Carlos Gimenez draft a plan.

"Paulson gets it. When you have assets (public or private ) that are in jeopardy, it makes good business sense that you can add substantial value by investing in resiliency," said County Clerk Harvey Ruvin, who led the county's climate change task force.

According to the study, storm-related losses linked to climate change are expected to increase an average of $1.3 billion every year by 2030, or by $4 billion yearly on average by 2050. Even at mean sea level, more property could flood with rising seas: up to about $15 billion worth by 2030, the report said.

Rising temperatures also mean the number of days over 95 degrees will increase from about seven per year to 32 between 2020 and 2039, the report said. By mid-century, the number of 95-degree days could reach 76, or more than two and a half straight months of scorching, AC-busting days.

Yet the real estate industry, which potentially faces the greatest risk, has not widely addressed solutions to climate change, said Andrew Frey, a land-use attorney and residential developer.

"It's all driven by the buyers. So if the long-term owner of the shopping center or apartment community or detached single family home doesn't care about sea-level rise, then the developer is not going to spend the money on it," he said. "However, if they do care, the developer will spend it if [the buyers are] willing to cover the extra cost."

Saying he's as much to blame as any developer, Frey explained the bigger problem is tackling the suburban sprawl that helps generate greenhouse gases that trigger climate change.

"We've skipped over one [solution] and jumped straight to another," he said.

The report, titled "Come Heat and High Water: Climate Risk in the Southeastern U.S. and Texas," is the second this year to focus on a region -- in January the group looked at the Midwest.

Paulson said the group found that while many businesses are considering energy efficiency in building new plants or factories, and taking a closer look at supply chains to locate facilities more strategically, they are not including climate change in risk assessments.

The report is intended to convey the seriousness of not acting, he said. Once the industry is convinced, Paulson said, he hopes it will do more to lobby politicians to act and then publicly disclose the risks.

"There's really well-intentioned people who have reasonable doubts and don't have certainty. But the risks are very real," he said. "When you look at the outcomes we're facing, it's just hard to come up with any reasonable justification for not acting."

(c)2015 Miami Herald