In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado was busy delivering water and ice for elderly people, but he had this to say about the natural disaster: “We need to have a conversation about climate change.”
Regalado, a Republican, told me he was taken by surprise by the magnitude of the storm surge, which flooded Brickell Avenue, Coconut Grove and other key parts of the city. Forecasts didn’t predict the flooding, even with the storm veering to western Florida and sparing Miami the worst impact.
“The water penetration was much bigger than they had forecast,” Regalado said. But not even the high tide that day can explain the magnitude of the surge, he said.
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Regalado, Miami’s mayor since 2009, told me that he does not buy the claim by climate change skeptics that the unprecedented water rise in downtown Miami was an exceptional event. Too many weird climate events have been happening in the city in recent years without many people noticing, he said.
There has been frequent flooding over the past three years in the coastal Miami neighborhoods of Belle Meade and Shorecrest, which drew little attention, he said. In these and other neighborhoods, the rise of the sea level has led water to come out of street sewers, flooding the area.
Another ominous sign came one day in August, when the National Weather Service had forecast a half-inch of rain in Miami, but it ended up pouring, almost 5 inches in an hour, he said.
The explanation from government forecasters is always that that it had never happened before, as if these were all exceptions to the rule, Regalado said.
But the recurrence of these events has led him to believe that – regardless of the cause – we have to prepare for the possibility that they are becoming the norm.
“We must protect ourselves. We must start thinking that these anomalies will become normal,” Regalado said. “And if that’s the case, we must consider that we face billions of dollars in losses.”
Already, the reconstruction of Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Irma will cost up to $200 billion, according to Moody’s Analytics.
Measured in the dollar value of real estate at risk, Miami is the most exposed city in the world to climate change-caused natural disasters. The value of Miami’s real estate at risk from climate events is $3.5 trillion, according to a 2007 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development report.
Asked about President Donald Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax, Regalado said, “I think that’s irresponsible. I understand political rhetoric, I understand that the president is talking to his base. But what can’t be tolerated is that we see five new Hurricane Harveys, five new Hurricane Irmas, and they continue to claim that these are one-time events. That can’t be the end of the conversation.”
And Regalado doesn’t buy the assertion of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, Scott Pruitt, to CNN that discussing climate change in the middle of Hurricane Harvey and Irma’s recovery efforts would be “insensitive” toward the victims.
“If not now, when?” the Miami mayor asked. “I think this is the time to do it.”
I couldn’t agree more. What’s insensitive – and, more than that, insane – is for the U.S. president and his EPA chief to continue denying climate change in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, against the near unanimous consensus in the scientific community that man-made global warming is making these weather events increasingly more intense, if not more frequent.
We need an urgent national conversation about climate change, starting right now.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.