The Rising Tide: Sea Levels and Property Rights

(Counterpunch) Florida is a good lens through which to view the dilemma of delay and inadequate response by government to the challenges of global warming. There has been plenty of talk about reforming energy conservation in order to limited carbon dioxide emissions. The inconsistencies are only a few feet above sea level. The foot-dragging makes marks in the sand. Meanwhile, downtown Miami and Miami Beach are beginning to flood like Venice at seasonal high tides.

The low hanging fruit is easy: simple steps like government purchase of fleets of higher mileage efficiency cars. But there has been resistance by private Miami taxi cab companies to do the same; effectively blocking rules that would require a timeline for conversion. It is no different from big energy companies. In other states, Florida Power and Light accepts common sense measurement of energy efficiencies as a test for whether or not to build new power generating facilities, but not in Florida. Why? Because they have the system wired.

There is a subgroup of power brokers who also have the system wired, from the adoption of computerized voting machines to votes on the county commission: property rights attorneys and lobbyists representing land speculators. In recent months, the mainstream media has started to pick up on the topic: that local governments should stop development of houses and office space and malls in the areas that will be flooded, first, as a result of sea level rise.

The question of government halting zoning and permitting housing in flood plains runs straight up against the preference of property owners to build on the ocean, bay front, river banks, lake shorelines, and in wetlands. For some, it is the view. But the bigger constituency are owners of low-lying, cheap property who use powerful law firms, like Greenberg Traurig in Miami, to change underlying zoning, install flood control infrastructure and water pipes; all to wring private profit from public costs.

That is the growth model of Florida. It is supported by builders associations and Chambers of Commerce across the state. Stopping growth in coastal flood zones is as unpopular as banning tail gate parties at football games.

Indeed this intractable conundrum continues to hold back the United States from engaging in climate change strategies while other nations, from Germany to China to Brazil, are embracing government incentives and building the new energy technology products that we will end up having to import instead of make, here. The US Chamber of Commerce is on the other side, espousing the “make money till you drown” point of view, that applies equally to the value of the US dollar. The oil and goal industries continue to spend huge sums to sow doubt and antagonism to government intervention on climate change. And property rights lawyers are girding for battle under the banner: “Don’t tell me what I can do with my property, until it is under water then I want government to pay for it.”

The growth model of Florida is based on miscalculating risks. Consider what happened in Florida City and Homestead after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Dade in 1992. When a group of planners offered a vision for rebuilding South Dade to maximize the watershed features and attributes of communities on the edge of two national parks, the local mortgage bankers and pro-business leaders, backed by builders’ lobbyists, thumbed their noses. “You can’t tell us what to do. It is our property.” They rebuilt the Florida City business district on US 1 at the entrance to the Florida Keys exactly as it was before the storm, except bigger signage and this time they succeeded in “persuading” the US Army Corps to allow development on small wetlands.

I am all for the Obama administration getting global warming/ property rights litigation into the US Supreme Court ASAP. The biggest mistake the Clinton White House made in Florida in respect to restoring the Everglades was cutting a deal with the State of Florida on pollution by Big Sugar: this big, massive test of environmental sustainability belonged in the US Supreme Court. Instead of issues that loom big and bright in the public consciousness, we have exactly the kind of half-steps and “consensus” based solutions, and intimidation of scientists, that civilization cannot afford in the case of climate change.

Ironically, these clashes over environmental law and policies are fruitful sources of compensation for the army of consultants and lobbyists and attorneys involved in the pushing and pulling. That, too, is the American Way.

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