In the not-so-distant future, rising waters will certainly drown Miami. But is that necessarily the end of the city? John Stuart, the chair of the architecture department at Florida International University, is working with students and professors on a multiyear project to imagine what South Florida's future might look like. "It's pretty clear that we are not going to be able to stop the water from coming in, so how will we live?" One of their inspirations is Stiltsville, a collection of structures in built-on pilings in Biscayne Bay from the Thirties by Miami residents, some looking for a place to party beyond the easy view of the law (although they are abandoned now, a few of Stiltsville's structures still survive in the bay). Stuart and his colleagues are trying to imagine what a city in the water would look like – How do you get electricity? Who provides emergency services? "It is really unlike anything humans have tried to do before," Stuart says. "How do you build a floating city in this kind of environment?"
Stuart is energized by the challenge of thinking about this. And if sea-level rise happens slowly enough and Miami doesn't get hit with a hurricane and the drinking-water supply doesn't go bad and the real-estate market doesn't crash and the beaches aren't washed away, the city of Miami may well have time to transform itself into a modern Venice.
But more likely, the ocean will seep slowly into the city, higher and higher every year, until a big storm comes along and devastates the place and people begin to question the wisdom of living in a world that is slowly drowning. The potential for chaos is self-evident as Miami becomes a place people flee from rather than flock toward. Liberty City, a black community downtown, is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami. It also happens to be on some of the highest ground. "Developers will target this neighborhood," Hashim Yeomans-Benford, a community organizer in Liberty City, told me. "But I'm not sure it will be a peaceful transition." As we drove around one afternoon, Yeomans-Benford talked about the history of racial violence that simmers just below the surface in Miami. "People will not leave without a fight," he warned.
Americans will also have to face up to the fact that Everglades National Park, home to one of the most remarkable ecosystems in the world, is a goner. More than half the park will be inundated with just three feet of sea-level rise, and the rest of it will vanish shortly thereafter. "We are going to have to change the name to Everglades National Marine Sanctuary," one scientist told me. Besides the obvious tragedy of losing a unique ecosystem, it calls into question the wisdom of spending billions of federal dollars on the sentimental fantasy that the Everglades can ever be "restored."
One of the biggest uncertainties in Miami's future is how the rest of America will feel about rescuing the city. Nobody questioned the wisdom of spending $40 billion in tax dollars to rebuild after Katrina and another $60 billion to help rebuild after Sandy, but will they feel the same about Miami – land of millionaires and beach condos – when the time comes? Not that everyone doesn't love Miami. But at some point, Congress is going to balk at spending $50 billion to rebuild the city every time a tropical storm passes by.
"South Florida doesn't have the power of New York," says Daniel Kreeger, the South Florida-based executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers. "We don't have any major cultural institutions, we don't have Wall Street, we don't have any great universities. The unpleasant truth is that it will be all too easy for the rest of the nation to just let South Florida go."
That is, of course, not the American way. We don't let cities go. We don't secede territory to the ocean. But this is the direction that our failure to cut carbon pollution is taking us. The loss of Miami will be a manifestation of years of denial and apathy, of allowing Big Oil and Big Coal to divert us from understanding the real-world consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels.
In Wanless' view, the wisest course of action now is to stop subsidizing coastal development and create federal and state policies that encourage people to move out of at-risk low-lying areas. "Instead of spending a billion dollars to build a new tunnel for the Port of Miami, we should be spending that money to buy people out of their homes and relocate them to higher ground," Wanless says. "We have to accept the reality of what is about to happen to us." But that won't happen without political leadership, and on this issue, of course, the state of Florida has none. ("I have a solution for that," says former speaker Gustafson. "We need to all march up to the capital in Tallahassee and burn the fucker down. That's the only way we're gonna save South Florida.")
Stuart compares Miami with Baiae, the ancient Roman resort town in the bay of Naples that was once a playground for Nero and Julius Ceasar. Today, because of volcanic activity, the ruins of Baiae are mostly under water. "This is what humans do," says Stuart. "We inhabit cities, and then when something happens, we move on. The same thing will happen with Miami. The only question is, how long can we stick it out?" But for Stuart, who lives in Miami Beach, the fact that the city is doomed doesn't diminish his love for the place. "That's the thing about Miami," he says. "You'll want to be here until the very end."
This story is from the July 4th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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