Many problems require more than one solution. The scientific consensus is that climate change is a very real and urgent problem, and its consequences will be dire if nothing is done about it. In this article, I will share an overview of the implications governments have to face regarding environmental policy design, with a specific look into the Miami-Dade County.
Miami-Dade County is located in the southernmost part of Florida. With a population of 2,716,940, it is the most densely populated county in the state, and seventh in the United States. It includes urban areas such as the city of Miami, as well as spacious green areas like the Everglades national park or the Biscayne national park.
Due to the climate crisis the world is currently undergoing, the area experiences various threats. Firstly, according to the 2019 United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, sea levels are projected to rise between 29-110cm by 2100. This increases the occurrence of the submersion of wetlands and the erosion of beaches during floods. Secondly, temperature change is set to increase by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius (though that depends on the speed by which countries can cut carbon emissions). Thirdly, natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes are expected to become more extreme and more frequent, particularly in tropical climates. This poses a great threat to infrastructure, with damages in the billions, every time a major disaster strikes. The last 20 years have seen a rise in the intensity of floods and hurricanes, especially when the latter is formed during a full moon since this amplifies the storm surge and waves that accompany it. Consequently, insurance premiums increase, and housing price depreciates in low-lying areas.
Particular attention must be given to salt-water intrusion in drinking water aquifers, with the only solution as of now being expensive water treatment facilities. Moreover, the risk for environmental diversity is also high, as ocean acidification harms the marine ecosystem, and the changing climate and faster evaporation are likely to increase the need for water in the Everglades.
There are several adaptive measures that are being implemented, especially for the beaches and waterfront including the building of seawalls, structure elevation, and beach nourishment. Human activities have changed the natural flow of water in the Everglades, by diverting its course to impede flooding and bring drinking water to communities, but such measures have impaired the ecosystem. Ongoing efforts to restore the traditional flow of water will be harder if rising sea levels and temperatures increase demands for water.
Future County projects concentrate on establishing safer building and seawall elevation standards, ensuring development avoids flooding neighboring properties, flood-proofing the County’s most vulnerable critical facilities such as hospitals, ports, and airports. They are also trying to integrate green, sustainable practices in infrastructure design.
Rising temperatures and sea levels are problematic for many low-lying areas in the world, but why exactly is the Miami-Dade County interesting? The answer: its unique set of characteristics in terms of geopolitical location, and socio-economic factors like income distribution and demographics. Some of these measures may work for some time, but as the situation worsens, better solutions are needed. Due to the complexity of the issue, simple “nudges” are not enough. Implications extend to more policy types like regulations, taxes, the spread of information, etc…
It can be noticed that political implications arise. We have seen recent presidential results to be remarkably close, giving a marginal win to the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, as a sizeable portion of the Latino community voted Republican. Polarized politics and a divided voter base are not a positive combination for tackling climate change, and a lot of emphasis should be placed on bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle.
In addition, the County’s large income inequality is a factor that must be observed closely. Its Gini coefficient equals 0.508, closer to countries like Colombia and Panama, and much higher than the US average of 0.482. As a result, there is a risk of an unequal distribution of solutions, benefitting those areas that can afford it more.
Moreover, let us consider risk communication and cognitive biases. We have seen that people have difficulty assessing low-probability but high-impact risks in a consistent manner. Apart from being overly scared of shark attacks, the opposite can also be true, and a risk may be underestimated, which is why people still build in areas at risk of flooding. Often, the perceived risk is not high enough to have an appreciable impact on housing location decisions. For example, the 1926 flood almost completely destroyed the city of Miami, but, nevertheless, it was able to rebuild itself. It is not a question of whether, but when, and that risk lies well beyond individuals’ investment horizons. It is possible that this risk-seeking behavior comes from the outcomes of the 2000s real estate and equity crash, hence the idea that an elevated risk is survivable and worth taking. Better risk communication on housing location decisions could be undertaken to lower that risk, emphasizing the negative long-term effects. However, many people are not able to coherently reason about such levels of risk in terms of trade-offs with other aspects of their housing location choice. Another example: many investors from Latin America are aware of the real estate risk in Miami, but from their point of view it is still going to be safer than investing in their home country.
Furthermore, the framing of information is especially important in public debate. How can you involve the most people? Politically, as mentioned above, it is important to frame the argument in a way that does not create divisions. In terms of design, what colors, graphics do you use? How are infrastructure projects portrayed? It should be examined how the way information is provided affects individuals’ decisions.
Finally, but most important to bear in mind: each solution is location specific. Each place is different and solutions that may work in one place must thus be treated diversely than policies elsewhere. Environmental policy design in the Maldives will not be the same as Indonesia, or Venice, or Miami-Dade for that matter. This is the reason local research is paramount to ensure effective policymaking, and each academic paper is a step towards fighting the climate crisis.
Empirical Policy Analysis Unit, Environment and Economy Integration Division and OECD Environment Directorate, 2012. Behavioural Economics and Environmental Policy Design.
European Commission, 2006. Designing policy to influence consumers: Consumer behaviour relating to the purchasing of environmentally preferable goods. pp.78-90.
Meyer, R., 2014. Miami and the Costs of Climate Change. Risk Management and Decision Processes Centre of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania,.
Miami-dade-county-sea-level-rise-strategy-draft-mdc.hub.arcgis.com. 2021. Miami-Dade County Sea Level Rise Strategy Draft. [online] Available at: <https://miami-dade-county-sea-level-rise-strategy-draft-mdc.hub.arcgis.com/> [Accessed 15 November 2021].
Kim, S., 2019. The Economic Effects of Climate Change Adaptation Measures: Evidence from Miami-Dade County and New York City. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University,.