In low-lying Miami, discussions about sea level rise go well beyond the hypothetical. For property developers, building owners, government agencies, and insurance companies, developing strategies to mitigate the risks of sea level rise is a high-priority action item.

At a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) event hosted by Bilzin Sumberg, entitled “Can SE Florida Stay Afloat Despite the Changing Climate? How Sea Level Rise is Already Altering Our Built Environment“, panelists discussed their ideas on how best to mitigate risk to buildings and infrastructure. Tracy Browne, VP of Sustainability at Balfour Beatty Construction, pointed out that for both climate change and individual weather events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires, the best approach is to build stronger and more resilient buildings.

Plan early to mitigate risk

Ms. Browne cited the compelling example of damage sustained to a company in New York during Hurricane Sandy, where a facility lost several decades worth of research records due to flooding of the storage areas in its basements. By planning for risk mitigation at the outset, property developers are making dramatic changes in designing and constructing buildings. Such an approach is supported by research conducted by the insurance industry, as reported recently in a Bloomberg BNA article (In Absence of Federal Action, Insurers Play Bigger Role in Climate Adaptation, January 17, 2013, BNA’s Environmental Due Diligence Guide Report). The insurance industry is using its research on the science and economics of climate change to inform clients about risks and pilot projects on hardening of buildings to protect people and structures.

Addressing climate change and rising sea level

Panelists at the ULI event pointed to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan, released in October 2012, as a good start toward developing strategies for government to address climate change and sea level rise. The Plan is the work product of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a collaborative effort among Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe Counties, their municipalities and partners, to assess the region’s vulnerability and provide recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the anticipated regional and local impacts of climate change.

The panel discussion was lively, and, at times, heated. Some audience members expressed skepticism that government was doing enough to address the problem, saying that government only addresses crises reactively instead of proactively. Other audience members suggested that the strategies proposed by government and the business community were futile in the face of potential sea level rise that could turn the Magic City into “Miami Key.” Nevertheless, panelists and attendees clearly agreed on this: the risks presented by predicted sea level rise are daunting, and addressing the risks to South Florida’s built environment will require creative and collaborative solutions.