Fishers Island - Miami
Fisher Island

Dear Sara,

My friend is a Republican who owns a very expensive mansion on Fisher Island in Miami. I’m fairly sure my friend believes that climate change is real but does not know how serious the situation may get within her or her children’s lifetimes. What year will I tell her is the last I’ll be able to visit her there, because it will be underwater? How many years ahead of that will she need to sell it before it’ll be rendered worthless? I’m thinking of getting her a garden gnome wearing a snorkel. – Climate Concerned in New York City

Let’s begin with the facts, which are straightforward. Sea-level rise is not just a problem for 50 or 100 years from now. It’s already begun. Today, under certain conditions – when there’s an unusually high tide, for example – water spills into basements and low-lying streets across South Florida.

The problem will get worse. Another 6 to 10 inches of sea-level rise is expected in South Florida by 2030, and perhaps more than two feet by the time today’s high-school seniors turn 60. In response, Miami Beach, a wealthy community on a barrier island just north of your friend’s home on Fisher Island, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elevate roads, raise seawalls, and install pumps to suck the water away.

But the construction projects bring their own problems: “Constant detours, constant dust, constant pounding,” said Dan Kipnis, a retired fishing captain and Miami Beach native, when I visited him last November. “It makes me grumpy and agitated and angry, and sometimes I say or do things that I probably shouldn’t.”

Kipnis told me he’s decided to sell his house and leave the area rather than put up with ever-worsening flooding and construction. (As of this writing, his home has been on the market for more than two years.)

All of this is to say that it’s impossible to know precisely when, if ever, your friend’s home will be fully submerged. But if she had sent me this question, I would tell her that so-called “nuisance” flooding is the more serious near-term threat to many coastal homes.

Within the next 30 years — that is to say, during the term of a new 30-year mortgage, more than 300,000 properties in the contiguous U.S. could be at risk of chronic, disruptive flooding, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And long before real estate actually goes underwater, people will start selling, because their quality of life will be degraded. In fact, one recent analysis found that sea-level rise has already begun to affect coastal real-estate markets, shaving off more than $7 billion in property values in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. “If those homes become uninsurable and unmarketable, the values of the homes will plummet, perhaps to zero,” warned mortgage giant Freddie Mac. “Unlike the recent experience, homeowners will have no expectation that the values of their homes will ever recover.”

So how might you talk about all of this with your friend? This is the hard part. If you grew up in the U.S., you may have been taught to avoid talking about gloomy social problems, especially with those with whom you might disagree. You’ve also been trained to stay out of other people’s business – and in many ways, your friend’s choices about where to live and how to manage her property are fundamentally Not Your Business.

And yet.

Many of us are quietly worrying but politely not talking about a crisis unlike any humanity has yet faced. Click To Tweet

All of this staying-out-of-others’-business contributes to an ugly phenomenon called the climate change “spiral of silence,” identified by my colleagues at the Yale Program on Climate Communication. Briefly: Climate change is personally important to most Americans, but we rarely talk about it with our friends or family. Because we’re not talking about it, those around us also shy away from the subject. The result is that many of us are quietly worrying but politely not talking about a crisis unlike any humanity has yet faced.

For that reason, my advice is to start talking.

Suggestions

  • I keep daydreaming about what would happen if you scheduled a visit to your friend to coincide with unusually high tides and street flooding — and used that as a conversation starter. (A good bet would be to visit on the date of the full moon in September or October, when the alignment of the sun, the Earth, and the moon give an extra tug to the tides.)
  • However, you’ll probably get better results if you avoid a single blow-out conversation in which you present your friend with a garden gnome sporting a snorkel and then confront/overwhelm her with all of the facts.
  • Instead, try chatting about sea-level rise in small doses that fit within the natural flow of your relationship.
  • Ask questions. Has she noticed any flooding? How does that affect her day-to-day life? What does she think she might do if the flooding gets worse in the future?
  • Ideally, your discussions will shift into a mode in which she starts asking you questions. What you’re aiming for is conversation in which both of you are curious about what the other has to say, and neither of you is lecturing — in other words, a normal conversation between two humans who like each other.

You may find that your friend responds defensively. If she shuts down your attempts at conversation, take comfort in the fact that ultimately, she is in charge of her house and her life. And assuming that not all of her equity is tied up in her expensive mansion, she will have the resources to take care of herself – unlike many low-income residents of South Florida and other coastal communities worldwide.

Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to sara@yaleclimateconnections.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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