Miami beachfront apartment blocksJames Willamor/Flickr

“I feel like the world is going to end,” one woman told government television. She had lost eleven of her family members when the debris flow hit Mocoa, Colombia, in the early hours of Saturday, April 1st, 2017. Torrential rain had fallen on the city and surrounding mountains that night, swelling the Mocoa river and three of its tributaries beyond their capacity. Multiple landslides were triggered in the unstable mountainside soil which piled into the swollen river and picked up rocks, mud, trees, and speed. When the flow hit the riverside neighbourhoods of Mocoa, most of the city’s 40,000 inhabitants were sleeping. At least 400 people died that night and according to the mayor, José Antonio Castro, some neighbourhoods had “basically been erased”.

The president of Colombia at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, arrived the next day following police, soldiers, and officials from the national disaster agency who were coordinating the relief effort. To Santos, it was clear what was to blame.

“The intensity of the rain - it rained in two hours what would usually rain in one month. That intensity produced the avalanche that is a direct product of climate change.”

Mr Santos may well have been right. 130 millimetres of rain had fallen on Mocoa in just 6 hours, an event thought to occur less than once every thirty years. According to the World Bank, both the frequency of extreme rainfall events and the average March rainfall in Colombia have increased over the past century, with further increases forecast for the coming century.

Hazards only become risks to human life when the socioeconomic parameters are aligned to make it so

To some residents of Mocoa, the disaster wasn’t a surprise, so much as an inevitability. In a workshop with the Colombian Geological Survey nine months before the landslide struck, city officials were warned about settlements built on previous landslide debris at risk of remobilisation. The rapidly growing population of the city pushed development into the floodplains, while planning laws were either ignored or non-existent. Deforestation for cattle ranching and agriculture on the mountain flanks increased the risk of landslides by destabilising the soil and removing barriers to the debris flow.

All of these risks were manageable, but the lack of action from officials in the face of warnings speaks to broader problems with the Colombian state. Peace talks with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, concluded in 2016 following decades of drug violence, kidnappings, and displacement of people. Many of the new residents of Mocoa who built on the floodplains had been displaced by violence elsewhere in Colombia. By some estimates, half the town’s population were displaced people.

Fragile states are defined as those with weak capacity to respond or poor relations with their citizens. Colombia is a middle-income country with strong institutions, good social services, and potential to make important progress. However, decades of conflict have eroded the legitimacy of the government and strained its capacity to respond to crises like the Mocoa landslide. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of hazards such as landslides, but hazards only become risks to human life when the socioeconomic parameters are aligned to make it so. This means that minimising the damage from climate change in the coming decades requires close attention be paid to outwardly fragile states. In some instances, however, fragility can slip under the radar.

Every other result is nothing but sunny optimism about the housing market “heating up”. Oh, the irony.

Far from Mocoa, across the Gulf of Mexico, Brazilian billionaire Jose Isaac Peres is building something expensive. 57 Ocean, an under-construction stack of sparkling condos in Miami Beach invites you to “experience the future of luxury”. A penthouse will cost $31 million and is likely to join the $6.4 billion of real estate in Miami Beach at “chronic risk of flooding” by 2045. Mr Peres doesn’t seem phased.

“It’s funny, that’s the last concern that I have here in Miami, that global-warming issue,” he said earlier this year.

Peres is not the only person optimistic about the future of the Miami property market. Property values have increased every year since the great recession and are forecast to increase further in 2019. If you were looking to buy property in Miami, you’d be hard pressed to find anything but optimism. You can try it yourself: do a google search for “should I buy property in Miami?” and look at the results on the first page. When I did it, of the ten results, only three had any mention of the words “sea level”, “hurricane”, “flood”, or “climate change”. Of those three, one blog mentioned sea level rise and hurricanes in a throwaway line at the end, one was a detailed, objective report by the Miami Herald, and one was a Quora question asked in 2016 which garnered five responses, only one of which mentioned those terms. Every other result is nothing but sunny optimism about the housing market “heating up”. Oh, the irony.

Expensive sea-walls and pumping stations to protect hotels and casinos, while poor neighbourhoods sink into the sea

Of course, you can’t blame the property developers and real estate agents for not splashing alerts about sea level rise all over their webpages. They all need to make money to please their investors. But that’s precisely the problem: there is a systemic undervaluation of risk from climate change, and a similarly systemic overvaluation of property under risk. $351 billion of property in Florida alone could be wiped off the map, according to one study. The bursting of a bubble this size would surpass the sub-prime mortgage bust that sparked the 2008 financial crisis and great recession. The scale of the burst will depend on how late in the day investors realise their assets are going underwater.

But the fragility doesn’t end there. Florida is one of seven states in the US that has no personal income tax and gets most of its revenue from property taxes. This means a large hit to the property market will hinder the state government’s ability to protect people and property. What’s worse, billionaires and other wealthy individuals have a habit of lobbying the government to prioritise protecting the most expensive assets. This means raising expensive sea-walls and pumping stations to protect hotels and casinos, while poor neighbourhoods sink into the sea.


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Florida’s fragility isn’t the kind you’ll see on UN-compiled lists of fragile states. Curiously, Florida is at risk because of the excessive amounts of money entering the Miami Beach and other high-risk neighbourhoods, not due to poverty, conflict or instability. Climate-change denial, undervalued risk, and bad policy all align to make Florida highly exposed to the changing climate, while keeping a façade of wealth and stability.

Both Miami Beach and Mocoa have serious undervaluation of risk and poor government policy for managing risk. After that, the similarities mostly stop. This shouldn’t be surprising, since both places have vastly different social structures and are under threat from different hazards. But this highlights an important fact about climate change. The impacts of climate change are, in every case, conditioned by the specific socioeconomic parameters of a society. When the rain falls and the sea rises, fragility determines the human cost.

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