Rising Sea Levels Made This Republican Mayor A Climate Change Believer Already, neighborhoods flood more often in Coral Gables, Fla., and water has seeped up from beneath low-lying buildings and yards. Mayor James Cason wants his city prepared for the economic fallout.

Rising Sea Levels Made This Republican Mayor A Climate Change Believer

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A man moves to a city in Florida and decides he wants to be mayor. He wins the election. He's happy. Then he's told his city is slowly going underwater. Not financially - literally. NPR's Christopher Joyce visited that mayor and reports on his dilemma.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Six years ago, James Cason settled in Coral Gables, a seaside town near Miami. He ran for mayor on the Republican ticket. Soon after Cason won, scientists came to him to explain sea level rise. He was flabbergasted.

JAMES CASON: You know, I had read some articles here and there, but I didn't realize how impactful it would be on the city that I'm now the leader of.

JOYCE: Cason had been a U.S. diplomat living in Paraguay. The topic of sea level rise hadn't come up much. Those scientists had brought a map, though. It showed much of the city would be underwater in a few decades.

CASON: When I saw it, I said, wow, this is - of all the issues we're discussing, how come no one is taking this on, even if there's no solutions now? But at least we need to know what our risks are and our vulnerabilities.

JOYCE: In fact, city streets were already flooding more often. Sea water was seeping up underneath the town as well. Cason grew deeply worried. He had officials map the whole city's elevation. They identified vulnerable places - hospitals, schools, key roads. But he says most of his constituents still aren't very interested.

CASON: Some say, oh, I don't believe it. Others say I've got other things that I'm worried about right now, and I'll put that off. And others says I'm going to leave it to my grandkids to figure it out.

JOYCE: Cason wanted to understand the city's liability. He decided to hire an attorney.

ABIGAIL CORBETT: You know, whenever things go south, people look around and say who can I sue, especially when there's a lot of money at stake.

JOYCE: Abby Corbett's with Stearns Weaver, a firm in Miami. She hadn't given sea level rise much thought either. Now she knows her elevation.

CORBETT: I know my house is at two feet (laughter) it's two, yes.

JOYCE: Does that worry you?

CORBETT: Yeah, it's on my radar. I wouldn't say it worries me. I'm keeping track.

JOYCE: Corbett's also keeping track of potential legal trouble from sea level rise. She says the city is pretty safe from that. It's tough to win a liability suit against a municipal government. But new legal issues already are bubbling up. For example, when the sea fills your street, who has a duty to do what?

CORBETT: Where if you have a house and you can't get there and your street is flooding, the big question is do you have a right to get your property?

JOYCE: Another legal briar patch - should builders or realtors tell homebuyers about future sea level rise? Corbett says it's especially important for people who advise others - lawyers, engineers, politicians - to think hard about how life will change as the ocean rises.

Coral Gables, for example, has lots of yacht owners - sailing yachts with tall masts. Many are anchored at people's homes, with a city bridge between them and open water, a bridge those boats can barely sail underneath now. Mayor Cason says there are 302 such yachts. His people have actually counted them. At some point, these boats aren't going to fit under those bridges.

CASON: And these are $5 million homes with nice boats that suddenly are going to see their property values go down because they no longer can get a boat out. So that will be one of the first indicators and a wake-up call for people, and I want to be able to say that we told you about this.

JOYCE: Cason's also thinking about what politicians don't want to think about - retreating from parts of the city.

CASON: And when they start flooding, whenever that is, when do they stop paying taxes? When do we no longer have to provide levels of service that they expect?

JOYCE: Cason says lots of other Florida mayors are starting to worry too about things like municipal bonds, the way cities raise money. Will bond rating companies downgrade those bonds if the cities aren't prepared? Cason says thinking about all this is his duty as the city's mayor.

CASON: History's not going to look kindly on us as elected leaders for not taking a leadership position even if we don't have the community seemingly engaged.

JOYCE: He says that means thinking as much about sea level rise as, say, trash collection or more parking spaces downtown. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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