Referring to the horrific condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida NBC news noted “Local officials appeared to have few ideas so far about what may have caused the 136-unit building to inexplicably crumble.” Not ones to let the absence of evidence get in the way, nor indeed the sheer bad taste of exploiting a tragedy of over 100 people still being missing and feared dead, journalists announced that climate change was to blame because it must have been. The Washington Post feigned some unconvincing reticence by saying “Experts on sea-level rise and climate change caution that it is too soon to speculate whether rising seas helped destabilize the oceanfront structure”, then marched boldly ahead with said speculation. Likewise Yahoo! News piled on with “Sea level rise due to climate change eyed as contributing factor in Miami-area building collapse.” Is it too much to ask journalists to realize that if climate change was causing buildings to fall down, it would be a common occurrence, instead of a freak one-time tragedy?
NBC’s piece also couldn’t resist the all-too-usual shifty insinuation. After noting that experts had no explanation for the building collapse the journalists supplied it for them: “Scientists, however, have long noted the risk of building on the shifting sands of a barrier island like Miami Beach, especially with rising sea levels.” Oh, that’s what did it? Well, no. “That may not be the reason for this collapse, but it remains an engineering challenge in the region.”
So it’s not climate. But it is. Because everything is.
On the contrary, and to repeat, the main lesson from this story is that such horrific incidents are extremely unusual. At least in the developed world, where high construction standards both legal and moral mean very few buildings collapse. Miami, for instance, has a lot of them. Amazingly, when incorporated in 1896 it had just 300 people. But today it is the third-most-populous urban area on the American east coast, and 7th-largest nationally, with over 300 skyscrapers. And how many have collapsed?
Indeed, the NBC story quoted one actual expert in building design that “Forty-year-old buildings don’t just collapse, and there’s a whole series of them lining up and down the coast.” Although NBC nevertheless seems to think they’re all about to go: “Another issue at hand for the Surfside community is one shared with all of Miami Beach: The towns are built on a barrier island. Climate scientists and geologists have long warned that these islands cannot be developed responsibly.”
In some sense this argument follows logically, even inexorably, from the conviction among climate alarmists that the seas are rising faster, waves are getting stronger and so forth because all effects of climate change are bad. (Indeed Rud Istvan just ridiculed a shiny NASA promo of its new Sentinel-6 satellite sea data that showed levels rising faster than average virtually everywhere, saying “NASA imagines sea level is like the children of fictional Lake Wobegon—all above average.”) Thus some professor at the University of Miami (PhD in Biological Sciences) just argued that we should start fleeing the coasts now instead of building dopey barriers and stuff.
On what basis? All the buildings that don’t fall down? And let’s circle back to that line in the NBC story “especially with rising sea levels”. The nearest tide gauge to Miami shows local sea level rising by just under 3 mm per year. Which is under a foot per century. The journalist does not bother to argue the point, or indeed substantiate it. He just assumes everybody knows that sea levels are rising in a way they didn’t use to.
Speaking of the front lines of sea-level rise, Yahoo! News claimed that “While it is too early to say whether climate change is to blame for the collapse of the 40-year-old Champlain Towers South, or if it also threatens thousands of similar structures along Florida’s coastline, sea levels rose by 3.9 inches between 2000 and 2017 in nearby Key West, according to a 2019 report by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.”
Who? Why not ask NOAA, the agency that maintains the tide gauge? And why those start and end dates, when the monthly data start in 1913 and go up to the present? Are they really saying sea level is rising by four inches every two decades-- nearly two feet per century? No, they say even higher: “’Just using the U.S. government projections, we could be at 11 to over 13 feet [of sea level rise] by the end of the century,’ Harold Wanless, director of the University of Miami’s geological sciences department and a leading expert on sea level rise, told Yahoo News. ‘There’s only 3 percent of Miami-Dade County that’s greater than 12 feet above sea level.’”
So they managed to find a leading expert on sea level rise who thinks a 3 mm per year increase adds up to 11 feet per century. Returning to science, the story went on to admit that the building had been sinking, and quoted Shimon Wdowinski of Florida International University’s department of earth and environment that “It appears to be something very localized to one building, so I would think the problem was more likely to be related to the building itself.” Not to be deterred Yahoo! News added: “But even if climate change is ruled out as a significant contributor to this particular instance of structural failure, there is no avoiding the fact that if seas continue to rise, the habitability of much of South Florida will be put in question.” And for good measure they threw in “the worsening of so-called king tides”. (Likewise the New York Times, in pondering the rarity of such disasters and the specific course of the structural failing, threw in an obligatory “The search for an explanation comes with a sense of urgency not only for sister buildings near the complex but also for a broad part of South Florida, where a necklace of high-rise condos, many of them decades old, sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, enduring an ever-worsening barrage of hurricane winds, storm surge and sea salt.”)
So shall we never mind why that building collapsed? But we do mind. Because after a couple of days it also emerged that major problems with the collapsed condominium building had been identified years ago. But after reporting them, and mentioning other possible contributing factors, CTV felt obliged to add “Beyond that, much focus is on ocean water, which is rising in South Florida and elsewhere because of climate change.” While a piece by Slate’s news director Susan Matthews said never mind the facts, “Waiting to trace the exact lines of causation misses the point.” How exactly? Well, see, “If the point is that heat waves and hurricanes and wildfires and flooding will be made worse by climate change—and any climate scientist will tell you that, any day of the week—does it really matter if it affected this one?”
Well, yes. If, that is, you think journalism is about reporting the facts including that hurricanes and wildfires are not getting worse rather than, say, swooping in before the bodies are even found and identified.