Reality Check for Florida? Miami’s Rising Tide of Climate Action

Miami Beach, Photo by Ashley Satanosky

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For decades, Miami has been an international tourist destination, known for its lavish nightlife and decadent beach lifestyles. Yet lately, in popular imagination, its reputation as a perennial, sunny playground of the rich and fabulous is preceded by predictions of its imminent drowning. Therefore, it is not so surprising that Miami has joined a coalition of the willing with other major US cities to do what they can to counter the Trump administration’s belligerence towards curbing climate change. President Trump’s departure from the Paris Climate Accords has only accelerated this trend and cities are increasingly taking climate policy into their own hands.  

The Greater Miami area is the 8th largest metropolitan area in the US, home to over 6 million people and of course, President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago vacation home. The South Florida region is expected to see water rise 6-10in above 1992 levels by 2030, and 31-61in by 2100. Despite these predictions, the city continues to grow, attracting Latin American immigrants and American retirees looking for golf courses, beachfront condos, and year-long sunshine. The South Florida region has grown around 8% in the past five years. Having both a rising population and sea level puts Miami in the rather unique position of having to curb their emissions that contribute to climate change (mitigation) and protecting itself against the brutal realities of climate change (adaptation).

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Photo by Daniel Jensen

Combating an Existential Crisis

“We turn on the computer, and there’s five stories a day about how Miami is underwater, but you know, we’re not underwater yet!” said James Murley, the Chief Resilience Officer of Miami-Dade County. For officials like Murley, the fight against climate change is very, very real. He works on the county level, which is made up of the City of Miami, Miami Beach and several other municipalities. Murley was the first to be appointed to this position in 2015, which was created by the Mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, a moderate Republican who supported Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. Yet the work on climate in the Miami area has been a decades-long process.

“From 1991 we started looking at greenhouse gas reduction goals,” said Murley. “That’s been merged with activity around energy efficiency and conservation, resulting in a mixture of goals. By the middle of the 2000s, we were moving into adaptation on the issue of sea-level rise. That ended up enhancing the [Office of Resilience] and creating my position.”

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Photo by Alexander Popov

Fighting the Climate Denial Tide

To say it lightly, Republicans are not well known for spearheading climate efforts. Even in Florida, where climate change can literally be at the doorsteps some days, there is still a lack of ambition on the state level. Florida’s electricity generation comes primarily from natural gas, nuclear, and coal, with only 3.3% coming from renewables. In Jacksonville in 2015, JEA, the city’s biggest utility, produces less than 1% of its electricity from renewables, and current policy to boost its solar energy production puts rooftop solar producers at a disadvantage by lowering the price they are refunded for producing energy.

To understand such abysmal rates of renewables for a state known as the ‘Sunshine State,’ it’s helpful to look at the state leadership. Current Governor and candidate for Senate, Rick Scott became internationally renowned for banning the term ‘climate change’ from all official communications. Florida Senator Marco Rubio also made waves while campaigning for the Republican Presidential nomination for saying, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.“ The fact that two climate deniers are in two of the most powerful roles in the state, both of whom Miami must rely on for both state and federal funds, highlights the significance of the city’s independent climate efforts.

This was clearly shown in the 2017 November elections, when the city of Miami passed a referendum for a new climate change adaptation project called ‘Miami Forever.’ This was a project spearheaded by former Republican Mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado, who repeatedly reaffirmed the city’s commitment to adapting and mitigating climate change, despite his party’s strong reluctance to act on climate. This project allocates $400 million to resilience projects that address rising sea levels and increasing housing costs.

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South Beach, Photo by Nichlas Andersen

Getting By With a Little Help from Their Friends

Despite President Trump’s exit of the Paris Accords, many cities in America are a part of climate-focused international coalitions. For instance, Miami-Dade County works with the Rockefeller Foundation as a part of the 100 Resilient Cities coalition as well as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) and the Compact of Mayors, which along with the 100 Resilient Cities group, have several European members. These initiatives focus on getting cities to set reduction targets and reporting on their progress. Subnational groups such as these help keep American cities relevant on the international stage and formalize the dissent of metropolitan areas over the Trump administration’s climate policies.

“In 2016 Greater Miami and the Beaches became a member of 100 Resilient Cities, a network which also includes the Dutch city of Rotterdam and the American city of New Orleans, but also partners like Arcadis, Deltares, and the Nature Conservancy,” said Esther van Geloven, the Senior Commercial Officer of the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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Rotterdam, Photo by Harold Wijnholds

“This network helps cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges. Please note that this cooperation is broader than just climate. Rotterdam values this collaboration highly, including their exchange with New Orleans. Collaboration between cities with similar resilience challenge(s) is valuable to both sides, e.g. Rotterdam and Greater Miami and the Beaches as to ‘Coastal/Tidal Flooding’.”

In addition to cooperation through these vehicles, Miami is home to consulate general offices of nearly all European countries. This not only reflects the international dimension of the city in general, it also helps facilitate cooperation with the city and their more progressive European allies on climate. For example, in 2017, former Miami Beach Mayor Levine was awarded the French legion of honor for his work on climate. The French Consulate hosted several events in the city before the COP21 and other European consulates have also participated in events on climate including the Netherlands and Germany.   

‘In the Netherlands, the Dutch learned not to fight water, but to live with it. And that’s what South Florida will have to learn to do, in its own way’

“The Dutch hope that best practices from the Netherlands inspire regions like South Florida, when dealing with their climate challenges,” said van Geloven. “Context and local expertise is crucial as every region is different, so solutions might need to be adapted to the local situation or new practices might need to be developed. However, the Dutch are always willing to work alongside with local experts to help make South Florida resilient and climate-proof. As Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, said when he visited South Florida: ‘In the Netherlands, the Dutch learned not to fight water, but to live with it. And that’s what South Florida will have to learn to do, in its own way’.”

Miami even serves as a useful starting point for Europeans for the world of Latin America. Beyond mitigation and adaptation work, there is also the increasingly necessary task of extreme weather disaster relief which Miami is also playing a role in. The previous hurricane season was tragic for many Caribbean nations, many of which were former European colonies. “They got hit really hard this season by the hurricanes,” said Murley. “Much worse than the Florida peninsula did. You see a lot of relief activities going through Miami on its way to the islands from European countries. We get very involved and its a good relationship.”

The Dutch island of St. Maarten was one of those that was badly hit by Hurricane Irma last year. While the Dutch Navy brought supplies and aid there, they also aided the island of Dominica as well. In addition to hurricane response efforts, they have also played a role in hurricane preparedness. “Experts from the Netherlands have met with the National Hurricane Center, but also with the Emergency Directors of the State of Florida, South Florida Water Management District, Miami Dade County, and the City of Miami Beach several times over the years, to exchange lessons learned and even handbooks,” said van Geloven. “The National Hurricane Center works closely together with the Dutch Caribbean Islands, providing training on the islands prior to hurricane season, and useful information throughout the year.”

Miami is just one example, albeit perhaps the one with the highest motivation, of an American city who is going in their own direction on climate and trying to do their part to mitigate the Trump-climate effect. Jacksonville should take note from their southern neighbors. Hurricane Irma was a tragic reminder of the devastation caused by extreme weather events, which will only increase as climate change intensifies. All of Florida is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and time is not on our side. How Jacksonvillians decide to use that time, is a decision we can all make in our daily lives and perhaps more importantly, the voting booth.

About Morgan Henley