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Miami afloat: facing climate reality in the USA

By Morgan Henley

For decades, Miami has been an international tourist destination, known for its lavish nightlife and decadent beach lifestyles. Yet lately, its reputation as perennial sunny playground of the rich and fabulous is preceded by predictions of its imminent drowning. It is not so surprising that Miami has formed a coalition with other major US cities and the support of European counterparts to do what they can to counter the Trump administration’s belligerence towards curbing climate change.

The Greater Miami area, which lies on the southeastern end of the Florida peninsula, is the 8th largest metropolitan area in the US. It is home to over 6 million people and the location of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago vacation home. Its climate reality is terrifying: the South Florida region is expected to see water rise 15 to 25 cm (6 to 10 in) above 1992 levels by 2030, and 79 to 155 cm (31 to 61 in) by 2100. Despite these predictions, the city continues to grow, attracting Latin American immigrants and American retirees looking for golf courses, beach-front condos, and year-long sunshine. From 2010 to 2014, just under 80 000 Cubans moved to the Greater Miami region, as well as over 22 000 Haitians, nearly 16 000 Colombians, 13 500 Jamaicans and over 9500 Venezuelans. The South Florida region has grown around 8 per cent in the past five years. With both population and sea level rising, Miami is in the challenging position of having to curb its emissions contributing to climate change (mitigation) and protect itself against the brutal realities of climate change (adaptation).

A climate of denial

For James Murley, the Chief Resilience Officer of Miami-Dade County, the fight against climate change is very real: “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!” He works on the county level, which is made up of the City of Miami, Miami Beach, and several other municipalities. His position was created in 2015 by the moderate Republican Mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, who backed Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. 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 adapting to rising sea levels.”

Republicans are not well known for spearheading climate efforts. Even in Florida, where climate change can literally be at the doorsteps somedays, 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 per cent coming from renewables. To understand such abysmal rates of renewables in the so-called ‘Sunshine State,’ its helpful to look at the state leadership. Current state Governor Rick Scott became internationally renowned for banning the term ‘climate change’ from all official communications. Florida Senator Marco Rubio also made waves while running to be the Republican candidate for president by declaring, “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 climate deniers hold two of the most powerful state offices, both of whom Miami must rely on for state and federal funds, highlights the significance of the city’s independent climate efforts.

In the 2017 November elections, the city of Miami passed a referendum for a new climate change adaptation project called ‘Miami Forever’, demonstrating the resolve underpinning climate policies in the city. This project was headed by former Republican Mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado, who repeatedly reaffirmed the city’s commitment to mitigating and adapting to climate change, despite his party’s strong reluctance to act on climate issues. This project will direct 400 million US dollars to resilience projects addressing rising sea levels and increasing housing costs.

The natural gas effect

Market forces are helping Miami meet its climate pledges too, though not through encouraging a full break with fossil fuels. Thanks to cheap American domestic production, Florida is increasingly using natural gas for energy. Utility companies’ emissions are low enough that they could likely meet former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan without reforming their energy sources. Although whether utility firms will continue to voluntarily stick to the plans aims, now that President Donald Trump has rescinded it, is yet to be seen.

“Leaving the Paris Agreement doesn’t affect our day-to-day work,” said Murley. “In the short term, it is market forces that are driving down greenhouse gas emissions. [The utility company Florida Power & Light] has moved to natural gas and they could’ve met all of the requirements of the Clean Power Plan of the Obama administration, which was the US government’s commitment under the Paris Agreement. They’re not doing anything different now than they would’ve been doing.”

A global network for change

Despite President Trump’s exit of the Paris Agreement, many US cities are part of international climate coalitions. For instance, Greater Miami and the Beaches became a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities coalition in 2016 and Miami-Dade County also works with Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and the Compact of Mayors. These initiatives focus on encouraging cities to set reduction targets and report on their progress. Subnational groups such as these help keep US cities relevant on the international stage and formalise the dissent of metropolitan areas over the Trump administration’s climate policies.

These networks have helped built bridges between European cities and American ones such as Miami. The 100 Resilient Cities network “includes the Dutch city of Rotterdam and the American city of New Orleans, but also partners like Arcadis [a global design company], Deltares [a water research institute], and the Nature Conservancy [an environmental NGO],” according to Esther van Geloven, senior commercial officer at the Dutch consulate general. “This network helps cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges. This cooperation is broader than just climate. Rotterdam values this collaboration highly, including their exchange with New Orleans. Collaboration between cities with similar resilience challenges is valuable to both sides”, for instance Rotterdam and the Greater Miami area share the threat of coastal or tidal flooding.

Nearly all European countries have consulate general offices in Miami and their presence supports climate cooperation between the city and its progressive European allies. In 2017, former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine was awarded the French legion of honour for his work on climate. The French Consulate hosted several events in the city before the COP 21 talks and other European consulates have participated in events on climate including the Netherlands and Germany. “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 local experts to help make South Florida resilient and climate-proof. As Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for 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’s place in a region under threat

Miami is key gateway for European disaster relief on its way to the Caribbean and Latin America. Beyond mitigation and adaptation work, managing the humanitarian crises caused extreme weather events is increasingly necessary, and Miami plays an important role in the region. 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 their way to the islands from European countries. We get very involved and it’s a good relationship.”

The Dutch-governed island of Sint Maarten was one of many badly hit by Hurricane Irma last year. In a response coordinated with authorities in Miami, the Dutch navy brought supplies and aid to Sint Maarten and Dominica. In addition to hurricane response, Dutch authorities have also worked with Miami hurricane preparation. “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,” detailed 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 most motivated, of a US city paving its own path on climate and trying to do its bit to mitigate the Trump-climate effect. Through an adapted market, local government initiatives, subnational groups, and keeping in touch with international allies, Miami has proven that Washington, and particularly Trump’s Washington, is out of touch with the reality of climate change. While Washington keeps its head stuck in the sand about climate, Miami has recognised the struggle ahead for it to stay afloat and make sure its own sand is there for a while longer.

Miami afloat: facing climate reality in the USA

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