Miami, Drowning and Scorching, Awaits Democrats for Debate
MIAMI — New water pumps and tidal valves worth millions of dollars are needed to keep the streets from flooding even on sunny days. Septic tanks compromised by rising groundwater leak unfiltered waste that threatens the water supply. Developers are often buying out residents of established communities, hoping to acquire buildable property on higher ground.
Climate change became a daily reality long ago in Miami, where both rich and poor have been forced to grapple with the compounding effects of warmer temperatures and higher sea levels. The evidence is everywhere of a city under siege by the rising sea.
“Climate change is really the issue that sits on all other issues,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, an environmental research and activist group. “It affects security. It affects drinking water. It affects tourism. It affects public health. Property values. It’s a part of the discussion of almost any topic that might come up.”
So imminent is the prospect of a warming climate in Florida that the state’s new Republican leadership has acknowledged it and taken some action, even as President Trump and his administration have refused to join international climate treaties and attacked climate science.
CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
No question is of more critical importance to Florida’s future, or to the Democrats’ chance to take the state in next year’s presidential election. It is so important that some activists had hoped that climate change would be the sole focus when 20 Democrats take the debate stage for the first time in this campaign on Wednesday and Thursday in downtown Miami.
Climate change is now among the top three 2020 election issues cited by Florida Democrats, according to a new statewide survey. Some 71 percent of Florida voters, including 85 percent of Democrats, support government action to address climate change, according to the survey by Climate Nexus in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, which polled 1,558 registered Florida voters online this month.
“I don’t think the base is going to be satisfied with candidates simply saying, ‘I think climate change is happening; I think it’s because of humans; I’m going to get us back into the Paris agreement,’” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program. “That is like the easiest part to get under in the primary lambada. Now people increasingly want to know, ‘What is your actual plan?’”
Not many people have yet connected climate change to their jobs and health care, Dr. Leiserowitz said, but the urgency of the climate issue is beginning to take hold in Florida. That is especially true in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, where 49 percent of respondents, compared with 30 percent elsewhere in the state, said they had made physical changes to their homes in the past year to protect against sea-level rise, flooding or extreme weather.
The latest daily heat record in Miami was broken on Sunday, only the third day of summer, when the temperature reached 95 degrees. The high on Monday, 98 degrees, tied the existing record.
“There’s no spring anymore — it’s straight summer and winter,” lamented Michael Clarkson, a retired landscaper.
After Hurricane Irma drenched Miami in September 2017, Mr. Clarkson, 71, helped found Konscious Kontractors, a collective that provides free cleanup and repairs to needy residents. Through the company, Mr. Clarkson said, he has seen how longtime locals have been pushed out of their homes by developers looking to snap up land in Little Haiti. Several of Miami’s predominantly black neighborhoods are not prone to flooding because they were built on a ridge.
“I’ve gotten several phone calls asking me, are we selling our building,” said Trenise Bryant, the chairwoman of the board of the Miami Workers Center, a social justice organization in the Liberty City neighborhood, which is also on higher ground. “I say, ‘I fight against people like you, bad developers that go into communities and push people out.’”
“Our basic thing is educating people,” Mr. Clarkson said. “Developers and city officials have neglected Little Haiti over these years, and now it has become this hot spot, and people don’t know that it’s because of climate change. The name now is ‘climate change gentrification.’ We call it ‘climate change invasion.’”
On Thursday, local activists plan to stage a rally near the Democrats’ debate venue to demand climate action. (In 2012, a drainage leak during a flash flood inundated the venue, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, during a showing of the musical “The Lion King.”)
A report published last week by Resilient Analytics and the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental advocacy group, estimated that Florida could have to build $76 billion worth of sea walls by 2040.
Only one of the candidates, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, has made climate change the focus of his campaign, though the issue has so far drawn more interest than his candidacy. Half a dozen other candidates have released climate change plans, trying to balance sounding the alarm with expressing optimism about possible solutions.
[Read about the climate plans from Democratic candidates.]
Much has changed in messaging on the issue in a matter of a few years, said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant in Miami who ran a climate change-centric primary campaign for governor in 2018 for former Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach.
“Nobody has to sit in a kayak in the middle of Alton Road to say, ‘This is the issue that I’m talking about,’” as Mr. Levine did when he was first elected mayor in 2013, Mr. Ulvert said.
Now, candidates must focus on outlining what people, businesses and governments can do, and how their administration might create incentives to promote resiliency. Mr. Ulvert said that word — resiliency — is important for candidates looking to expand their appeal beyond liberal voters to moderates, because it eases less-engaged voters into a conversation about the environment even when that is not their top concern.
“You’re coming into Florida, into Miami-Dade, where there are persuadable voters,” he said. “The issue of resiliency is an opportunity of how you can transcend your message beyond partisan politics. Talk about it in a way where you’re bringing people to the table.”
Thinking past the primary might be impossible for the Democratic contenders now. But the eventual nominee will have to run in Florida, an important presidential battleground state, at a time when more Republicans are campaigning on the environment.
The new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has appointed a University of Florida biologist as the state’s first chief science officer and is hiring a chief resilience officer, whose job description includes preparing Florida “for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise.”
Mr. DeSantis campaigned not on fighting climate change but on improving water quality, including addressing pollution that contributed to toxic algae blooms. That showed voters like Jim Cass, a commercial fisherman in Key West, that Mr. DeSantis understood how human activity can harm the economy.
“That’s encouraging to me, though it’s 20 years overdue,” said Mr. Cass, 75, a Republican who voted for Mr. Trump but said he has been disappointed by his antics and by the Republican Party’s inaction in Congress.
Mr. Cass attributes changes in fish behavior directly to global warming. Over the last few years, yellowtail snapper have been spawning earlier because the water warms sooner, and king fish have stayed closer to Naples, Fla., because the waters there have gotten warm enough that they do not need to migrate farther south.
“When I first came down here in 1966, from Oct. 15 on, you wore a sweatshirt and a jacket,” he said. “For the last two years, I have worn a sweatshirt in Key West one time. One day in two years.”
Acknowledging the adverse effects of climate change that Floridians are dealing with and tying possible solutions to new jobs should be how Democrats appeal to persuadable voters like Mr. Cass, said Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Tampa.
“It’s appealing to their patriotism right now,” she said. “We can build the electric vehicles right here in America. In Florida, we can create thousands of good-paying jobs in the clean-energy sector.”
In 2017, Miamians voted for a new tax to pay for some $200 million in climate change projects. But some residents of low-lying coastal areas that were once among the most sought-after addresses may not stick around and wait until all that work is complete.
Penny Tannenbaum, 65, a retiree in Coconut Grove, rebuilt the inside of her 1926 home after the storm surge from Hurricane Irma in 2017 destroyed her wood floors, drywall and furniture. Hurricanes occurred before climate change, Ms. Tannenbaum knows. But higher sea levels mean higher storm surge — and warmer temperatures, she fears, mean more frequent bad storms.
[Read about the impact of climate change on hurricanes.]
“I don’t think it’s just a problem that you can say, ‘The people who live very close to the water, you’re just out of luck,’” said Ms. Tannenbaum, a Democrat. “It’s a country problem. We have to help pay where there’s tornadoes and there’s fires. There’s a mix of Democrats and Republicans on my street, and we all suffered the same amount.”
Marko F. Cerenko, a lawyer registered without political party affiliation, moved his family out of Coconut Grove after Irma flooded their house and street, Battersea Road. They ended up selling the property for land value and moving to a rental house on higher ground in Coral Gables. They still live there today but are searching for a place to buy.
Each time, Mr. Cerenko, 40, asks about the home’s elevation.
“We love Miami, and we plan on staying in Miami,” he said. “But I can tell you that one of our requirements is not to be anywhere close to the water.”