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After Campaign By Young Activists, Miami Declares 'Climate Emergency.' It's Symbolic, For Now.

Members of the youth climate action organization Zero Hour that put on youth climate marches in 2018 set up a protest in front of the City of Miami City Hall on July 12, 2019. PPORTAL@HERALD.COM

Miami is officially in a state of emergency over climate change, delighting local youth activists that have been pushing the city to declare a “climate emergency” for months.

The declaration led one youth, Nicholas Vazquez of the Miami chapter of climate action group Extinction Rebellion, to end a three-day hunger strike. Another, 20-year-old Danilo de la Torre, had been protesting outside Miami City Hall every Friday for 26 weeks with the Miami chapter of climate group Fridays for Future in hopes of seeing the city declare a climate emergency.

“I feel like the government could be doing so much,” he said. He watched the way the state and local governments mobilized for Hurricane Dorian this summer and thought “why not do that for the climate crisis?”

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“I feel empowered now,” he said after he posed for a celebratory photo outside City Hall with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who submitted the resolution.

The activists said they plan to follow up on the resolution — the one in Miami and the one recently passed in Miami Beach — by working with city leaders and staff to push more climate action, like city public service announcements, town halls and a commitment to carbon neutrality.

“We want to have a say in what is done about it,” said John Paul Mejia, a 17-year-old member of climate group CLEO, who lobbied the mayor in person, via letters and even in the comments of his Instagram posts.

More than 30 concerned residents spoke in favor of the resolution, including de la Torre, who questioned the city’s strategy of building protections without addressing the root cause of climate change, carbon dioxide emissions.

“Miami is one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change, And yet we are one of the slowest to respond, except in adaptation of course,” he said. “Adaptation without mitigation is meaningless and only serves to kick the can down the road.”

After the resolution passed, Suarez met with the youth activists and told them “this is the start of a movement,” inviting some to visit his office in the coming weeks and share their ideas for climate policies.

For Suarez, the embrace of the climate emergency resolution is an about-face from May, where he told Miami Herald news partner CBS4, “we are not necessarily going to declare a climate emergency but we are acting as if it’s an emergency... so that we never ever have to retreat.”

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At the dais, commissioners questioned the value of passing what amounted to a symbolic political resolution with no action or plan attached to it. Despite the pushback, the measure passed unanimously.

“At the end of the day it’s wonderful to pass a resolution, but you have to have substantial action behind it,” Suarez said.

That substantial action includes committing to carbon neutrality by 2040 through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which Suarez said he plans to do in January, and debuting a climate action plan from the city by April. This would be in addition to the city’s stormwater master plan, which will guide the way the city plumbs and pipes itself dry, and the Resilient 305 plan the city, Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach worked together on to set policy around climate change action.

And, of course, spending the rest of the money set aside in the city’s Miami Forever bond for climate action. But that won’t go very far.

“Two hundred million isn’t going to be enough. It’s not going to be nearly enough. The risk profile is in the billions,” he said.

When that dries up, the mayor said he intends to lean on the state and federal government. As political winds shift and make climate change a safer topic for conservatives, Suarez said he believes more money for climate change adaptation is on the horizon.

On a recent call with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Suarez said the governor agreed Miami needed more money to adapt to the impacts of sea level rise.

“He was very supportive,” Suarez said.

Another threat looming on the horizon: the potential rapid increase in flood insurance premiums when the National Flood Insurance Program raises its rates to stop subsidizing coastal communities. Suarez acknowledged it as “a very real problem for us,” and said he intends to collaborate more with insurance companies in the future.

One such measure the city recently took to help slow rising insurance rates was to allow new construction buildings to elect to build higher than the mandatory minimum by one to five feet. Other flood-prone communities have made the policy mandatory. Nashville requires four feet. New York and New Jersey require two feet.

“We thought about making it mandatory, but we didn’t. We might in the future,” Suarez said.

In a city where political decisions are often powered by the whims of the real estate and development industries, which have much to lose from a pool of clients worried about building in a sunken city, these industries have been slow to join the climate conversation. Yet the mayor, a real estate lawyer, said he hasn’t faced any pressure from developers to water down the city’s climate action so far.

If anything, he said, they were the ones to bring it to his attention first.

‘The development community is the one most in jeopardy,” he said. “And the initial canary in the coal mine was that industry.”

After the resolution passed, activists cheered outside City Hall and set their sights on the next targets.

“What city’s next?” someone asked.

“Coral Gables!” ‘The world!” “The county!” the group shouted.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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