Climate change isn’t some theoretical problem. It’s already affecting Miami.
That was the message sounded by U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell on Wednesday night, when she gathered some climate experts to discuss findings from the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report.
Mucarsel-Powell was joined by Caroline Lewis, the founder of the CLEO Institute, as well as local journalist Mario Ariza and Dr. Frances Colon, an American science diplomat and environmental policy expert.
The effects of climate change — in the form of flooding, above average storm strength and frequency and continued degradation of the environment — are already being drastically felt in Miami-Dade and Monroe County, and Mucarsel-Powell said that they are already past the point of no return in parts of the Florida Keys.
“As we see sea level rising, our water infrastructure, our septic tanks, are leaking fecal content into our water,” she said. “That’s why Miami Beach and Key Biscayne had to close beaches. This is completely failed leadership by the county mayor here in Miami-Dade of not making the investments to replace those septic tanks into sewage.”
The infrastructure problems are everywhere.
Mucarsel-Powell, who represents Monroe County and parts of southern Miami-Dade, said that studies suggest that just to keep a three-mile stretch of road at Sugarloaf Key dry in the year 2045 will require the roadway to be elevated 2.2 feet at a cost of $128 million. And the costs will only get worse with time.
The story of administrative neglect is also being felt in the water quality at Lake Okeechobee.
“The state has done absolutely noting to protect the quality of water that is coming into Lake Okeechobee,” Mucarsel-Powell said on Wednesday’s call. “It has such a high toxicity rate that if we just focused on cleaning Lake Okeechobee, it would take more than 100 years. I met with scientists at the University of Miami who said it would take hundreds of years if not one more toxin was going to be put into place at that lake.”
Lewis said she formed the CLEO Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to climate crisis education and advocacy, in order to make sure the public was informed about one of the world’s most important issues.
The organization has a base in Miami but has expanded to Orlando and Tallahassee, and Lewis said the next generation will have to step up and be stewards of the environment they hope to inherit.
“It’s kind of fun to get young people engaged in CLEO,” she said. “We have this movement called Gen CLEO, Generation of Climate Leaders. As soon as they hear one elected official say something that is anti-climate action or anti-progress, they are on it and they are unapologetic in demanding a living future for themselves.”
Lewis, like Mucarsel-Powell and Colon, urged civic engagement as an antidote to apathy about climate change.
Colon served for five years as the deputy science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, and she said she has moved away from the political realm to try to make a difference locally.
“I came down here to South Florida because I really believed that the leverage and push that we needed for national climate action needed to come from the local level,” she said. “Congresswoman Mucarsel-Powell can’t do her job unless we serve as her support, as her community, as her voice, as her actions on the ground.
“We are the pressure because we are the ones living out the realities of these impacts every day.”
Colon said that she has spent her career infusing decision-making with science, and being in Miami has led her to an inescapable conclusion. The area is already a textbook case of climate impact, and she said that people in the LatinX community are feeling the effects disproportionately.
“What you saw happen with COVID is exactly how we are set up to respond to climate crisis right now,” she said. “We’re not ready. The front line communities, the LatinX community is going to get the full impact. And they are not being treated with the respect and with the care to prepare them in advance of what’s coming.
“If we wanted to know what’s in store for us, we’re living it right now.”
Lewis had come to much the same conclusion at a different point in Wednesday’s call.
“Those who are least responsible for the damage we are facing,” she said, “Are the ones feeling the most pain.”
Mucarsel-Powell said that voters will be able to make a difference by studying the climate policies of the candidates in the upcoming election and by refusing to let the future be held hostage.
“For far too long, this conversation about protecting our environment was made to sound as if a clean, healthy environment would be nice to have, not something we need,” she said. “Unfortunately, in large part because of lack of leadership at the federal level — and also at the state and local level — we are behind.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen the President and Senate Republicans put every possible roadblock to progress and in many instances reverse a lot of the progress we had already made.”