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Miami offers a model for putting aside partisanship to confront climate change

A man rides his bike down a flooded palm-tree lined street, through water that swallows up half of his tires.
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
A man rides his bike down a flooded palm-tree lined street, through water that swallows up half of his tires.
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Miami is one of the cities most threatened by climate change in the US. Rising seas, which already bubble up through gutters during high tides, threaten to displace as many as 800,000 Miami-Dade county residents by the end of the century absent urgent action. Because of that, its voters generally reward progressive political candidates who back measures to cut carbon emissions and fund a federal response to sea level rise.

But in the Nov. 3 national elections, the Miami-Dade county electorate swung hard to the right.

The majority-Democrat county, which favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016’s presidential race, gave president-elect Joe Biden just an eight point margin, dooming the Democrat’s chances to win Florida. The rightward-shifting electorate also unseated two Democrat congressional incumbents, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, in favor of their Republican challengers.

What to make of a city, beset on all sides by unruly water, already experiencing persistent flooding, and bracing through record-shattering hurricane seasons, which lurches in the direction of a party that has trouble acknowledging the existence of climate change?

If you look past the partisan rancor of national politics—marked by decades of rising polarization and disinformation campaigns that specifically targeted Spanish speakers in South Florida—the story starts to change. Miami’s local election results, and the approach that its local politicians have taken to climate change, offer a blueprint for how political leaders can move forward on climate even in places where partisan leanings might appear to work against climate action.

The key to building broad public support for climate projects has been to frame them as no-brainer economic investments.

It’s worth noting that at the local level, the Democratic party is ascendant in Miami-Dade county, even as it took heavy losses in state and national races. Miami has a strong county government, which overlaps and splits responsibilities with a set of smaller city governments (e.g. the city of Miami, the city of Miami Beach, the city of Hialeah). This year, the county elected Daniella Levine Cava its first Democrat mayor since 2000.

Levine Cava’s victory may not seem too surprising in a county where just under 60% of registered voters are Democrats. But Miami’s Cuban-American political machine has traditionally been dominated by Republicans in non-partisan local races driven more by ethnic loyalty than party affiliation. That has begun to change in the last few election cycles, as the Democratic party is starting to put funding, consultants, and organizational resources behind local candidates running in officially non-partisan city and county races.

Although local politics are becoming more polarized, city and county officials have demonstrated how to neutralize the partisan flash points around climate change to focus on pragmatic solutions. It starts with accepting the reality of a problem that has already become blatantly obvious to residents. Streets flood on sunny days. After hurricanes, residents canoe, jet ski, and water ski through their neighborhoods.

“We’re fortunate in Miami, being on the front line of the issue, that it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on from a political perspective,” said Ken Russell, a Miami city commissioner who represents a waterfront district. “You’ve got cover from residents to prioritize these issues, and you’ll be hearing about it if you don’t do it.”

Russell is a Democrat in a non-partisan city commission seat. The city’s mayor, Francis Suarez, is a Republican who has made climate change one of his signature issues. Both pushed voters to approve a local bond initiative in 2017 that included $192 million to respond to sea level rise. They’re paving the way to ask voters for hundreds of millions more to fund climate projects in the near future.

Earlier this year, Suarez told Quartz that the key to building broad public support for climate projects has been to frame them as no-brainer economic investments. “I think the only way you can successfully do that is if you can correlate your expenditures to, let’s say, reductions in [flood insurance] premiums,” he said. He gave a fictitious example of a bond issue that would wind up costing voters $15 per month but lower their flood risk and cut premiums by $50 per month. “It’s a clear case—you’re going to make a three times return on your investment.”

At end of day, we can all stand in the water up to our ankles on a sunny day and recognize that something is wrong here that needs to be fixed.

Levine Cava, the newly elected Democrat county mayor, has adopted a similar pitch. In a post-election interview with the Miami Herald, she framed her climate change response plans as “infrastructure projects that will create good jobs.”

But so far, that approach has flopped at the national level. Congressional Republicans have turned the leftwing proposal for a “Green New Deal” into a cudgel they’ve consistently used to whack Democrats for fiscal irresponsibility.

The difference in effectiveness may have to do with the immediacy of the problem for voters. Nationally, relatively few Americans have had to deal directly with the obvious effects of climate change, and they’re mostly living on the coasts, where politics are already pretty progressive: California sees extreme wildfires, New York gets worsening inland hurricanes.

Similarly, Russell and Suarez insist that their pragmatic dollars-and-cents strategy is making inroads at the state level, just as Floridians grapple with a proliferation of toxic algae blooms, which choke beaches, wildlife, and tourism revenues and are exacerbated by climate change. The Republican state legislature bankrolled the creation of Miami’s “Stormwater Master Plan,” a blueprint for facing rising seas and strengthening storms. The Republican governor gave state bureaucrats permission to use the words “climate change”—a term his predecessor banned. Even the state’s Republican senators suddenly believe in climate science (sort of).

That glacial pace of change, of course, won’t be enough to shift the national conversation. And Miami can’t afford to wait for national action until constituents from every congressional district are jet skiing in the streets. Cities can fund local adaptation projects, but only the federal government can meaningfully start to wean the economy off of the fossil fuels that are driving the crisis.

“In so many different areas we find ourselves going at it alone,” Suarez said. “It’s imperative that we work together with [state and federal] governments because their budgets are so much bigger than ours [and] it’s a problem that requires way more resources than we have available right now.”

Other cities that find themselves in a similar position can learn from Miami’s example. If the local area is starting to see the concrete impacts of climate change, elected officials can focus on those challenges right away as apolitical public works projects. Whether the threat is imminent or not, politicians can build their climate messaging around economic investments that that voters will see a return on in the long run. While local governments can’t solve climate change alone, local projects can act as an important bridge to stave off the worst consequences until national governments get their act together.

Until then, Miami is doing what it can, regardless of year-to-year political trends and in the absence of a robust national plan. “At end of day, we can all stand in the water up to our ankles on a sunny day and recognize that something is wrong here that needs to be fixed,” said Russell. “We can argue about what caused it, we can argue about what’s going to happen 50 years from now, but I’m looking down right now and it didn’t rain today and I’m standing in water, so let’s get to work.”

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