Longtime Coconut Grove educator and activist dubbed ‘Jane Goodall of climate change’

Caroline Lewis, founder of the CLEO Institute, at the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove, where she met with members to discuss climate change and rising seas.
Caroline Lewis, founder of the CLEO Institute, at the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove, where she met with members to discuss climate change and rising seas. For the Miami Herald

“The Jane Goodall of climate change,” is how Sylvia Heller, chair of the conservation committee at the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove, describes Caroline Lewis.

Lewis, a longtime educator, is founder of the nonprofit CLEO Institute, which educates students and adults about climate change and rising sea levels and trains them in leadership skills to carry the message forward.

Through CLEO, which stands for Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities, Lewis breaks down scientific jargon and data into understandable terms.

“The scary thing is that in Miami, which is called ‘ground zero’ for climate change, is that so many people have no awareness or understanding of the urgency of what’s really happening,” said Heller, “and Caroline presents it in such a way that anyone could understand it.”

No wonder. Lewis has spent much of her professional career as an educator, including teaching biology for 14 years at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, where she was head of the upper school for three years.

“I really am passionate about two things,” said Lewis, who was born and raised in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, “the teaching profession and trying to make it noble again — and climate change and trying to make sure that the human footprint is understood and that we address it.”

She uses fun exercises, such as asking audience members to come up with slogans to engage people in conversations about climate issues.

“Miami, see it like a fish,” and “Visit the islands of Coconut Grove,” were among phrases people came up with at a recent “Climate Change 101” talk at the Woman’s Club.

Lewis founded CLEO in 2010 and began hosting workshops the following year. Under the organization, she created a youth task force and teachers network. CLEO also holds climate leadership trainings, led by scientists and climate experts to help participants host or co-host their own assemblies.

Much of what she has built through CLEO stemmed from her work as a teacher and principal and as the director of education at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where she launched the Fairchild Challenge, an environmental educational program that engaged students across the county and eventually across the world.

She worked at Fairchild for eight years until 2010, when she was terminated after a controversy erupted over remarks she made at a staff meeting about ethnic diversity.

“I was let go early in 2010 when I refused the terms of a reassigned position,” Lewis said. “The timing was right for both Fairchild and for me as they no longer needed my leadership and I needed a new challenge. The climate scientists sure gave me one and spurred me to create The CLEO Institute.

“This is the most important work I’ve ever undertaken. CLEO allows me to use my collaborative approach, education insights and creativity to help masses of citizens of all ages better understand and embrace the need for climate action.”

After Fairchild, Lewis, who is married to John Lewis, a longtime popular math teacher at Ransom, founded CLEO. In 2013, the White House honored her work, citing her as a “climate resilience champion of change.”

Holden Payne, 17, a senior at Coral Gables Senior High, heard about the CLEO Institute last year at the People’s Climate March. He attended the “Climate 101” workshop in the Grove and asked Lewis to speak at his school. “The way she spoke was super passionate,” he said. “I think that could definitely sway a lot of people in our school.”

For Lewis, the two biggest issues facing South Florida are its extreme heat and sea-level rise.

“The whole heat problem has multiple tentacles of threat multipliers,” she said. “The fact that we’re warming so much also means the mosquito breeding areas are enlarging, and they’re taking their diseases with them.”

Out of all the states, Florida is most at risk of flooding from sea-level rise, with scientists predicting that the ocean could rise three to four feet by 2100, thanks to melting polar ice, aided by carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels, according to Stefan Rahmstorf, a German oceanographer, climatologist and professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University.

As for upcoming projects, she says she would like for CLEO to partner with other nonprofits to put cooling units, like air conditioners, in every home in Miami’s vulnerable communities, like Little Haiti and Liberty City.

“Putting in a wall unit, maybe even a solar-powered one, could be the difference between life or death for some of these families as our summers get longer and hotter,” she said.

She recently co-coordinated a session in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood to find out what climate-related issues residents want to be addressed so she could take their agenda items to city hall. Since Little Haiti sits on some of the highest land in the county, she says it’s less susceptible to flooding but also makes it more attractive to developers and gentrification.

“I was determined to get into these under-resourced communities,” she said, “because I think socioeconomic vulnerability is one of the hugest problems in our region. In Miami, if a big storm hits, those of us with resources will be leaving and those without resources will be stuck.”

“The people want protection from flooding if they’re low-lying,” she said, “protection from gentrification if they’re on high ground, emergency preparedness and a more systematic way of getting climate education out into the public.”

James “Jim” Murley, the chief resilience officer for climate change for Miami-Dade County, has been attending some of the CLEO forums in the year since his position was created.

He said the county is planning for the long-term impact of sea-level rise with upgrades to the water and sewer system. Additionally, treatment plants that can withstand up to 6 feet of sea-level rise and Category 5 storm surges are currently being designed.

“What’s made CLEO so helpful to us,” he said, “is that they can pull together groups in many of the communities that might not necessarily have the same resources. They arrange the meetings, and myself and people from other departments can go and talk to the citizens directly in their home communities.”

Sea-level rise could threaten the county’s water supply if saltwater intrudes into freshwater, which would compromise the freshwater aquifer. Although the supply should be safe for 40 years, Murley said, “these are not issues that are going to go away.”

Scientist Brian Haus, who’s a professor in the department of ocean sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, does research on sea-level rise and storm-surge effects on coastal communities. He is on CLEO’s board and has given talks at CLEO’s leadership training presentations.

“I became aware of the work that CLEO was doing to make the public more aware of the threats of climate change in South Florida,” he said of why he wanted to become involved with the organization. “I think CLEO’s impact can be seen in the realization that [sea-level rise is] a problem that we need to address in South Florida.”

A study from UM shows that in the past decade, flooding in Miami Beach increased 400 percent from high tides, according to University of Miami geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski.

“We are doomed if we do not act immediately,” said Lewis, “and immediate action needs to include complete support for the Paris Agreement, more pressure worldwide decreasing fossil fuels, and understanding that we must keep it in the ground. We have to be outrageous sometimes to shock people into the reality that these are the years of living dangerously, right now. What side of the fight are your descendants or future generations going to look back and figure out that you were on?’”

“Your carbon footprint matters,” said Lewis, “and living your life with as small a footprint as possible is a goal everyone should take on. Also, understanding the power of the purse and the power of the vote: We have to spend our dollars wisely, and we have to not support businesses and industries that are putting the planet in harm’s way. Being an informed voter is a huge deal.”