Should Miami’s sea level rise committee address climate change, too?

Argument between activist and committee member leads to calls for resignation

An argument between Reinaldo Borges, an architect and volunteer member of the city’s sea level rise committee, and climate activist Maggie Fernandez about whether the board should address climate change prompted Mayor Francis Suarez to suggest the co
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An argument between Reinaldo Borges, an architect and volunteer member of the city’s sea level rise committee, and climate activist Maggie Fernandez about whether the board should address climate change prompted Mayor Francis Suarez to suggest the co

Miami has been ahead of the curve with its sea level rise committee, created in 2015 to address the symptom of climate change that will cause the most damage to the shoreline city. But three years later, activists question why the committee can’t broaden its scope to talk about the bigger picture — climate change.

And the mayor agrees.

The conversation came to a head last week, when conversation between a local climate activist and a board member turned ugly and led to calls from the mayor for resignations.

Maggie Fernandez, with the Miami Climate Alliance and Sustainable Miami, gave a scheduled presentation about her new political campaign to make oil and gas companies pay for the pricey pumps and elevated roads needed to keep cities dry. The first step, she said, is discovering exactly how much it will cost for communities to adapt to the waterlogged future, an idea Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami Chief Resiliency Officer Jane Gilbert, who was at the meeting, expressed interest in learning more about.

Committee chair Wayne Pathman, an environmental lawyer, suggested Gilbert and Fernandez meet separately to discuss the issue. He didn’t want to pass a resolution on to the city without more information. And besides, he said, he saw this issue as outside the boundaries of the committee’s purpose.

“We are the sea level rise committee, not the climate committee,” he said. “I, as the chair, don’t want to go outside the four corners, but I want to explore this idea and how we can do certain things, but if we decide we want to take up all climate initiatives in the city, I don’t think that’s what the administration wants.”

Another board member, Albert Gomez, fired back against the “decoupling climate change as a cause of sea level rise.” He said it was a bad look for the city-appointed board to be “dancing around the issue.”

“Yeah, we’re the sea level rise committee, but we’re the closest thing to a climate committee. We don’t have a climate committee even though the climate is changing and because of those systemic changes we have sea level rise here,” he said.

Fernandez picked up the argument in another round of public comment, criticizing the board for its narrow scope, few policy achievements and lack of gender or ethnic diversity on the nine-member volunteer committee. That set off Reinaldo Borges, an architect and board member, who said she was “out of order,” misguided and wasting her time.

“You don’t want to listen to me?” he said. “If you don’t want to listen, just go home and forget about showing up here again. This is not a climate change meeting” — at this point the audience and other members of the committee interrupted, saying, “No, no, no.”

Borges said he didn’t “want to spend an ounce of my energy on this planet right now fighting the polluters, OK? Because I think we all are that.”

He went on to suggest Fernandez focus her energy on solutions, not on critiquing the volunteer committee.

“That’s where I’d spend my energy. Not in coming here making us feel like we’re wasting our time here and we’re a bunch of incompetent individuals and criticizing the mix and the equity balance of this committee. I think you’re wasting your time; I don’t appreciate it; and I certainly don’t want to hear about that again from you,” he said before getting up and leaving the room.

Other members on the board quickly apologized to Fernandez and told her that her voice was always welcome and encouraged, but in the week since the outburst her argument has picked up steam. Even Mayor Suarez now agrees that the board should broaden its scope.

In 2015, the committee was intended to address the phenomenon most discussed at the time. Since then, Suarez said, “the conversation has evolved and expanded. I think the name should adapt to that change.”

On Twitter, Suarez floated the idea of changing the title to a “Resiliency Committee” to better align with the city’s work with 100 Resilient Cities, an organization working to help cities develop a plan for resiliency to storms, climate change and other issues, and the Miami Forever Bond, nearly $200 million of which will go to flood mitigation in the face of sea level rise. That change would require legislation Suarez said he hoped to introduce soon.

A day later, he called for Borges’ resignation, a committee member he installed as a commissioner. Suarez said he plans to replace the mayor’s appointee, Miami-Dade County Chief Resiliency Officer James Murley, on the committee. Suarez also suggested that the two other members with expired terms (Pete Gomez and Pathman) should be replaced at next week’s commission meeting.

Fernandez said she sees a broader scope and fresh blood as a chance for the committee to make real change.

“I don’t want to have to fight if it isn’t necessary,” she said. “Let’s work collaboratively and find solutions.”