Far from Paris, South Florida climate talks begin in Key West

A tourist navigates a flooded Miami Beach street in 2005.
A tourist navigates a flooded Miami Beach street in 2005. Sandy Ruiz

With President Barack Obama giving a nod to Miami, even a slightly exaggerated one, before world leaders in Paris, South Florida officials kicked off their own climate summit Tuesday in one of the region’s most vulnerable cities: Key West.

As part of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, state, county and city leaders, federal officials, scientists and environmentalists will hear the latest projections on climate-related ills over the next three days and talk about tackling sea rise expected to climb by at least six inches by 2030. The four counties that comprise the compact — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe — also plan to sign an updated version of the 6-year-old agreement.

“It’s really an expression of collaboration,” said Jim Murley, who was named Miami-Dade County’s chief resiliency officer in October after environmentalists repeatedly complained that the county was dragging its feet.

The summit comes amid a flurry of climate-related events, including art installations, a documentary screening and local panels, pegged to the Paris talks where world leaders hope to hammer out a deal limiting carbon emissions that scientists say are fueling climate change. In a press conference Tuesday morning, Obama called the limits an “economical and security imperative.”

Obama also used Miami as a key example of risks linked to climate change, repeating a claim made by former Vice President Al Gore last week during an interview on National Public Radio.

You go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day and fish are swimming through the middle of the streets, you know, that — there's a cost to that.

President Barack Obama

“As the science around climate change is more accepted, as people start realizing that even today you can put a price on the damage that climate change is doing — you know, you go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day and fish are swimming through the middle of the streets, you know, that — there's a cost to that,” Obama said.

Gore, said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, spotted the fish on Indian Creek Drive, a state road that routinely floods during seasonal tides. In October, Gore was in South Florida following a conference he led in downtown Miami that drew more than 1,200 activists.

“It’s a fact of nature when you have ocean water and sea water [on the road]...clearly you’re going to get sea life on the street,” Levine said.

But fish swimming on the streets is far from widespread. While Miami Beach has certainly suffered from sunny-day floods during high tides, most reports about fish swimming in the street have come from further north in Broward County. WSVN-FOX 7 reported in September that a mullet was spotted swimming in Fort Lauderdale. A member of the Miami Herald and WLRN radio's Public Insight Network reported in October that she saw fish in the streets of Hollywood during a king tide.

6 to 10The number of inches in sea rise expected by 2030

The claim, even if inaccurate, should not take away from the need for action in South Florida, Murley said, where seasonal flooding has become routine.

“One-liners get caught and then they get repeated,” he said.

What often gets lost amid dire projections, he said, is the work already being done that can fly under the radar — planning needed to justify mitigation steps, hurricane protection or long-term water and sewer projects — because it can seem mundane when compared to dramatic climate effects. At last year’s summit in Miami Beach, members agreed that regional universities should work together to better pool their resources. The work led to important new sea rise projections released in October that now incorporate a three-inch sea rise documented since 1992.

“While, yes, some of our vulnerabilities are highlighted, the flip side of that is we are probably one of the regions most recognized for the objective of working together,” he said. “We want to keep that momentum going.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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