Miami taxpayers need full account of how much climate change is costing them

After a heavy rain in August, pedestrians wade across flooded streets in Miami’s Brickell area of Miami.
After a heavy rain in August, pedestrians wade across flooded streets in Miami’s Brickell area of Miami. cjuste@miamiherald.com

I am the “climate-change activist” referenced in the April 13 editorial, “Heed some new ways to combat rising seas in Miami and Miami Beach.” As a Miami resident and business owner, I am concerned about climate change. How we can slow down its effects? How to we can protect ourselves from sea level rise?

That’s why I recently asked the city of Miami’s Sea Level Rise Committee to support providing taxpayers with a full account of the costs associated with planning for and adapting to climate change.

With the encouragement of city staff, I was invited to present on a campaign recently launched by the Miami Climate Alliance and the Center for Climate Integrity — “Pay Up Climate Polluters.” As its name suggests, we believe climate polluters most responsible for sea-level rise and other affects of manmade climate change should pay their fair share of adaptation and mitigation costs.

Still, I was not there to talk about recovering costs, but simply accounting for them.

Given the focus of the Sea Level Rise Committee, it seemed the most logical place to raise the question. In 2015m Miami created a Sea Level Rise Committee to help the community better understand and prepare for the rising seas and chronic flooding that South Florida is starting to see — often on sunny days — as a result of man-made climate change.

The committee reviews any information pertaining to sea-level rise, holding public hearings and issuing a written report to the City Commission in accordance with the authorizing legislation that I helped draft.

However, a committee member publicly berated me for my public comments and told me never to come back. While that was disappointing, what concerns me more is that taxpayers still remain in the dark as to just how much man-made climate change has and will cost them as sea levels continue to rise.

We do know a few costs, though. The recent general obligation bond approved by Miami voters includes $192 million to combat rising sea levels, but that’s nowhere near the full picture. Former Mayor Tomás Regalado indicated that the city is facing at least a billion dollars in adaptation costs, but when the tab for sea walls, raising roads, installing pumps, rebuilding storm water drainage systems and other defenses is tallied, it will certainly far exceed this estimate. To give taxpayers the full picture of these costs, Miami should pass an ordinance to put a number to the cost of climate change.

As a city taxpayer, as well as a champion for climate action in local government, I was glad to start the conversation about climate liability and to seek support for my request that the city begin to itemize the costs of adapting to climate. The events that unfolded at the meeting brought many important issues to head — each carries a great deal of weight, including lack of diversity on city boards and of an understanding of what it means to serve on those boards.

I am grateful that Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has committed to addressing the vital issues that support the principles of democracy and expand public participation in government so that all residents have a voice. His commitment is to expand the focus of the Sea Level Rise Committee to climate impacts more broadly, so we can begin to calculate costs is also laudable.

In the midst of all that, what we cannot gloss over is the urgent need to take action on climate change and impacts like sea-level rise. Policy-makers must face the fact that we have an extraordinary challenge before us. We will have to both adapt to the climate impacts already in the pipeline and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions so we do not make the problem worse.

To that end, we must consider who will pay for what is to come and be assured that the most vulnerable among us aren’t footing the bill while the polluters get off the hook. We live in one of the most wonderful places in the world and with that privilege comes an obligation to protect it.

Maggie Fernandez is a founder and steering committee chair of the Miami Climate Alliance.