Florida’s climate activists are gearing up for a fight

"If someone told you, there's a 95 to 100 percent chance your house was on fire, would you do something about it?"

Miami, Florida. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Miami, Florida. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

MIAMI, FLORIDA — On the eve of Florida’s primary elections while candidates were busy engaging in final pleas to voters, a different kind of political event played out just south of downtown Miami, as climate advocates gathered to stress the importance of local-level action.

“My wife says I’m no fun at parties,” said Ben Kirtman dryly, to giggles from the audience. As those in attendance at Monday night’s town hall at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens quieted, the program director of the University of Miami’s Climate and Environmental Hazards Program asked: “If someone told you, there’s a 95 to 100 percent chance your house was on fire, would you do something about it?” 

Emphasizing that virtually all scientists agree that global warming is occurring and that actual scientific debate often hinges on some 5 percent of the community disagreeing about the role of humans in the process, Kirtman discussed the unique implications for Miami — from sea level rise to heat stress. 

City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell (D) also spoke at length about the role lawmakers can play in shaping climate policy, even amid a dearth of support on both the state and federal level.


“There is political will at the local level,” Russell said, noting that Miami’s unique vulnerability to climate change has made the topic a bipartisan one in the city. “There is political cover for that special unicorn that we call a Republican environmentalist here in Miami.”

Other panelists also spoke to politics, calling on Miami residents to vote on Tuesday with the city’s precariousness in mind. They also pointed to the intersectional and multi-pronged nature of Miami’s environmental crisis, which is impacting residents at every level.

“I worry about lack of access to information, lack of access to resources for low-income communities of color,” said Valencia Gunder, founder of the organization Make the Homeless Smile. “If something catastrophic was to happen, our communities would not be prepared.”

Above all, speakers repeatedly emphasized urgency and swift mobilization, in the form of voting and of personal lifestyle alterations. And while the election is seen as a pivotal moment to be heard, several panelists were blunt about their commitment to climate advocacy regardless of the power balance in both the state capital Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C.

In Miami, such urgency makes sense, as it does throughout Florida. As a low-lying Gulf Coast state, Florida is already feeling the impact of shifting weather patterns and temperatures in a myriad of ways.


Farmworkers, some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, are suffering from extreme heat exposure as summer months grow longer and hotter. In addition to staggering heat waves, hurricanes are also hitting the state with greater force and more frequency, imperiling any residents unable to leave within a moment’s notice.

Then there is the increasing displacement of long-established communities, like Miami’s Little Haiti, a thriving neighborhood home to many artists and musicians. That area is situated at a higher altitude, an appealing attribute in a city threatened by sea-level rise. As Miami’s pristine beaches disappear, or are pummeled by intense storms, property developers are looking inland and working to drive out residents from areas like Little Haiti in the hopes of replacing them with wealthier, whiter clientele.

“We are ground zero for climate gentrification, ground zero for sea level rise,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, co-executive director for the CLEO Institute. “We continue to see evidence of that happening.”

Arditi-Rocha told ThinkProgress that her organization has been working for years to translate climate information from agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) so that Floridians can understand what is happening to their communities. CLEO holds workshops in South Florida for businesses and corporations, in addition to training mayors and lawmakers, and providing skill-building programs for children.

We’re in constant contact, we’re a source of climate literacy in South Florida,” she said. More and more, she noted, outreach has focused on women, who are often more engaged in local issues, as well as on low-income communities and people of color.

“We talk to people from the top down and from the bottom up. We have a very focused community outreach, we work to help the most vulnerable communities in South Florida,” she explained. “We break down the science for them, we give them guidance on how to prepare for extreme weather events, we give them tools. We hope to better prepare them.”

In the midst of this year’s election cycle, such work has received more attention than usual, as environmental issues have taken center stage.


A toxic algae crisis along Florida’s coast has exploded into a leading campaign issue, with candidates under fire from constituents enraged by the disaster. Controversy over offshore drilling, long an unpopular topic in Florida, has also returned as a theme, with the issue likely to remain a heated topic into November’s general election.

Like the panelists speaking on Monday, Arditi-Rocha bemoaned the politicization of climate issues. She also worried that voters might not be connecting the dots between climate change and the impact many already feel on their own lives.

Pointing to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision to roll back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP) in an effort to deregulate emissions, Arditi-Rocha fretted that an increase in ground-level ozone could hit Florida hard, triggering more asthma attacks and sickening residents.

But support for the CPP and local-level resistance is playing out in Miami, something speakers emphasized on Monday. Russell, the city commissioner, reassured listeners of his own commitment to decreasing emissions, even as the Trump administration relaxes regulations.

“The political will is here to be an example for the rest of the country,” he asserted.

But there’s no guarantee that such sentiments will translate to victory for climate advocates on Tuesday. Regardless, they underscored that their fight is far from over and that they will continue moving forward — with or without support from lawmakers.