Visit Miami Beach and you will immediately see why it is at the centre of the fight against climate change in the US. It is a low, flat island city, surrounded by water and connected by bridges to mainland Miami.
It is no surprise then that the City of Miami Beach is the latest city to join the UN Climate Neutral Now initiative, as part of its efforts to lessen and adapt to the impacts of climate change, in particular rising sea levels. The Miami Beach City Commission unanimously adopted a resolution last month which pledged to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and declared that “climate change is caused by human activity.” It is a battle that is utterly necessary – according to a report released by the Urban Land Institute last year, more than $3 billion worth of property in Southeast Florida could be lost to tidal flooding without efforts to reduce the threat.
According to Elizabeth Wheaton, Director of City of Miami Beach’s Environment & Sustainability Department, the major efforts to reduce the threat from climate change started from 2013. “In 2013, we had a mayor who ran on a platform of keeping our streets dry. We had sunny day flooding where we had seawater coming in from the stormwater pipes and flooding the streets on a sunny day,” she says. “This was happening during the highest tides of the year, typically from August to October, and sometimes in November and December. The administration was given the task of figuring out how to adapt our city to a changing climate,” Wheaton adds.
More than $3 billion worth of property in Southeast Florida could be lost to tidal flooding without efforts to reduce the threat.
That determination to push back against the effects of climate change was also something the local population demanded, Wheaton says. “When you can see flooded streets on a sunny day, it is evidence of a problem. This impacted people needing to get to the grocery store and businesses had to close because [their customers] were not able to get to them,” she says.
Some of the adaptation projects involve raising street levels, upgrading stormwater infrastructure and incorporating green infrastructure into new projects. “We have updated our land development regulations which dictate private property developments, such as allowing higher first-floor ceiling heights, so they can adapt to a higher elevation when the roads are higher,” Wheaton says.
“It is a combination of upgrading public infrastructure such as streets, sidewalks and parks. And understanding how [those efforts] work with private property, so communities can continue to thrive today in the current conditions while also preparing for the future we know is coming; a future of rising sea levels, hotter summers and winters, and more rain and hurricanes,” she adds.
Sea level rises are a devastating effect of climate change. The IPCC predicts that global sea levels could rise 110cm by the end of the century, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts rises of 180cm could be possible.
Hence why mitigations efforts are as important as adaptation efforts, and that is something Miami Beach has been focused on. “From 2014, we have been tracking our greenhouse gas emissions [in the] community [and across] government operations,” says Alyssia Berthoumieux, a Sustainability Specialist at City of Miami Beach.
“That gives us an idea on where our main source of emissions are [coming from]. About 70% of our emissions come from energy usage (electricity and natural gas) community-wide, and about 20% come from transportation, while about 10% come from waste. We are really focusing on those areas to develop a climate action plan in order to [identify the areas] where we can have the greatest [effect on] emissions reductions,” she says.
Other efforts include the introduction of a rule that requires “new construction that’s 7,000 feet or larger to have LEED certification [a system that rates a building’s sustainability] or any comparable certification, which helps encourage more efficient design, construction and building operations,” Berthoumieux says. “[In addition], the Urban Heat Island Ordinance requires new buildings to install sustainable roofing systems, such as solar roofs. It also requires driveways or parking lots to be made of porous concrete, so it helps the water infiltrate into the material,” she adds.
In terms of public buy-in, Wheaton believes that there is more of an understanding about how personal actions impact greenhouse gas emission and in turn, sea level rises. “I would say that the pandemic provided an opportunity to revaluate the decisions they were making.”
“There is more attention [on global warming] than there ever was, but I still think the average resident is a bit disconnected as [reducing emissions] is not as tangible as seeing water in the streets. That’s why education is such an important part of what the municipality needs to do to get the population onboard,” she says.
“We are in unique position, as not only is Miami Beach a city with 90,000 residents, but we receive more than 250,000 visitors every weekend. That presents a platform where we can say “this is how Miami Beach is doing it, and you can take that home to your city.”
Overall, there is a sense of optimism that Miami Beach can rise to the multiple challenges it faces. “We are very fortunate that Miami Beach is full of entrepreneurs and full of people wanting to make a difference – it’s a new city so we are not stuck in our ways,” Wheaton says. We know that change can happen, and it just takes action. A lot of people are very vested in Miami and Miami Beach, and there is a real will to do whatever is necessary both from a mitigation and an adaptation perspective.”