A report by Dawn A. Davis for New America Media.
It’s 2040. Miami is flooding at unprecedented rates. Some neighborhoods are impassable, with water levels at ankle height or much higher during high tides. Other areas have become ghost towns as water has engulfed entire communities…and it’s getting worse. The beginning of a horror movie? Sadly, no. This is what Miami residents can expect in less than a quarter century. In fact, many are already living in similar conditions, particularly those in low lying areas. Scientific data suggests that as the climate heats up, sea levels in Miami could rise as high as 3 feet by 2065, with catastrophic impacts.
Miami sits at sea level, which means it is at the same level as the Atlantic Ocean. In simple terms, any rise in the sea level will spill over to the land. It’s already a regular occurrence in areas such as Alton Road and other parts of Miami Beach where so-called “nuisance” flooding affects traffic flow, pedestrian pathways, businesses, and erodes the asphalt. Indeed, this is only a sign of things to come.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body that evaluates the science behind climate change, “There is high confidence that global warming over many centuries would lead to a sea level rise contribution from thermal expansion alone that is projected to be much larger than observed over the 20th century, with loss of coastal area and associated impacts.”
Could there be a clearer warning for the southernmost metropolis in the state of Florida? Miami is considered “Ground Zero” because of the tremendous impact climate change and sea level rise will have on the city. Not only could the city become unlivable, billions of dollars will be lost from the crippling economic impact, including to the city’s lucrative tourism industry. But, based on the massive real estate developments taking place in downtown Miami, this vision of the future does not seem to be a real concern to local government, developers, business interests or moneyed residents. Is this the proverbial ‘head in the sand’ mentality?
Embraced by the Atlantic Ocean, Miami lovingly reaches out to the Caribbean Sea, hence the city’s deeply personal relationship with the region. Miami’s close proximity to the Caribbean means any negative effects from climate change on the southern tip of Florida will also affect its regional neighbors. There is no line of demarcation between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In fact, we share the same space and tropical climate zone, and importantly are experiencing some of the same environmental issues that are affecting communities on all sides.
Arming themselves with knowledge
In this city of immigrants, Miami’s Caribbean residents are taking note. They are arming themselves with scientific data and demanding action. According to the Migration Policy Institute and the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Miami has the largest concentration of Caribbean immigrants in the country, at 40 percent of the immigrant population, behind New York City’s 28 percent. More than 90 percent of Miami’s Caribbean immigrants come from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.
Trinidadian-born Caroline Lewis has been at the forefront of the battle for decades. Founder of the Miami-based CLEO (Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities) Institute, Lewis’ advocacy is unwavering. “I’ve come from being a classroom teacher and a principal, to being an advocate for the environment by finding ways to make information accessible, to make people stop and listen,” Lewis explains. “I’ve spent the past 15 years using education, playfulness, and humor to find ways to bring people to the table to understand the science, the seriousness, and solutions of climate change.”
For Lewis, climate change is “like a sledge hammer on all the environmental issues we worry about. And quite frankly, on all the poverty issues we worry about, and the justice issues.” CLEO creates opportunities for community dialogue through community forums, symposiums, and trainings. Through grants and donations, the Institute fosters awareness and builds a platform for climate change scientists and community activists to reach residents, local government leaders, and the private sector in a bid to stem the incoming ‘tide’.
Lewis admits that there has been push back from cities, counties, and people who don’t believe climate change is manmade or even happening. But, she is encouraged by community activists and local organizations that are not giving up the fight. Among them is a young couple from Haiti who have dedicated their lives to the cause.
Fighting social injustice
Twenty-eight year old Clifford Chery and his wife Eve Bruno-Chery, 26, immigrated to Miami about a year ago. In Haiti they were lawyers working for social justice, human rights and the fight for climate adaptation. Here in Miami, Chery says they are fighting some of the same battles. “[In] a great country like the United States, we didn’t think we would find this kind of thing here: the negative effects of climate change, pollution, and social injustice,” Chery says, his eyes wide. “We thought you would only find this kind of thing in Haiti, in Africa, in South America, or in the Caribbean. I was shocked to find this kind of situation here. We are facing the same problem here as in Haiti: garbage problems, water problems, pollution, injustice.”
The couple live in Little Haiti, a neighborhood at the northern end of the city that the Haitian Diaspora call home. Despite being a national mecca for Haitian culture, the area still struggles with poverty. As a result, climate change tends to be far down in residents’ list of worries. “In this community people are only concerned with working to pay bills and support their families,” notes Bruno-Chery. “They say to you they don’t have time to talk about climate change because they are just barely surviving, so they must focus on work. They don’t have time to think about climate change, about civic education. That’s the problem.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Caribbean immigrants were more likely to be in poverty than the U.S. born [residents]. In 2014, 20 percent of Caribbean immigrants lived in poverty, compared to 15 percent of the U.S. born and 19 percent of the overall foreign born.” In spite of these roadblocks, the Cherys go door-to-door, talk to people at churches and in neighborhood meetings to bring issues around climate change, clean water and social injustice, to the table.
Little Haiti: the ‘Rocky Mountains of Miami’
Several Caribbean organizers interviewed brought up an issue looming on the horizon for the residents of Little Haiti and neighboring Liberty City, another poor and largely African-American neighborhood: gentrification. But organizers say this gentrification isn’t being driven by the usual suspects. “Little Haiti and Liberty city are on high ground – they are 50 feet above sea level,” Lewis says. “That is like the Rocky Mountains here in Miami. So, they are being gentrified now.” Chery explains that much of the local discussion on sea level rise thus far has left out this potential domino effect.
“When we talk about sea level rise, we are talking about downtown Miami, Ocean Drive, Miami Beach,” he says. “We are relatively safe in our neighborhoods of Little Haiti and Liberty City. But, because people in these poor neighborhoods live on minimum wage and don’t have enough money to pay their property taxes that keep going up, they lose their homes to greedy developers. This is social injustice.” Lewis says she’s already seen some of these residents relocate to Homestead, a low-lying neighborhood that is much more vulnerable to flooding.
To help monitor projections for sea level rise in these neighborhoods, Lewis uses eyesontherise.org, an innovative app developed by a team at Florida International University. The app shows that with a sea level rise of 2-3 feet, Liberty City and Little Haiti would not be significantly affected, while other areas such as Homestead would be largely under water. This cycle of elevation-based displacement is becoming a global pattern, according to the 2014 IPCC Assessment report.
“As basic resources such as energy, land, food, or water become threatened, inequalities and unfairness may deepen, leading to…new forms of vulnerability,” the report stated. “Responses to climate change may have consequences and outcomes that favor certain populations or regions. For example, there are increasing cases of land-grabbing and large acquisitions of land…that have negative consequences on local and marginalized communities.”
Adding to the Caribbean voices on climate change is Simone English, a PhD Candidate at Florida A&M University’s School of Environmental Science. A native of Jamaica, English saw the devastation to her home island by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. “Hurricane Gilbert fueled my drive to understand the natural and built environments, and the roles people played in them. I became more interested in the interactions of humans and their environments, natural and built,” English explains. Asked how aware Jamaicans are of the negative impacts of climate change, the PhD candidate said many are connecting the dots. This is especially true for those who make their living off the land and sea.
For example, farmers notice the changes in agricultural production and can make connections to rainfall, drought, and temperature changes. Fisher folk observe what is happening to their catches and with the beaches, corals and seas over time. English says the island is experiencing a range of severe environmental issues, including fresh water shortages, water pollution, loss and degradation of beaches, overfishing, low agricultural production due to drought, soil degradation and erosion, and the bleaching of coral reefs. She explained that many of these challenges are leading to food security issues, and increasing the already significant income inequality.
Many experts consider climate change to be a “threat multiplier” since it will exacerbate existing issues like drought, erosion and extreme weather. The fates of Miami and the Caribbean are interconnected, English explained. “Extensive research has indicated that Miami and the Caribbean will experience more frequent and intense weather events such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, storm surges, rising sea levels and temperatures and droughts,” she said. “The environmental future for Miami and the Caribbean will therefore depend on the residents’ actions and what they demand from government as these events will impact every facet of living, policy making and governing.”
English said she sees hope in that climate change will not affect everyone and everywhere equally, so our futures will depend largely on the choices and changes we make now, and the adaptation and response measures we choose to put in place. Her PhD dissertation topic “Examining Climate Impacts and Community Responsiveness in Risk-Prone Communities in Jamaica: Lessons for Community Resilience and Resistance”, addresses some of the choices and actions necessary to save the planet. Where do we go from here?
Community organizations like CLEO, science-backed intergovernmental IPCC, community activists like the Cherys, and environmental researchers such as English are making a difference, slowly but surely. In one result of their work, some local government leaders, such as Coral Gables Mayor James Cason, have become active voices for action to mitigate climate change and its potential disastrous effect on the city of Miami.
The four most vulnerable counties in South Florida have also come together to form the Southeast Regional Florida Climate Change Compact, an intergovernmental group that has engineered a regional climate action plan. Formed in 2010, the Compact hammered out 110 actions items that must be achieved within a few years to ‘heal’ the state. Meanwhile, Caribbean-born activists Clifford and Eve Chery, English, and Lewis will stay the course.
“When you are a community organizer, you will help people.” said Chery. “You will have some friends and some enemies, but we don’t care about that because our goal is to save the community. We are committed, we will never give up.” Though climate change represents huge challenges, English stressed that she avoids “blaming and shaming” instead focusing on our responsibility to “protect and preserve the environment that gives us life.” “Activism does not always mean public protest and action, it can be private and simple as playing our individual roles as stewards of the Earth by making better choices in how we live and touch the earth,” English adds.
This story was written with support from the New America Media Climate Change in Communities of Color Fellowship Program.