Cindy Lerner and Carlos Gimenez are, in many ways, typical local politicians. Both are mayors, and both are intimately familiar with the trials and tribulations that their constituents face on a daily basis, from trash pickup to traffic. Both serve communities along the southeastern Florida coast — Gimenez is mayor of Miami-Dade County, the most populous county in Florida and the seventh-most populous county in the United States, while Lerner is mayor of the village of Pinecrest, a suburban village of about 18,000 residents located within Miami-Dade County.
And yet both are in a unique position for a local leader: they both believe that climate change is occurring, and that the consequences will hit Florida residents hard. That puts them at odds with the state government, led by Governor Rick Scott, which fervently denies that climate change is occurring.
“We have barriers to being as ambitious as we see other states and cities being able to do,” Lerner told ThinkProgress. “Most of the state does not have the knowledge or capacity to do what is needed on mitigation or adaptation, because we have little to no investment from the state to help with adaptation.”
But if it seems like city officials are powerless in the face of a state or federal government that either ignores or outright denies climate change, think again.
Cities represent both a majority of the world’s population — about 58 percent — and the majority of the world’s annual emissions —about 70 percent.
According to a new report, released in conjunction with the Climate Action 2016 summit held in Washington, D.C. this week, city governments with strong local power have a track record of taking more action on climate than those without strong local power. In the building sector specifically, which accounts for the majority of city-driven emissions, cities with strong local governments have taken 30 percent more action than those without.
Cities can only do so much, however, and the same report found considerable barriers to action even when a city has a strong local power. Finance, for instance, can be a problem, because while cities can approve projects, they might need state or federal support to finance the project, making it difficult to move forward without cooperation from other levels of government.
A separate report, also released in conjunction with the summit, delves a little deeper into the barriers that cities can face when trying to implement climate-smart projects. The report also discusses the lack of coordination that can exist between local, state, and federal governments — like a local municipality that tries to ban fracking being overruled by a statewide ban on fracking bans. For Lerner, she experienced this issue firsthand when she tried to pass a ban on plastic bags within the village of Pinecrest — instead, the state legislature passed a law effectively prohibitinglocal municipalities from banning plastic bags.
But it’s not just plastic bag bans that face opposition from the Florida state government. The state legislature has debated banning local controls on fracking, and has rejected renewable-friendly policies like net metering and power purchasing agreements. Legislators have also been hesitant to allocate funds to municipalities for climate adaptation. Lerner explained that last year, counties and municipalities asked the state government for an aggregate of $1 billion in funding for water projects — an important issue for Floridians concerned that sea-level rise will impact their aquifer and, eventually, their drinking water. Instead, the state legislature allocated $70 million, and Gov. Scott vetoed half of the proposed projects.
And yet both mayors preside over a region of the country that is already dealing with the impacts of climate change, largely in sea level rise, which threatens to overwhelm the city of Miami before the end of the century. That means that for local leaders like Gimenez and Lerner — who are often more in tune with their constituents than state or federal representatives — climate action isn’t something that can wait, whether they receive support from higher levels of government or not.
“We ask very nicely, and then we do it,” Gimenez said.
That means taking action like the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department’s Multi-Year Capital Improvement Plan, which is a twenty-year, $12.6 billion dollar investment meant to update the county’s water and sewage system. It’s the largest public works project in the county’s history, and aims to make the county’s water system more resilient in the face of climate-related storms, flooding, and sea level rise. Gimenez also notes that Miami-Dade is the first county in the United States to have a Chief Resilience Officer who is tasked with planning the county’s response to climate change.
In Pinecrest, Lerner stresses incremental changes — land use changes, building code changes, the little things that when taken in aggregate add up to a more resilient, sustainable city.
But Gimenez and Lerner also stressed the power of measurements and data in bringing politicians and constituents around to the idea of climate action. Gimenez championed the importance of working with local educational institutions, like the University of Miami and Florida International University, to study and measure sea level rise. Creating a partnership with educational institutions to study sea level rise could be especially important in Florida, where last year, a Florida Center for Investigative Reporting story alleged that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unofficially banned its employees from talking about climate change.
“When you have the right information people will listen,” Gimenez said. “You can say, ‘Hey, it just went up an inch, hello?’ It’s not that it’s not happening, it is happening.”
Ultimately, Lerner thinks that the tide of public opinion is shifting, and politicians that blatantly ignore climate science will be left behind. Earlier this year, Lerner journeyed to New Hampshire to confront then-Republican presidential candidates and former Florida politicians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush about climate change. While Bush responded favorably to Lerner’s questioning, Rubio responded that the climate “has always changed” a disappointment, according to Lerner.
“When you can demonstrate and see, like we see, what’s going on in Florida, you can’t stand there with a straight face and say there’s no problem, when sunny day flooding is occurring,” she said. “The reality exists and the public knows it exists, and anyone who says otherwise is just a shill for fossil fuel interests.”