City View

Miami’s climate vice: Budget woes stunt urban resilience

Miami's dire financial straits have prevented it from taking strong climate action, but times finally may be changing.

Miami is among the most at-risk cities for encountering the dire effects of climate change — rising sea levels and more frequent and intense hurricanes among them — but the coastal metropolis has done surprisingly little to implement policies aimed at improving climate resilience.

Financial exposure to disaster risk in Miami is expected to increase to $3.5 trillion by 2070, up from $416 billion in 2005, according to a 2013 United Nations report. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, meanwhile, lists Miami as the No. 1 city in the United States when it comes to coastal flooding vulnerability.

Despite the trillions of dollars at stake — not to mention the safety of the metro area's 2.6 million residents — Miami hasn’t done much to implement, or even update, the climate action plan it published in 2008. The reason? A lack of funding, Ajani Stewart, environmental manager at the city of Miami, told GreenBiz.

“Due to the economic crash and how that affected municipalities, especially with personnel, we haven't had the resources to update the plan,” Stewart said.

The city’s climate action plan, “MiPlan” (PDF), established goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels citywide by 2020, and 25 percent below 2007 levels by 2015 in government operations. The plan covered emissions reduction targets across various sectors, including buildings, transportation, the built environment and energy sources, among others.

To create and implement the plan, the local government created the City of Miami Office of Sustainable Initiatives, which Stewart manages. But limited resources force him to run a one-man show, which makes it tough to measure or verify what progress, if any, has been made toward the city's climate goals, he said.

In many ways, challenges such as short staffing and limited budgets for sustainability priorities is universal for cities being asked to do more with less — particularly in the absence of binding national or international climate mitigation plans.

[Learn more about how cities are building for resilience at VERGE 2015, Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, California.]

Divisive political ploys, such as the state of Florida's alleged ban on government employees even saying the phrase “climate change” out loud, exacerbate those resource constraints.

“It’s an indication that the political leadership in the state of Florida is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change present,” former city attorney Christopher Byrd told the Miami Herald earlier this year.

Miami’s unique fiscal woes are also no secret. In 2009, the city fell into a budget crisis after a significant decline in real estate taxes caused by the Great Recession. Four years later, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged the city and its former budget director with fraud for allegedly making misleading statements and omissions in bond documents in order to hide general fund deficits.

Revamping a neglected plan

Despite the obstacles Miami has faced, there is reason to hope that the times are changing, Stewart said.

The city is finally emerging from its financial crisis and, despite Florida’s climate-denying governor, there is growing support from city leadership for advancing sustainability and climate change adaption.

“One of my objectives for this fiscal year is to revamp that climate action plan, and to expand it beyond just climate issues and to really develop a more comprehensive sustainability plan for the city,” Stewart said.

When he does, there’s bound to be a big focus on green buildings. The city is built in a swamp, after all, and it takes a lot of energy to keep HVACs running.

With Miami expected to add 50,000 residents by 2020, the city also will need to focus on more efficient land use and zoning policies to prevent greenhouse gas emissions from rising with the growing population, Stewart said.

The city’s new zoning code, “Miami 21”, requires LEED Silver certification for all new construction over 50,000 square feet. To date, 47 LEED certified projects have been completed within the city.

A revamped MiPlan also will need to revisit Miami’s goals to increase renewable energy adoption and energy efficiency.

Much of the city’s solar and wind projects previously were funded by the federal Recovery Act, which is now expired. Stewart doesn’t see this as a bad thing, however, as it frees the city to pursue sustainable energy in its own way.

Urban sprawl and a predominant personal car culture in South Florida also pose sustainability challenges for Miami, Stewart said, which the city is addressing through policies aimed at reducing automobile dependency and increasing walkability.

Adapting to climate change

Even if carbon emissions are reduced drastically, some climate impacts, such as sea-level rise, are poised to inevitably affect Miami.

Earlier this year, the city passed its first resolution to codify steps to address climate change adaptation through formation of sea-level rise committee charged with studying the impacts of climate change on Miami. The group is also tasked with bringing forward recommendations for action.

“That’s a big, important first step for us,” said Stewart, who also heads the committee.

There is also the broader economic picture to consider.

One recent report suggests that investing in low-emission transportation, building efficiency and waste management in cities could be a $17 trillion economic opportunity worldwide — challenging the notion of sustainability and climate resilience measures as sunk costs rather than smart investments.

Private companies, namely architecture firms and insurance businesses, are also piloting new financial models for capital-intensive resilience initiatives, such as infrastructure upgrades or retrofits.

Thinking regionally

Although the city of Miami’s has been sluggish moving from talk to action on climate issues, several counties in South Florida, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach, have been more decisive.

In 2010, the counties came together to form the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, widely recognized as one of the country’s leading examples of regional-scale climate action.

By allowing local governments to set the agenda for adaptation while providing an efficient means for state and federal agencies to engage with technical assistance and support, the organization serves as a mechanism to collaborate for climate adaptation.

It released an action plan (PDF) outlining 110 recommended steps, such as cutting emissions and embracing renewable energy, for cities and counties to identify areas that need special attention due to constant flooding or proximity to rising seas.

The group's greatest accomplishment arguably is showing that mitigating and adapting to climate change doesn't have to be a political issue: It's led both by Republicans and Democrats.

As a result, the organization has emerged as a voice of reason, calling for stronger actions to shade the “Sunshine State” from the worst impacts of too much sun.