Miami climate change

Image taken from Mario Ariza’s Disposable City. He’s a friend. Go read it.

There’s a mantra-like phrase I hear at practically every climate conference, happy hour, and networking event I attend in the Magic City: “they should’ve…” As in, “They should’ve changed the zoning code,” “They should’ve constructed more sand dunes,” “They should’ve installed better water pumps,” “They should’ve…” “They should’ve…” “They should’ve…” 

The ”they” in these admonitions is a nebulous group of authoritative individuals with seemingly unchecked power from an even more nebulous point in the past. If “they” had implemented whatever policy prescription the grumbler in question advocates, then Miami would ostensibly be saved from its impending climate change Ragnarök. The thing is, “they” never existed. 

“They should’ve…” is simply another way of saying, “If I had a magic wand, I’d do X, Y, or Z,” because no single individual, organization, elected official, or government agency had or currently has the power to save Miami from the rising tides. But that won’t stop future climate tourists standing in shin-deep water on what used to be Biscayne Boulevard from regarding a ruined tropical metropolis and exclaiming, “They should’ve…” in utter exasperation.

No one is coming to save us. Not Congress, not FEMA, not the Army Corps of Engineers, not the Aspen Institute, no one. This is the last point in the essay where I espouse anything like climate defeatism because we—the residents who inhabit this wholly irrational, infuriating, magnificent city—need to become “them” and save ourselves, which is what a town largely composed of immigrants routinely does anyway. It’ll be hard as hell, but I’m game if you are. What do we have to lose other than everything?

A Brief Aside for Scientists

I’d first like a word with any scientists reading this piece.


I’m a fan. You do great work. If it weren’t for your ilk, we’d have no bearing on the scale or scope of our ongoing climate challenges. Instead, we’d just blithely walk around as the water pooled around our ankles. So, thanks.

That said, you science nerds (and I use the term affectionately) are notoriously, almost laughably terrible at communicating with anyone other than yourselves. No one is reading a 15-page methodological section with terrifying equations and phrases like: “perturbing poorly constrained parameters controlling key physical and biogeochemical processes in the HadCM3.” 

I get it, though. Science doesn’t draw gregarious types. You’re busy reviewing migraine-inducing spreadsheets, taking field measurements, and pondering HadCM3 biochemical processes while the rest of us guffaw at Only in Dade’s latest cop car twerking video. Nevertheless—and this is important—you could spend a decade researching and writing the world’s best peer-reviewed article whose abstract alone makes fellow data dorks (again, no offense) swoon, but nothing will change if you don’t bring the rest of us along too.

That means you need to speak to myriad non-scientific communities—often literally in other languages—in compelling, authentic manners. It also means you must listen to their concerns, feedback, and insights, even if they don’t have PhDs. This segues elegantly into my next section.

The Long-Term Threat/Building Climate Community

South Florida is built on limestone foundations—the Swiss cheese of sedimentary rock. It has innumerable tiny holes through which water easily flows. That means we can’t just surround Miami with levees and dikes like New Orleans or Amsterdam to keep out the ocean because the water will quite literally bubble up from beneath our feet.

Many of Miami’s most expensive neighborhoods such as Brickell, Downtown, and Edgewater were built in low-lying areas directly abutting the ocean. Historically marginalized communities were relegated to higher elevation farther inland like Overtown, Little Haiti, Allapattah, and Little Havana. Residents in the former are figuring that those in the latter are significantly safer from rising seas. This is catalyzing a wave of climate gentrification that threatens more than half of Miami’s 2.6 million inhabitants with relocation.

All this is to say that implementing effective climate adaptation efforts across Miami will take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block approach if we want the city to survive as anything less than an opulent wasteland for the hyper-privileged while the rest of us commute from Orlando to service their dry cleaning. Houses and roads will need to be raised in some areas. Others can be adapted to semi-submerged environs. A few may have to be abandoned completely after their residents receive just compensation and rehousing.

Making these decisions equitably will require intimate knowledge of each neighborhood far beyond projected water tables to gain inhabitants’ trust and buy-in. The thing is, those evaluating and executing these decisions are woefully unprepared to just that. Most of our climate scientists and related technocrats are—ehem—somewhat melanin deficient. Nationally, 88% of environmental scientists and geoscientists identify as white. To place that into context, Miami-Dade County’s population is 69% Latino, 17% Black, and 14% white. 

In the Magic City, climate scientists tend to hail from the Great White North and/or reside along the aforementioned coastal enclaves, rarely if ever traveling anywhere nearly as exotic as Doral, Opa Locka, Kendall, or Miami’s other western regions. 

Meanwhile, our municipal, county, and state officials seem far more interested in politically retaliating against local businesses, laundering money, accepting bribes from real estate developers, and slapping each other in steakhouses than doing anything nearly as wild as serving their constituents.

South Florida’s historically marginalized communities have an exceptionally well-founded distrust of local policymakers claiming they must regrettably demolish their homes for infrastructure projects that serve the common good. We can’t save Miami without Miamians, so we’ll have to do something that’s never been done before: listen to them. This will necessitate a concerted public relations and community-building campaign the likes of which South Florida has never seen. 

The first and most important step is organizing town halls in every major Miami neighborhood. Most similar events involve speakers talking at participants for hours before leaving about 15 or so minutes for audience questions that everyone ignores. I want to invert that model. A trusted community member will present a 10-minute introduction to how climate change is likely to affect Miami and the audience’s locality. The rest of the event will be dedicated to local participants answering two questions:

  1. How is climate change currently affecting your neighborhood? Please provide specific addresses or intersections.
  2. What would you do to address climate change in your neighborhood? Please provide specific addresses or intersections.

They will also receive palm cards with the above questions and prompts for their addresses, emails, and phone numbers. Organizers will ask participants to share them with friends and neighbors who can then mail them to a central clearinghouse. A corresponding landing page will allow Miamians to complete the form online. All respondents’ answers will be recorded, keyworded, and uploaded to a database. 

And please, for the love of your deity of choice, please make these events fun, not the funeral dirges climate town halls tend to be. You want to attract regular community members beyond the same cuatro gatos who always attend. Offer people free arepas, croquetas, pate kòde, and empanadas. Get them a little drunk. Order a caja china. Play reggaeton, konpa, dance hall, and Miami booty bass (I’m partial to DJ Laz’s “Esa Morena”). We’re celebrating our participation in South Florida’s salvation, not bemoaning its impending destruction. Christ.

So, why do this? As any human-centered design firm worth its salt will tell you (I should know, I wrote a Harvard Business School case study on the subject), organizations seeking to solve big, hairy problems must first extract insights from “extreme users,” i.e. people most exposed and most passionate about said problem. In Miami’s case, extreme users are simply people living with the effects of climate change. 

Their input can be coded and overlaid on a heatmap of Miami-Dade County so policymakers can visualize exactly which neighborhoods are most susceptible to sunny day flooding, climate gentrification, extreme heat, or other climate problems. That will then allow them to tailor specific interventions down to the street corner.

Also—and I know this may sound crazy to some—Miamians have good ideas! We also have terrible ideas like the Brickell drawbridge and Bayside Marketplace, but that’s neither here nor there. Asking Miami residents for their input on how to save their city will provide a font of invaluable quantitative and qualitative data. 

Finally, collecting their emails and phone numbers creates a massive, readymade base of highly engaged and motivated residents across the entire county. This will be the backbone of Miami’s grassroots climate movement that can be mobilized to build a living seawall, show up to city and county council meetings, educate elected officials, and recruit even more participants to the cause.

Before I attempt to land this plane, there’s one more point of contention I feel compelled to address. In conversations with people in power, when I push for this grassroots approach, they often throw their hands up and exclaim, “wE JuSt CaN’t FiNd ThE rIGhT pArTnErs 😭😭😭.” 

This is untrue.

Miami is bursting with incredible community groups. One need only peek outside their parochial bubble to find them. Here’s a very brief and nowhere near comprehensive list of organizations that should be included in neighborhood town halls and wider attempts to address Miami’s systemic climate crisis:

Seriously, spend half an hour on Google or ask a community member. 

It is critical that the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes of Florida also be involved. Our Native neighbors have protected the Everglades and other sensitive South Florida habitats for generations. They know this land far better than just about anyone else as it is, after all, theirs.

While we’re at it, invite prominent hometown celebrities like Udonis Haslem, Uncle Luke, Willy Chirino, Dan Marino, Gloria Estefan, Alonzo Mourning, The Rock, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and Pitbull, not just because I want to meet them all, but because they can also serve as ambassadors to the wider community.

A Cheeky Postscript

Congratulations! You almost finished my 2,000-word (God, what was I thinking?) occasionally irreverent dissertation. If you liked it, great! Please share with others within and without Miami who might be interested in saving this ridiculous city. 

If you hated my piece, even better! Rhetorically—or physically if you need the catharsis—tear it to shreds! Eviscerate my arguments. Do it publicly on social media or from atop Mount Tropical Park. Invite your friends. Have a picnic when you’re done.

The important bit is that you conduct serious conversations about how to preserve Miami from climate doom. What did I get wrong? What would you do instead? Take your and your friends’ arguments to the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners, the Aspen Climate Conference, your congressional representative’s office, and anywhere else important people in tweed jackets congregate. 

Finally, rather than asking what “they should” do to ensure Miami remains a viable, equitable, prosperous city in 100 years, shift the paradigm to “I will.” As in, “I will join a climate march,” “I will volunteer for Everglades restoration efforts,” and “I will advocate for communities facing climate gentrification, even if they’re not my own.” 

As I stated at the outset, no one will save us other than you, me, and any other like minded individuals willing to rage at the rising waters and the naysayers, screaming “No! I refuse to do nothing while my city drowns!” 

Let’s get to it. 

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Andrew OtazoAndrew Otazo

'Miami Creation Myth' author Andrew Otazo has advised officials on Cuba policy, worked for the Mexican president, fired a tank, and ran with 30lbs of trash.

Check out the first free chapter of Andrew’s upcoming book here.


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