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Outburst At Miami Sea-Level Rise Meeting Prompts Discussion On Urgency, Equity

Planners from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties agree on a projection of possibly two feet of sea-level rise by 2060 and possibly six feet by 2100.
Florida Center for Environmental Studies
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

An ugly moment at a meeting of Miami's sea-level rise committee last week has prompted controversy over one of its members and a discussion over the committee's mission.

Urgency is the common concern of a committee member and an activist he publicly berated.

Miami architect Reinaldo Borges harshly criticized local climate activist Maggie Fernandez after Fernandez expressed frustration at the committee's pace of action and lack of diversity. Fernandez was speaking during a public comment period at last Thursday's committee meeting when Borges interrupted, telling Fernandez she was "insulting" the committee and that he hoped she wouldn't return. The outburst left Fernandez near tears and Borges' fellow committee members shocked.

Borges has since acknowledged his behavior was inappropriate and contacted Fernandez to try to apologize.

"Maggie is a very caring human being and we're on the same side," he told WLRN. "I was intending to say to her that with her energy and activism she should be focused on ensuring money is being spent appropriately" to address sea-level rise and climate issues.

Fernandez was invited to the meeting to speak about a local push to hold carbon polluters responsible for their contributions to global warming. The Miami Climate Alliance -- a coalition of more than a dozen climate and community organizations -- is behind roadside billboards that call for gas and oil companies to pay for infrastructure upgrades needed to address the threat of rising seas. At the meeting, Fernandez called on committee members to support the Pay Up Climate Polluters campaign by encouraging Miami officials to track how much climate change is costing the city.

That irked Borges, who says taking on carbon emitters is beyond the scope of the committee's duties.

"We're only a committee for the city of Miami. We're not the UN," he said. "It's really about changing the regulations so that we are allowed to build greater resiliency for a city that's being attacked by water from five different directions."

Fernandez disagreed and told Borges she's frustrated the committee isn't acting more quickly, especially to ensure that the conversation on sea-level rise adaptation is inclusive and equitable. Eight of the committee's nine members are men and the lone female member is also the only black member. Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a Ph.D candidate and former fellow in a program for young Miami leaders, was appointed as an advocate for Miami's low-income communities.

Members were selected because of their expertise rather than in proportion to Miami's demographics, said Fernandez, who worked on legislation establishing the committee.

"I don't agree with having specific professions on the committee," she said. "I'm tired of seeing all men."

Borges says he wants to use his professional experience to helping Miami prepare for sea-level rise, and that he's trying to communicate, "We're not doing things fast enough."

The need for urgent action is a message Fernandez is pushing as well.

"Despite the way that I was treated," she said, "this is a great opportunity to re-evaluate... so it [the committee] works toward identifying concrete priorities and policies that would help the City Commission address the challenges of climate change and sea-level rise in a fair and equitable manner."

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.