Miami Rising Up


Rising Up

Miami skyline from the water

As glaciers and ice sheets shrink, less snow falls, and permafrost thaws, global sea rise is now happening 2.5 times faster than it was in the last century. Scientists have indicated that oceans may rise by as much as 8 feet by 2100, possibly displacing hundreds of millions of people around the world.

As a result, many coastal communities now face an uncertain future as the climate crisis rages on. Among them, the cities of Miami Beach and Miami. Tens of thousands of people in the Miami area live less than three feet above sea level here and much of South Florida already feels the impacts of a warming planet.

But from what's often dubbed the "ground zero" for climate change rises a generation of leaders—from young people to grassroots organizers to city officials—showing the world what climate action looks like and fighting for the only home we know.

We still have time to stave off some of the worst effects of climate change. We just need to act now.

Brickell Key, Downtown Miami, which sits only a few feet above sea level

Though coastal communities everywhere face challenges as sea levels rise, South Florida is uniquely vulnerable. For starters, it’s low-lying and flat. Its urban areas continue to grow. And—perhaps most distinct—the limestone bedrock upon which most everything is built is extremely porous. All of this adds up to greater flood risk and infrastructure challenges. Already during exceptionally high tides—known as king tides—sea water bubbles up through the ground and storm drains, flooding some neighborhoods in Miami. This “sunny day flooding” could worsen over time and eventually threaten drinking water sources.

sunny day tidal flooding in downtown Miami

Samantha Gazda is 15 years old.

By the time she blows out 26 candles on her birthday cake, she could see global sea level rise of more than half a foot.

She’ll turn 46 when many Southeast cities could experience more than 30 days of high tide flooding, regardless of scenario.

And as she closes in on the century mark, she may live in a world in which global sea levels rise more than eight feet—a once unthinkable, now plausible, scenario that would leave her hometown uninhabitable.

Gazda is here because she’s angry.

She’s standing outside of Miami City Hall with a handful of her peers one Friday afternoon in early June, her hair gathered and secured by a scrunchie, her hands gripping a banner: declare climate emergency.

sunny day tidal flooding in downtown Miami© Jason Houston/WWF-US

It’s hot, even by Miami’s standard, and indisputable that a 15-year-old on summer break could find boundless other ways to indulge in her momentary freedom. But for Gazda and fellow youth climate activists, there’s little time for play. The climate crisis is here. And it’s their future on the line. So instead of relaxing at the beach, they’re educating themselves about climate science. Instead of watching television, they’re creating a platform—cutting carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, hitting net-zero by 2050, and more—for those in power.

Young people around the world are leading a rapidly growing movement to demand that those in power drastically reduce our carbon emissions and end our reliance on fossil fuels. Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish student and activist Greta Thunberg who protests the lack of climate action outside of Swedish parliament every Friday, new voices are rising inside city halls and out on the streets to tell those in power to stop jeopardizing the future.

“I think the youth’s role in this is very important because we are the next generation,” Gazda said. “We are going to be the ones living on this planet, so we need to make sure that it’s set up so that our planet is still around by the time we’re adults. That we can preserve it and keep it going for generations to come. Because our parents and grandparents didn’t acknowledge it like we do.”

This critical call for action is grounded in science-based projections that tell us time is running out.

Gazda knows this. She understands the urgency. And she wants us to understand it, too.

“Our movement has been gaining a lot of traction, which makes me very optimistic,” she said. “But we can’t be thinking like that right now. If we don’t stay scared, stay nervous, and keep attacking our problems that are going on right now, then our optimist approach is not going to be truthful in the end.”

“One person isn’t gonna make a difference. But one person knows five people and five people know five more people.”

Samantha Gazda, 15 | Coral Gables Senior High

“We have everything at stake. Our trees, our animals, and us alone.”

Jacqueline Murcia, 19 | University of Florida

“I have two years left until I can vote, but I don’t want to wait two years to see action.”

John Paul Mejia, 16 | Miami Beach Senior High School

“I think the younger generation feels, perhaps, that older generations or elected officials have devalued their future.”

Nadia Seeteram, 28 | Florida International University

sunny day tidal flooding in downtown Miami

Miami Beach sits on a barrier island between Biscayne Bay and the full breadth of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the city's proximity to the ocean and sea level—approximately 45,000 residents live less than three feet above sea level—make it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, its emphasis on resilience serves as a roadmap for other vulnerable communities.

As Mayor Dan Gelber says, “The perils are not the problem. It’s what you do with them.”

The community is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new infrastructure improvements, which are informed by scientific projections around sea level rise, data gathered from more frequent and extreme storms, and other impacts of a rapidly changing climate. The city consulted with experts from notable groups and organizations like the Harvard School of Design and Urban Land Institute to provide advice and recommend solutions.

“We’re trying to modernize so that we’re good not just in the next few years, but in the next few generations,” Gelber said.

Since 2015 Susanne Torriente has served as the chief resilience officer for Miami Beach, working within the city and with municipalities in the region to examine the best way to deliver services, operate, and plan—all through the lens of a climate-resilient future. Incorporating such a position into city government is a testament to how seriously Miami Beach takes climate science and the reality we’re all facing.

“Every city has their vulnerability,” Torriente said. “Every city has their risk. But what I’d like to share is that we’re aware of these things—we’ve been planning for it. And in cities like Miami Beach, we’ve been investing as well.”

Here's how:


Raising roads

About 12.5 miles of roads and 20.5 miles of sidewalks have been raised anywhere from a couple of inches to several feet to ensure they’re still useable as sea levels rise.

Installing stormwater pump stations

New pump stations aim to lessen flooding by draining the city of water during rainfall and high tides. Replacing old pipes that rely on gravity to remove stormwater from streets are a priority and these pump stations capture stormwater, collect litter, remove suspended solids, vacuum out oil, and release the water into Biscayne Bay.

Updating building ordinances

Updated codes for new buildings require that the ground floor be between one and five feet above the flood line. Alternatively, developers can include enough headroom on the ground floor to enable the option of raising the floor in the future.


Planting 5,000 trees

Over the next 10 years, the city will plant over 5,000 trees that will help capture water and remove pollutants from the air.

Supporting sustainable transportation

The city completed eight miles of bike lanes and installed six long-term bicycle parking facilities—with repair stations—in parking garages. A free trolley is also available to residents and visitors around the island as an alternative to taxis and cars.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

In 2016, Miami Beach completed a greenhouse gas inventory as a first step in developing emissions reduction goals. It also made climate action commitments with We Are Still In, including to partner with other cities and counties to advocate for national climate policies and take collective action and set a goal for emissions reduction equal to or greater than the US goal under the Paris Climate Agreement (26%-28% by 2025).

Activists march for climate action in New York City in 2019

Preventing the worst impacts of the climate crisis will require swift action from all of us—government at every level, businesses, communities, individuals, and more. We need to reexamine how we grow food and what we eat; how we power our homes and workplaces; and the ways we travel from place to place.

In 2015, 196 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement, a sweeping plan that aims to keep global warming to well below 2° C (3.6° F)—or even 1.5° C (2.7° F). World leaders must work together to eliminate the release of heat-trapping carbon by 2050—and, ideally, by 2040. To do this, they will need to strengthen their commitments to cut emissions over time.

Unfortunately, in the US, the federal government plans to withdraw from this crucial agreement. But other Americans are leading in its place. Over 3,800 mayors, county executives, governors, tribal leaders, college and university leaders, businesses, faith groups, and investors have signed on to the We Are Still In movement to declare that they will continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.

With support from WWF and 24 other organizations, We Are Still In has emerged as the largest US coalition in support of climate action—ever.

Both Miami and Miami Beach signed on, along with Miami-Dade County.

On-the-ground action and leadership is key to saving our planet and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens and the CLEO Institute are both making change in South Florida.

Aerial drone shot of the front of Vizcaya Musem and Gardens, including the stylized 'barge' breakwater built to protect the boat landing.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a sprawling estate overlooking the waters of Biscayne Bay in Miami. Built at the dawn of the 20th century by businessman James Deering, the winter-home-turned-museum welcomes more than 300,000 visitors a year. But the estate’s proximity to rising waters—and the fact that the home and gardens are, themselves, part of the collection—leave the cultural institution particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis. So museum leadership is stepping up.

In addition to turning to human-made adaptations such as sea walls and hurricane glass, Vizcaya has employed natural techniques to address climate impacts. Gardeners have planted additional mangroves along the bay side of the property’s perimeter to protect parts of the property from storm surges and the debris that comes along with them. They’ve cleaned overgrowth to make the inflow and outflow of water easier and planted more salt-water-tolerant plants in the gardens.

But the commitment to climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience goes well beyond the home and grounds, said Remko Jansonius, deputy director of collections and curatorial affairs at Vizcaya. As the first cultural institution in Florida to make climate commitments as part of the We Are Still In movement, Vizcaya sees its role as a convener.

A drone shot of the maze garden at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
The grounds at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

“We are setting environmental sustainability goals, resource conservation goals, and educational goals around the topic of climate change,” Jansonius said. “We also serve as a place for civic engagement—a forum for this discussion around climate change that brings different individuals from our community together to address these issues.”

Museum leadership believes that cultural institutions need to connect with concerns of the communities they serve, and more frequent and extreme storms and sea level rise are front and center in Miami.

“Part of our new mission and strategic plan is to be a point of dialogue for these issues,” said Mark Osterman, former digital experience manager at Vizcaya. “We hope to—as we start making internal changes related to that—start to make an external-facing effort where we are making clear to the public how we are being stewards not just for Vizcaya, but also for the community, and acting as a model for sustainability and resiliency.”

Aerial drone shot of the front of Vizcaya Musem and Gardens, including the stylized 'barge' breakwater built to protect the boat landing.

Lasting change comes from the top down and the bottom up and the CLEO Institute based out of Miami approaches the climate crisis from both directions—helping vulnerable communities advocate for change while also working with elected officials to act.

Founded in 2010 by Caroline Lewis, a science teacher and high school principal, the CLEO Institute helps drive climate action through community education and engagement. The organization focuses on both training people how to handle current crises and prepare for future challenges and educating communities on how government works at all levels so that they can better advocate for themselves and under-resourced communities.

“The reality is that if we don’t make sure that low-income communities are prepared for our climate reality in a future warming world, we don’t have a resilient community,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of The CLEO Institute. “We want to make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind.”

To that end, CLEO leads preparedness workshops with vulnerable groups, among other activities. One such workshop teaches women—who often suffer disproportionately from impacts of the climate crisis—how to respond to disasters as they happen and to financially prepare for the economic stresses such incidents cause. However, they’re also pivotal agents of change, Arditi-Rocha said. Empowering women to quite literally better weather a storm and to push for the political will to act now to curb the worst impacts of a changing climate.

Presentation on hurricane on climate and hurricane
Workshop empowering women in Overtown

CLEO also works to remove silos and build a wider coalition to fight climate change across faith-based communities, elected officials and municipalities, schools, and cultural organizations, among others. And they’ve engaged students, such as those demonstrating outside of Miami City Hall.

“Collaboration is essential,” Arditi-Rocha said. “This is too big of a challenge for us to tackle alone. I always say we’re all being impacted by climate change. We are all living in the same house. We all live under the same roof called the atmosphere. Every single stakeholder needs to be involved.”

Close up of a canary in a cage from a climate mural in Miami

Sea level rise is just one impact of the climate crisis. More frequent and extreme storms, droughts, heat waves, increased flood risk, and more will impact people, wildlife, and wild places everywhere. It’s up to all of us to change course immediately.

“The world’s greatest challenge will be how it responds to the climate crisis,” said Elan Strait, director of US climate campaigns for WWF. “WWF is inspired by this new generation of leaders and is committed to supporting them in their effort to summon the action necessary to meet the challenge. ”

Everyone needs to step up to fight the climate crisis—including you. Take action today.