Mayor, City of Miami; Commissioner, Global Commission on Adaptation
Executive Vice President, Conservation International
Environment and Climate Change Reporter, New York Times
Following the United Nation’s 2019 Climate Action Summit, panelists discuss the actions cities and countries can take to strengthen climate resilience.
BARNARD: Hello. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Climate Change: Global Approaches to Adaptation.”
I’m Anne Barnard. I am the environment and climate change reporter from the New York Times, focusing especially as a new beat for us on climate and environment as it relates to this great New York region and all of its challenges and contributions to the issue. I’m going to be presiding over today’s discussion. I’d like to invite the panelists to answer a few questions at the beginning and then we’ll go to audience questions.
We have Alice C. Hill, the new senior fellow for climate change policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
We have Francis X. Suarez, the major of the City of Miami. He’s also a commissioner on the Global Commission on Adaptation, which just had its meeting today.
And Sebastian Troeng. He is the executive vice president of Conservation International.
So we can begin, I think, here in this very dynamic week here in New York. We’ve just had a very stern message from Greta Thunberg. My eight-year-old watched it this morning and turned to me and said, well, that was scary; now I have a new worry. Then she said, let’s watch another one. And then she said, “Mama, do you care about the climate?” And I said yes. And she said, well, then why is Greta accusing you? (Laughter.) So I think it’s on all of us as adults to take it personally.
And here in New York City I’d like to begin by asking the mayor a question. The reason that we’re devoting an entire human being to covering climate and environment for New York is because this is a city that maybe more than any other in the world is both a large contributor to the problem of climate change as a major city; it’s also got a huge vulnerability, which is that we have one of the main nodes of the global financial system very vulnerable to flooding right here in Lower Manhattan. We have three hundred and fifty miles of coastline affecting the people in what is a great city that needs to remain vibrant into the future. And as the mayor was saying to me, cities around the world are really not prepared for what’s coming. So can you, as the mayor of one of the cities most threatened by sea level rise in the world, tell us what are some of the newest emerging threats to cities from climate change?
SUAREZ: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share some thoughts with all of you today.
Well, the most—the most recent threat that we saw was what I call the super hurricane, the super storm. When I was about twenty years old, 1992, my father was the mayor of Miami—1992—and we got hit with a hurricane, a direct hit with a hurricane that had two-hundred-mile-per-hour sustained winds, Hurricane Andrew. About two years ago we were hit with a hurricane that produced six- to eight-foot storm surges, which was Hurricane Irma. We just nearly were hit with a mega super storm, which was a combination of what Hurricane Andrew produced with a category five, 185-sustained-mile-per-hour winds and above, and a storm surge that was reported to be somewhere in the vicinity of eighteen to twenty-three feet in the Grand Bahamas, in Freeport, and in Marsh.
So when you contextualize that, when you look at Miami as a city that came out of Andrew in the ’90s—in the early ’90s, changed its building codes radically so that pretty much every building in Miami is almost indestructible to wind—a wind-like event, we have storm—wind—you know, either storm shutters or we have hurricane-proof windows in every single building in the city. And then you go into an event like Irma that produced six- to eight-foot storm surge and about four blocks of Miami were underwater, three to four feet underwater. And then you look at something like Dorian, which is the combination of the two, and it sat on top of the Bahamas for two days. Think about New York twenty to thirty feet underwater. Think about Miami twenty to thirty feet underwater. We’re not even prepared to think about preparing for an event of that size.
And so we’re still coming out of our post-Irma preparation with our what we call Miami Forever bonds. So we did something very unusual; as Miamians, we decided to tax ourselves and spend $200 million in infrastructure improvements that would allow us to better deal with these mega storms. But then we saw something that was even beyond our imagination. So once we start implementing Miami Forever, we’re going to be having to implement another round of Miami Really Forever. (Laughter.)
BARNARD: And, Alice, I think this leads us to a meta policy question here that we’ve been confronted with right now during the climate week. It’s difficult enough to meet the goals that have been only partially committed to. Those goals are not on track, and now we have a report that came out over the weekend suggesting that climate change is accelerating faster than expected, and the IPCC report on the oceans will be coming out soon. So the trend seems to be that the reports are showing us the black swan after black swan. How does policy account for these moving targets and moving expectations? And how can we at once continue the mobilization—and it does seem to be starting—while also moving the goalposts further ahead?
HILL: Climate change is at its core a risk-management challenge, and in risk management we’re always dealing with uncertainty. This is an unfamiliar uncertainty. We don’t know what level of emissions we will have. But certainly as a city like Miami or a city in Bangladesh makes choices, they can build in flexibility to adjust. And this is particularly important in major investments in a city in infrastructure. So there’s a reason all wastewater treatment plants are at sea level, but we need to be thinking how do we protect those. We saw that in Sandy; when the power went out, there was fouling of the waters. So this challenge is one of just incorporating the uncertainty in our choices in making ourselves more flexible as we learn more.
BARNARD: Sebastian, I wondered if you could talk a little bit—we’ve just touched on cities, and we’ll come back to all of these themes in the next round of our discussion. But we’ve talked about policy writ large. We’ve talked about frontline cities. Now, there’s also the enormous percentage of the globe which is oceans and forests. And how much of a solution can we expect from restoring natural habitats?
TROENG: So I think, you know, you’re absolutely right that this is a matter of how we manage risk. And I think there are—some choices are clearly no-regret choices, and nature is one of those. From a mitigation perspective, we know according to the latest analysis that nature, the restoration and conservation of ecosystems like tropical forests and mangroves and peat swamps, can provide 37 percent of the emission reduction that we need to avoid catastrophic climate change. But of course, it’s also a great asset if we’re looking at how it can help us adapt and help protect cities from climate change.
I live in Bogota in Colombia. It’s a city located at roughly seven thousand five hundred feet above sea level that’s home to maybe 20 percent of Colombia’s population. And 90 percent of the water in Bogota comes from these high-altitude wetlands known as páramos. They’re only found in the Andean Mountain chain. And the advantage of that is because they’re very high altitude, the water, of course, flows downhill, so it’s delivered through gravity. Now, compare that to a city like Mexico City where they have to pump all the water up and use as much energy just to pump water in Mexico City as the whole country of Panama uses to run its country. Bogota has none of that.
But with the projection of climate change, these ecosystems and the rainfall, the rain that they provide to the people of Bogota, is under risk. And so what we’re doing around Bogota is we’ve put together plans together with local governments, with the water authority that of course depends on this input from the natural ecosystems, and with smallholder farmers so that they use better practices, they leave these ecosystems intact or help to restore them, and that secures the future water supply for Bogota under climate change. But at the same time, it provides all these other benefits that we need to reduce poverty and to maintain biodiversity, sequester carbon, and provide habitats for pollinators that the food production of the country depends on.
So I think nature is something that can help us both adapt and mitigate climate change, plus give us a range of other benefits that allow governments to pursue poverty-reduction goals, Sustainable Development Goals. So if I were to have any—you know, ten bucks to spend on adapting to climate change, I would put it in nature-based solutions.
BARNARD: Mr. Mayor, when we talk about climate change we’re also increasingly talking about environmental justice and a just transition for the climate. That’s been a big part of the political mobilization in the United States, around the youth movement and the sort of introduction of climate themes into mainstream politics. Which is, you know, quite an interesting development. I’m wondering how you’re seeing the rubber meet the road on this in Miami now. There was a very interesting piece in Mother Jones recently about climate gentrification, the idea that formerly desirable—formerly undesirable, quote, unquote, neighborhoods are now being sought because they are on higher ground, and that puts more pressure on lower-income people whose communities are already bearing more of the brunt of climate change. So how are you tackling these issues at the very same time that you’re thinking about high-tech adaptation and mitigation?
SUAREZ: Yeah. Well, first I’ll tell you that it’s—as mayor of Miami, every Friday there’s a climate protest outside of city hall. And it’s usually by high school students that have a waver to go out and participate in these kinds of activities. And it’s interesting because they’re so passionate and, you know, they’re so committed to what they’re doing. And what they don’t realize is that we do listen, and we do act. And I’ll give you an example. You know, they came to me a couple months ago and asked me to declare a climate emergency in the city. And I said, OK, but I’m the chair of the environment committee for the U.S. Conference for Mayors. So why don’t I declare a climate emergency for the nation. And then the said, well, that’s great. But we want you to do it for the city. (Laughter.) Last time I checked I think the city’s in the nation. (Laughs.) But the enthusiasm, the—you know, it’s really inspiring. And I like to think of myself on the cusp of being a Millennial. I’m forty-one. So it really is energizing to see that generation.
On the issue of climate gentrification, part of our Miami forever bond addressed that very phenomenon. We actually are studying it. It’s more—right now, it’s more of a theory, but it’s a theory that we have dedicated resources to try to combat. And so the idea is, in Miami, we call it sort of colloquially above the ridge and below the ridge. So if you live below the ridge right now you’re living in probably the most expensive properties in the city, but they’re also the most vulnerable. If you live above the ridge, you are less vulnerable to climate—to sea level rise and climatic events, but it’s a poor area. And so what we’re—what we’re doing to address that is we created a fund where property owners that live in climate-gentrified—or, potentially climate-gentrified areas can get a—basically a forgivable loan if they stay in their property for twenty years, which will allow them to make their homes more resilient. New roofs, storm, you know, shutters or windows, things of that nature. Any kind of a home improvement that will make the house more resilient.
The key is they have to stay there. They can’t just take the home improvement, turn around, flip the house, and leave. And that’s a way for them to get the benefit of having a more resilient home and not having to sell, so that they have that choice. So we’re going to be studying. As far as I know, we’re the only city in the country that does that. And I’m not sure that there’s any other city in the country that actually has a resiliency bond like we do. So it allows us to actually be more than theoretical. It allows us to be practical, to have real dollars behind our ideas, and experiment, and then hopefully create a model that can be used not only in the United States, but across the world.
BARNARD: So this brings us to a subject that I’d like you all to address, each in your own way. The climate movement, to speak writ large, you know, ranging from groups like Extinction Rebellion, to Democrats pushing a Green New Deal, to the youth strike movement, Fridays for Future, started by Greta Thunberg, you know, there was an interesting point someone made yesterday in an article comparing it to the nuclear freeze movement in the late Cold War. At the time, as you said, like, sometimes it can seem like a very young movement that keeps things very simple. And it’s easy for conservatives or climate deniers to dismiss them as naïve or impractical. At the same time, the comparison was made that the nuclear freeze movement was seen much the same way, and nonetheless over time it changed the conversation to a point where talks were possible and disarmament agreements were possible—arms control agreements were possible. So how do you see the dynamic of this essentially youth movement growing around the world? How much traction does it have? And where do you think it has the most potential to affect policy?
HILL: For me, there couldn’t be enough attention on climate change. I think that we have discounted the risks. The markets are not accurately reflecting what is at stake. That includes the insurance, the real estate, and our financial markets. So the more attention we can bring to this is critical. One of the challenges we have is that many who are in decision-making power have not had an opportunity to study climate change, like these kids have. So they understand what’s going to unfold under their lifespan, and the need to act now because with emissions occurring every day we are baking in even more heat for future generations. Whether it will ultimately turn the tide, I don’t know. But it’s urgent. We need to find the political will to support mayors, governors, presidents, prime ministers to do the right thing now.
TROENG: And I would say, and our organization works in thirty countries around the world, the conversation is very different in the U.S., compared to pretty much every one of those countries. I mean, you will have heard in the U.N. heads of state standing up and endorsing Greta, you know, wanting to demonstrate that they’re being active. In the U.S., the conversation is completely different. Look at the U.K. The U.K. had fewer emissions last year than they had the year that Queen Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth. You know, there are a lot of countries that are moving forward very proactively and ambitiously on these issues. At the moment, the U.S. is not one of those countries. And I think, you know, with this movement—and when we don’t see leadership from the places where we expect to see leadership, new leaders stand up.
And I think it’s great to see, you know, cities and states in the U.S. being much more proactive on these issues than in many ways the federal administration. I think it’s great to see the youth stepping up. You know, a lot of what we’ve heard about and that our organization cares about is issues like the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere. And there, the Catholic Church has stepped up and become very proactive, convening a synod of bishops to discuss how the Catholic Church can be more proactive on these issues in the context of the Amazon. So I think that’s a—you know, what is going to happen. We’re going to see leaders emerge from unexpected places. And I think we’re going to learn from a lot of different places around the world what you can do to have an impact, if our normal leaders are not leading the charge.
BARNARD: and can you address this from the point of view of cities. I mean, in New York we’ve just seen both the state and the city pass very ambitious climate laws. And of course, Miami and Los Angeles have done so. How do cities make progress on this when they are operating within a federal framework that’s going the opposite direction?
SUAREZ: Well, first of all, I think the movement has been extremely effective. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I think the momentum, and the data, and the science is just too significant. And I think it’s good economics. I think when you start looking at the economics of solar, when you start looking at the economics of electric vehicles, when you start looking at water conservation and what water means to cities and to our—you know, existentially, I don’t—it’s impossible for me to think we’re going to be going in the opposite direction. I think the second reason why is, we have to. I mean, a city like Miami doesn’t really have a choice. We have a very poor subsoil. So we have two times a year king tide, which means that the water actually, based on tidal—you know, based on the tides and on the moon, will actually come from underneath up. And so we got hit. Dorian actually came on king tide. So it was part of the reason why the storm surge was so significant in the Bahamas.
But, you know, we also have more intense than usual rainfall—annual rainfall. We all—our entire stormwater master plan right now is being updated to take into account sea level rise. And it used to be—used to have the capacity for a one in five-year rain event. The only problem is we get five of those rain events a year. So we’re about twenty-five times below capacity in terms of our stormwater—ability to deal with stormwater. So I think from a—from a practical perspective, cities like Miami don’t have a choice. I exchanged messages today with the mayor of Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti. And he’s hoping that I can be a member of the C40. They have their upcoming meeting now, I think, October 12, October 11.
But I think cities now are leading, in the absence of federal leadership. And frankly, I don’t go to work thinking the federal government’s going to bail us out of this problem, you know? I’m blessed that our residents have given us a significant amount of resources. And the way I look at it is we have an amazing team, a city manager and public workers director, and capital improvements director that are tasked with spending that money as efficiently as possible because not only is it existential but, as was said, it creates—you know, there’s risk models, you know? If insurance companies stop insuring, our real estate will come to, you know, a grinding halt. And that’s really the canary in the coal mine for us and the city. And we’re going—you know, we grew 10 ½ percent last year. We did $3 billion in new construction in the city of Miami in one year alone. So there’s a lot at stake for our citizens.
BARNARD: Carla (sp), since we started five minutes late should we go for five more minutes? OK.
So, yeah, let’s talk about this issue of business. I think we have an audience that’s often quite interested in the business angle here. At some point, will constituencies that may be seen in conservative in some ways become leaders on this? I think we may already be starting to see that happen. But in other words, financial interests, and insurance companies, and municipal bond ratings agencies, and on, and on, and on. I mean, just looking around New York I see this incredible parade of new construction on the waterfront. And at what point do those become stranded assets that, you know, maybe the developers are planning on flipping all those apartments before it’s too late and it’ll be someone else’s problem. But at some point, the people that think about the markets are going to put their foot down. Now, how would that play out? Is it playing out already? And what can the public do to encourage that?
HILL: The markets have been delayed. There’s some pockets, we’ve heard about gentrification for coastal real estate. The Taskforce on Climate Financial Disclosure set forth various standards for institutions to follow. A recent survey of 1,126 companies following the recommendations found that only four—4 percent were actually disclosing in the manner that was anticipated. If you talk to finance folks, some of them will express reluctance to be the first mover, naturally, because they fear that they might be punished. I was in the Obama administration working on resilience. I received a call from Norfolk, who at that time—of course, we many security assets there. And they were doing a lot to handle their sea level rise challenge with subsidence. Getting a lot of media attention for it.
Well, they also got Moody’s attention. And so they were called, and they were asked: What are you doing? We’re thinking about downgrading you for your climate risk. I think it’s still true that we have not seen a downgrade in advance of a bad event. There have been downgrades after a hurricane, or a bad event. But we haven’t seen proactive. And when that actually hits the markets, you’re looking at a thirty-year bond. Those municipal securities—our insurance companies have a lot of them, our other financial companies hold a lot of them. If that begins to flip, we will see a market correction at some point. But I don’t think it has actually been internalized yet in the decision making, although there are many who are making statements about the need to do so and perhaps behind closed doors, are doing so. But it’s not public to the rest of us.
TROENG: I would say that—two things I would point out. The first is insurance companies. You know, they have very advanced models for assessing risk. And I think there is also a business opportunity here. And there is an example of, I think it was the Nature Conservancy, working with insurance companies in Mexico to basically consider the fact that there was a coral reef in front of the coastal buildings, and therefore lower the premiums given that the reef was reducing some of the wave action and the potential impact from storms. We’re doing similar work in the Philippines, where we work with the insurance companies to say if they would be open to reducing insurance premiums for coastal buildings that either conserve or restore mangrove forests in front of them, to reduce the wave action. So I think that’s an area. I think it’s, as you point out, just getting started.
I think the other thing is, it’s interesting, you know, shareholders themselves. I mean, one of the major oil companies in July of last year, the CEO went out to the media and said: We’re never setting emission reduction targets. In November last year, they announced their emission reduction targets. And that was because of pressure from shareholders. And certainly if I was an investor I would want to be aware of the climate risks the companies face that I’m putting my money into.
BARNARD: And certainly the divestment movement on college campuses, divestment from the fossil fuels industry, is gaining strength. And I think the University of California is the largest one to be affected. And what—but, again, that’s a big component of the political movement. At what point will we see the fossil fuel industry itself be affected by divestment on any kind of large scale? Will there be a consumer movement away or is that, you know, similar to waterfront property, that people will keep buying, and buying mutual funds, and buying pipeline funds just till the last minute?
HILL: Well, I don’t know if any of us can predict when we will be fossil fuel free. Certainly there are incentives in place that could drive us to more use of cleaner energy. And certainly, for example, some fossil fuel companies have announced that they are going to work as well towards a cleaner future and grade their own executives on their plans for clean energy. One issue that was touched on, will be corporate liability. This is certainly something that has caught the attention of general counsel of major engineering firms, as well as various corporate advisors, that the directors and officers could face their own liability for failing to account for climate risk.
That’s not just fossil fuel companies. That could be a company that fails to understand that they have one primary supplier, and that supplier is highly vulnerable to whatever storm event. We saw this in Thailand, where most of the concentration of a particular kind of component for computers was concentrated. It had an effect on the car industry that Thailand had every severe flooding in 2011. That’s the type of thing shareholders can start putting greater pressure on corporations to take this seriously and look at their own facilities and their own ability to operate under changing pictures of risk.
TROENG: And I think, you know, there are fifty-seven carbon pricing initiatives currently underway worldwide, some of them national, some of the subnational. And I think they really offer, especially if they have a mechanism that allows for offset of that pricing through investment in nature-based solutions, it actually kind of allows for two benefits. One is, you create an incentive to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which of course should reduce emissions. But then you channel funding from the very emitters to other type of activities that can reduce emissions from other sectors, like land use sector. And tropical deforestation alone actually has—results in more emission than all transport, all vehicles worldwide. And so it’s a way of kind of driving it from both ends, and making, you know, the companies that emit pay for it, which seems kind of fair to me.
SUAREZ: A cigarette tax.
BARNARD: So now I’d like to invite members to join our conversation and ask your questions. I’d like to remind you that this meeting is on the record. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand up and state your name, and your affiliation. And please try to keep yourselves to one question and keep it concise so as many people as possible can ask our panelists about their expertise.
Q: Wendy Luers, The Foundation for a Civil Society.
Mr. Mayor, everything that you’ve done is highly commendable, and yet you are in a state with two Republican senators and one Republican governor, a party that does not necessarily support any of the things that have been discussed on this stage. What kind of influence does the city of Miami have on Scott, and Rubio, et cetera? And how does that infiltrate into the Republican Party in general, because you’re also representing the mayors, one by one, so that our nation, the greatest emitter of all, can somehow be an example instead of what we are?
SUAREZ: I always get the first question. (Laughter.) Always. Every time.
So I think in the case of the three particular people that you spoke about, I think you change the conversation a little bit for them. And I think the conversation for them is about infrastructure, which we clearly need improving, flooding, which we clearly get, and water quality. Interestingly, I think Senator Rubio and Governor DeSantis have been much more moderate or even you would say liberal on water quality issues than I think the—you know, the Republican Party is, generally speaking.
I think we, as a country, have to understand that in the absence of federal leadership local governments will lead. You know, we do it every single day. I mean, we balance our budgets, so just to give you one example. You know, we have to balance our budgets constitutionally. We actually have a surplus. Think about that. Wrap your head around that. We actually have more money in the bank. We have a savings account. And it’s important because we can get hit by a hurricane. And so, you know, there are moments where we have to dip into that, and we have to protect ourselves.
But I think—I think part of it is certainly semantical. It’s the way you talk about these issues that gets people’s attention. And making it about economics, making it about flooding. You’d be surprised to know that our stormwater master plan was funded in great part by a Republican legislature, or the update of our stormwater plan—master plan. Because we didn’t tell them necessarily the case. We weren’t talking about, focusing on the cause, as we were focusing on the reality, right? The reality is we’re seeing these more intense rain events. We’re seeing this king-type flooding. We’re seeing these mega hurricanes. Nobody’s disputing that and nobody think that that’s a Republican or Democratic issue. And so if you focus on solutions—problem, solution—I think you get—you go a lot further with anyone from any party in terms of seeing real action.
BARNARD: So there’s a real kind of dance going on, where the word “climate change” is not mentioned.
SUAREZ: It’s a little bit of a salsa. (Laughter.) Yeah, yeah. It’s a salsa, yeah.
BARNARD: We actually heard this, even in New Jersey, around lakes that were having toxic algae blooms this summer. And even local municipalities in sort of purple parts of the state, or red parts of the state, had to dance around the issue without mentioning climate, just in order to keep the algae out of the lake.
Q: Thank you. Stephen Kass, Brooklyn Law School.
As Sebastian indicated, it’s developing companies that are likely to have the brunt of the impacts. Those are also the countries with the fewest resources to respond, particularly financial resources. Three years ago, the New York City Bar Association proposed the creation of an international financial transaction tax, with the proceeds to be dedicated for developing country adaptation to climate change. What do you think of that idea?
TROENG: So I think—I think financial innovation can get us a long way to addressing issues relating to climate change. I think, you know, what we’ve seen so far in terms of major investments in adaptation, a lot of that has come through the green climate fund that has just gone through its second round of funding. And a lot of countries are contributing to it, have doubled their contributions. I think on the national level, we’re also seeing innovative approaches being put forward. You know, the country I live in, Colombia, they are responsible for 0.46 percent of global emissions. But they put, as part of fiscal reform package—so, you know, it wasn’t kind of rolled out as a carbon tax. It was rolled out as fiscal reform. But as part of that, there is a carbon tax. But it allows for these nature-based offsets. And that now generates $250 million a year from within the country, without having to rely on any outside funding sources.
So with regards to the specific initiative you talk about, I think, you know, any initiative that is aimed to driving significantly increased investment towards adaptation and mitigation I think are definitely worth considering because we need to double down on these solutions if we want to avoid, you know, catastrophic climate change in the decades to come.
BARNARD: Yes, in the back.
Q: Laurie Garrett, Anthropos Initiative.
It’s been pointed out that New York is green. Our governor’s a New Green Deal endorser, we have two Senators who are, we have a major who is, we have city council, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And yet, here we are facing decaying infrastructure, we have collapsing highways, and every single infrastructure development scheme assumes continued burden of automobiles, continued dependency for not just transport of people but cargo and everything as being automobile and truck dependent. And every attempt to fundamentally say, no, we won’t fix this section of highway or we won’t rebuild this auto tunnel this way is rebuffed as silly, crazy, fantasyland. So even though we call ourselves a green city, we’re hooking ourselves four, five decades ahead on an infrastructure entirely based on automobiles. How would you—if you’re looking at this in Miami, how do you argue around rebuilding automobile-dependent infrastructure?
SUAREZ: Wow, that’s—in some ways I think it’s even more challenging in Miami. And I’ll tell you why. Manhattan has a very sophisticated and significant underground rail system. It transports about eight million people a day. Miami doesn’t have that. Miami is very horizontal. We don’t—we don’t have subways because of our water table. And I, as a member of the transportation planning organization or the Metropolitan Planning Organization proposed something in Miami called the SMART Plan, the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan, which would have essentially tripled the size of our mass transit—our mass transit fleet.
And unfortunately, we haven’t really acted on it. And we still see elected officials there proposing superhighways into wetlands, you know, into the Everglades, which make absolutely no sense for a variety of reasons. I mean, in the case of Miami we have, obviously, the Everglades, which we want to protect, and it’s most of our drinking water. But in addition to that, it’s just not forward thinking. I mean, if we’re going to get off of this dependence on automobiles—and, by the way, I’m a believer that we’re very close to the tipping point on automobiles, because I think the electric vehicle is very, very close in price to the average price of an internal combustion engine vehicle. And once that—once that—once you pass that price point, there’s really almost no incentive to have an internal combustion engine car. The electricity is far less expensive. And the maintenance is almost minimal. It’s almost nothing when you have cars that have, you know, fifteen moving parts as opposed to 2,300 in the engine.
But as you said, a lot of the policymakers and, frankly, there’s not enough people that are running for office that are my age, you know? And it’s happening in Miami as well. I mean, we have a county mayor’s race next year, and no one from my generation is running. I’m forty-one. No one in my generation’s running. People in my dad’s generation are running. And there’s nothing wrong with that. My dad is one of them, so. (Laughter.) But my dad, you know, was a former Miami mayor, and he’s seventy years old. And you know, it’d be nice to see—you know, I think you’re going to see public policy changes when you start changing the people that make public policy.
BARNARD: One thing about electric cars, just to quickly piggyback on this question, is the infrastructure needed to have charging available to every home which, again, it brings us back to infrastructure, and political will, and spending. Yeah.
HILL: And it’s also range. If you’ve ever driven an electric vehicle and had range anxiety, it can be quite intense. So as an owner of an electric vehicle, yes.
BARNARD: Yes, sir.
Q: You know, I’d like to—you are quoting, frankly, your father. I admire what he has done and what you are doing. My name is Kotecha, I’m with a financial firm and I’m a member of the Council.
My father used to say that a donkey doesn’t move unless you twist its tail. You have found that you have actually anticipated that and done the Miami Forever. But when you look at then what happened, it’s not enough to do really a Miami Forever really bond, perhaps. So my question is this, are we—a lot of good things are happening that are being described by all of us here, by all of you. And that’s great. But the percentage change, the degree change in global temperature, it’s not sufficient. What we’re talking about ain’t enough. And it’s not forever. It’s not even really forever. And so my question is are we mobilizing sufficiently for the extent of the problem? And how do we monitor that we’re doing so, and keep from getting completely discouraged from being so far behind?
BARNARD: Goes right to the heart of it, doesn’t it?
HILL: Well, I would just say simply we’re not doing enough. But the wonderful thing about working in the field of climate change is that there’s always something new to do that hasn’t been tried before, because by definition we’re seeing events that we’ve never experienced. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for energy and for creativity to think about how we can ensure we have a better world going forward. So actually I find it very easy to get up and go to work every day, even though there are grim prospects ahead, because there’s such a chance right now to make a difference—probably more so than will be in future years. Now is the moment. So to the extent we each choose to be involved, we can actually see that our own community may move, it may move on the national stage, and it could move on the global stage as well.
SUAREZ: Yeah, necessity’s the mother of invention, you know? And I think, you know, obviously, as I was saying, the Miami Forever bond, by the way, may not have passed—it was a voter-approved bond—it may not have passed if it wasn’t for the fact that Irma hit in September and the election was in November. (Laughter.) OK, so, no. And it’s funny but it’s true. I mean, we were literally four feet underwater for four blocks. And when you see those kinds of images, you’re traumatized. And then seeing Dorian do what did to the Bahamas, and the Bahamas, as you were mentioning, is a country that doesn’t have the resources to rebuild. And frankly it’s, you know, catastrophic what’s happened there. You know, you’re—again, you’re further traumatized, understanding that, you know, if you don’t continue accelerating the infrastructure investments, then you could have a scenario where you’re—you know, where you’re seeing something very catastrophic as well in your city.
So thankfully we didn’t bury our head in the sand. We’re doing something about it. We’re actually, you know, making concrete changes to our infrastructure. And that’s why we do believe that Miami will be around forever. And, you know, I’m a father. My wife is here. I have two small children, a five-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old. And my dream is that their grandchildren can enjoy our city.
TROENG: Yeah, I would say—I mean, something that gives me hope is the recent outrage about the deforestation, the fires in the Amazon, is at a level I’ve never seen. I mean, at the time I was in the small coastal community in the Philippines. And the people in that community were not interested in talking about the mangroves that they were restoring and conserving. They wanted to know what was happening in the Amazon. And so we live in these times where the threat has never been greater, but the awareness about that threat has never been greater either. And so it’s kind of this almost exponential horserace to see, you know, which side eventually wins out. So it’s definitely the time—the best time to be alive if you care about these issues.
BARNARD: Maryum Saifee. Can you guys remember to introduce yourselves, please?
Q: Maryum Saifee. Currently doing the CFR International Affairs Fellowship.
My question is, we’re here at UNGA, on the margins of UNGA, and there’s a proliferation of these transnational networks, like C40. And on the panel it was discussed earlier about the—how mayors are sort of crafting their own foreign policies, sometimes in contradiction sometimes in parallel, to federal government. My question is on have there been any really successful transnational cooperation across—you know, from global cities—on climate adaptation? And if so, if you can give an example that’s been able to trickle up into federal policy.
SUAREZ: Oh, yeah. That’s the last part—you kill me with the last part. (Laughter.) I think there is an example, and it’s the Global Commission on Adaptation, that I’m on. I’m the only mayor in the U.S. The only other mayor on the global commission is Mayor Hidalgo from Paris. We just had our report to the U.N. a few hours ago. And it was—it was started by Bill Gates, who was there in attendance—Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general, and a former president of the World Bank who’s now at the IMF, Kristalina—I’m going to butcher her last name, always; I always get it wrong—Georgieva, right? And so I think that’s a great example of an organization that is—that is succeeding at the international level to get the message out of what needs to occur to adapt to what’s happening.
I think what’s interesting is that for a while we were having the mitigation conversation. It’s almost like we understand the mitigation and the reversal. No one ever really talks about reversal. I don’t know why we don’t talk more about reversal. But, you know, the mitigation and reversal has taken a little bit of a—I don’t want to say a back—it hasn’t taken a backstage, but the things that we’re seeing climatically are so—are so perverse, they’re so threatening that we have to start acting on adaptation right now. And frankly, as the professor was saying, you know, what’s sad is when you see a country that just doesn’t have the means. You know, we’re a hundred miles away from the Bahamas, and we had to send our urban search and rescue team, which is basically a portable expert fire department, there.
And we did it without federal intervention. So we did it at our own cost. I mean, we’re—you know, we’re a city. We’re not a huge city. We’re not New York in terms of our budget. We have a billion-dollar budget. But we felt it was morally the right thing to do to send our highly trained urban search and rescue team, that’s been here during 9/11, they were in Haiti after the earthquake, they were in the panhandle during Michael and in Puerto Rico as well. So we had to do that at our own dime. So I think that there are cities that are acting in an international capacity, even though we’re obviously not—we’re not a federal government.
BARNARD: Yes, sir.
Q: Hi. Bill Bohnett. I am chair of the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center and also have a number of other board seats.
To Sebastian, and I do not consider myself an expert, but I think one overlooked area that is nonetheless crucial, I’m more familiar with reforestation and afforestation, would be regenerative agriculture. You know, in a planet that is going to go from seven billion to over nine billion over this period, better agricultural practices and changing the way we farm I think is going to become critically important. Is that—can you expound on that a little bit?
TROENG: Absolutely. I mean, if you look at the greatest drivers of deforestation and important drivers for emissions, the way we produce our food is kind of at the core of these challenges. Our scientists are currently working on the global analysis, where they’re looking by country what the potential is for both, you know, avoid deforestation, reforestation, afforestation, but also looking at the agriculture sector, and where are the opportunities around the world to really have an impact that way.
You know, we’ve heard a lot during these—the last couple days here in different events about the opportunities that such a change could also mean for smallholder farmers. How, for example, in the Amazon if you produced products like acai and other agroforestry products, you can as a smallholder farmer make between four and ten times as much per hectare than if you clear it up and put a head of cattle on it. And so, again, I think that’s definitely an area of opportunity, rethinking about how we produce our food to generate multiple benefit—benefits for the climate, probably also benefit for our health, and then of course benefit for the people who produce the food that we eat.
BARNARD: Maybe have time for two more questions if we take them together, and then you guys can answer to whatever point is most important to you. Yes, sir, and the gentleman in the back there, in the gold tie. Yeah.
Q: Dee Smith, Strategic Insight Group and a Council member.
Thank you very much for a very informative session. I guess this question is mostly for the mayor. How do you start conceiving how to deal with twenty- to thirty-foot storm surges in a city like Miami, with Miami Beach, and downtown, and so forth? I’m particularly talking about below the ridge.
BARNARD: And what advice do you have for New York. And let’s get that last question too, and we’ll answer them all—
SUAREZ: Yeah, start spending money is my advice to New York. Look, I think, you know, it just happened. So we just saw that event happen. So I can no longer say that that is an inconceivable event. Miami Forever, again, was predicated mostly on a six- to eight-foot event. And so I think the images out of the Bahamas were so startling, and the death toll, I just think we have to continue to invest, really, at the end of the day. I think what’s ironic is the good news, if there’s good news, right? The good news is, frankly, the amount of money that’s at risk, the amount of property that’s at risk. So the first ones that are telling you—you know, usually the development community resists building code strengthening, things of that nature, right? But in this particular case, because their assets are the ones at risk, it’s gotten to a point where, you know, the building community, the development community, is actually a big part of the solution. They’re coming to the table and saying, hey, we—you know, if we’re going to borrow for thirty years, or forty years, or fifty years, we got to make sure these buildings are around for thirty, forty, fifty years.
BARNARD: Spend money to save money.
SUAREZ: Exactly. And we’ve seen it happen in the past, and it’s been absorbed. So after Andrew, like I said, all our building codes were strengthened. There was an initial fear, oh my God, we’re pricing ourselves out of the market, no one’s going to want to live here. That’s obviously not what happened. And we survived that. And now we have—I think we’re the most wind resilient city on the planet. And we have to now become the most water resilient city on the planet.
BARNARD: Last question.
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
One of the most pressing, perhaps, adaptive mechanisms for climate change is migration—mass migration. We’ve already seen the first wave of it out of Central America, partly climate driven, and out of western Africa toward Europe, partly climate driven. And it’s pretty clear there’s a kind of resistance to taking them, at least in the developed countries. So what are the ways in which local governments can adapt to or prepare for some influx of so-called climate refugees? And how does one prepare those developing countries to be able to handle enormous amounts of internal refugee movements—climate refugees?
HILL: So with migration what we see is that those who can move, often will move. So it’s important for us to think about the communities that will be the receiving communities. And there probably will be some who move from Florida or other coastal regions, as the sea level rise. And where do we—where do they go, how can we support them with—we’ve had examples after big events, licensure, make it easier for people to move across states, tax credits for the expenses involved. Other countries have started down this path. Bangladesh, one of the most threatened by sea level rise in the world, has started identifying receiving communities and how they can support. So you reduce the conflict as other people move in. That’s for internal displacement.
For external displacement, for, as we saw in Syria, partly driven by the drought there, and we’re seeing from Central America, the challenge is much greater. The U.N. has attempted to move forward on finding some kind of new agreement on how we will threat those. Some of them will be stateless, if you think of the small island states, they won’t have a country to go to. You’re seeing that Tuvalu and others are buying land elsewhere. So there’s a lot of thought about the solutions, but the globe is ill-prepared, in my opinion, for how disruptive and how quickly this migration will occur. And in fact, our own intelligence agencies have told us so, that this is probably the biggest effect that we will see in the coming years, is the people on the move. And how are we going to help them succeed?
TROENG: And I think you just made a perfect case for why foreign assistance is important. If we want to address these issues, we need to support those countries, to put solutions in place that allow for people to live well in those countries. Otherwise, they will be on the move.
BARNARD: Well, thank you very much for the great questions. And thanks to our fantastic panelists. And thanks, again. (Applause.)