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Fighting to stay above water

The news seems grim, and getting grimmer. Just this week, a new report warned that Miami could see more than half the city disappear below the waves even if the world took notice and instituted severe cuts to carbon emissions. And without the cuts, there won’t be anything of South Florida left at all, with everything from Key West to Stuart submerged beneath the rising seas.

Our whole way of life destined to vanish. Miami as Atlantis.

As study coauthor Dr. Benjamin Straus told Miami New Times, “Every human being is mortal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live a meaningful life. The same is true of cities.”

While the lifespan of Miami may be a couple centuries, or a couple thousand years, it’s undeniable that we are already feeling the affects. And cities like Miami Beach have been left with no choice but to innovate, with a $400 million program of installing pumps to keep the ocean at bay that’s still a work in progress, and has definitely had both successes and setbacks.

Meanwhile, on the county level, the original proposed budget didn’t have a single penny set aside for sea level rise resilience. But a coalition of 35 different community groups, led by five high school students, made the Board of County Commissioners change their minds, securing an admittedly modest $375,000 that included funds to hire a climate change resilience officer.

“The fact that I won’t be able to raise my kids here is devastating — I love it here,” said Miranda Pertierra, a Miami native and senior at Coral Reef High School who spoke at the commission meeting. “What really gets me angry is the fact that our political leaders don’t care. They are not going to see the consequences. It’s going to be their grandkids living though it.”

While securing what’s basically the cost of a single-family home in Miami-Dade to combat a threat to the county’s very existence may seem like a small place to start, it’s still a win, and it’s part of a greater strategy to bring together community members and organizations beyond the usual coalition of environmental activists.

According to David McDougal, cofounder of Engage Miami and organizer of this years People’s Climate March in Miami, they’ve been able to get the support of more than 50 organizations in demanding that local government do more to tackle the looming crisis. “It’s a real diverse mix,” he explained, “with many organizations that have never addressed climate change, but are seeing climate change increasingly as an issue they need to address as they take on their core missions.”

For him, the People’s Climate March, happening not just in Miami but in nearly 200 cities across the country, was a chance to bring some of these new groups together. As he put it, “This march is very much a celebration of that forward movement, and the citizens and residents standing up for our needs and getting results. … The tent is getting wider and we’re finding ever more intriguing and interactive ways to engage the public.”

And it was definitely a wide tent. They expected 800 people, but it’s estimated more than 2,000 showed up.

Sam Van Leer, founder and president of Urban Paradise Guild, launched the original Miami march last year. “To solve everything, we need everyone — it’s absolutely true,” he said. “We need everybody to be a part of it, so it’s great to have all this energy, and great to have all these new ideas. Everybody has their own perspectives, and they’re all relevant, and they’re all essential.”

Kamalah Fletcher, senior director of community engagement for Catalyst Miami, was part of that new wave of local groups fighting for action against climate change. “Even though we’re not an environmentally focused organization, we do believe in resilience, and if all of this is going to be affecting our communities, we absolutely need to help figure out how we prepare our community to include climate change resilience, to include adaptation, in the realm of what it means to take care of your family and plan for your future.”

The idea that planning for climate change is becoming intrinsically linked to how we as a community plan for the future has gained broad support from an increasingly wide variety of diverse groups, from FANM Ayisyen – Haitian Women of Miami to South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

And while farmers and environmentalists can often butt heads over the issues, the farmworker community had a presence at the march as well. According to Leonel Perez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “As farmworkers this movement is really important to us because we depend on the climate. … If we continue to destroy the Earth, we won’t have anything to depend on.”

Artist Marcus Blake, who designed the poster for the event and hosted the musical performances and poetry readings leading up to the march, had never considered himself an environmental activist before. But the threats Miami is facing couldn’t be denied. “With just the moon pulling on the ocean, the streets were flooded. I love living here, and so do my children,” he said. “The more you get involved, the more you see that it does affect everybody. It’s so important to do something about it before it’s too late.”

As Mykel Butler, owner, DJ, and creative director of Silent Revolution, put it, “I feel like everyone should be an activist, because this is going to affect everybody.” Which is why he offered headphones free of charge for anyone interested in turning their march into a silent disco.

Because of course, being Miami, the march from Government Center to The Torch of Friendship was as much a party as a protest, with a rara band filling the streets with traditional Haitian festival music as people of all ages and backgrounds poured through Downtown. It definitely did not feel like a wake for a dying city.

It felt like the rallying cry of thousands fighting to preserve their way of life.