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Town Hall Candidates Say Sea-Level Rise Is A Problem. But The Audience Wants Solutions

A volunteer hands out cards for audience questions prior to the start of a town hall in Coconut Grove on sea-level rise.
Kate Stein
A volunteer hands out cards for audience questions prior to the start of a town hall in Coconut Grove on sea-level rise.

South Florida is on pace to see two feet of sea-level rise in the next 40 years. That means higher insurance costs and saltwater threatening the region's drinking water supplies, among other impacts.

But many candidates for political office don’t have strong ideas for helping the region cope, according to audience members at a sea-level rise town hall Monday night in Coconut Grove.

"Many of our candidates have a pretty surface-level understanding," said Sarah Emmons, a Coconut Grove resident who works for Radical Partners, an organization that supports community engagement on regional challenges including climate change. 

Four candidates for Florida's House of Representatives participated in the event: District 105 candidates Javier Estevez and Ana Maria Rodriguez; District 115 candidate Jeffrey Solomon; and District 116 candidate James Alexander Harden. They were asked a series of questions about how the state of Florida and its communities should respond to rising seas; their answers mostly echoed one another, focusing on local infrastructure upgrades, strengthening Florida's building code and supporting renewable energy.

Many people in the town hall audience work in climate and resilience. And they expressed concern that no candidate really distinguished him- or herself on how to prepare. Most of the discussion focused on measures that are already underway and that have bipartisan support.

Audience members said that while it's good the candidates agree sea-level rise is a threat, they want to see bolder ideas and bigger plans to scale up the region's climate response.

Emmons said candidates could work with local community groups to learn more about how South Florida can respond to rising seas, for example.

Joan Braun, an Aventura resident, said the biggest issue is a lack of education on climate change and sea-level rise.

"I think that’s what needs to happen -- including our candidates, including residents."

When asked how they'd help communities absorb the enormous costs of adapting to sea-level rise, the candidates did have slightly different answers.

District 115 candidate Jeffrey Solomon recommended a carbon tax on companies that burn fossil fuels. "Nobody wants to pay any more taxes than they have to," he said. "Maybe they'll be motivated to clean up their approach."

Harden, the District 116 candidate, suggested providing incentives that would help people in the middle class afford solar panels and electric cars.

"Rather than incentivizing the fossil fuel companies, we incentivize the middle class and lower-class individuals to switch over and become energy-independent themselves," he said.

The two District 105 candidates, Estevez and Rodriguez, did not respond to the question with answers on sea-level rise or climate change specifically, although they agreed with each other that companies should be held financially accountable for pollution.

One candidate for U.S. Congress attended the event: Mayra Joli, who's running to represent Congressional District 27. Joli largely did not answer moderators' questions about sea-level rise, choosing instead to describe her own campaign platform.

Organizers said Joli's opponent, Donna Shalala, had been planning to attend the town hall but ended up going to a memorial service for victims of the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

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.