Why Miami is the first stop on a campaign to ask polluters to pay for climate action

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Unlike plenty of other areas threatened by a changing climate, South Florida cities and counties have come up with plans to stem the floods — and they’ve committed hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the work.

Miami voted to tax itself for nearly $200 million in sea level rise mitigation. Miami Beach is spending half a billion on a new stormwater system and elevated roads.

But a new political campaign starting in Miami is pushing a radical proposal: that polluters, not taxpayers, should foot the bill.

The Miami Climate Alliance, with help from the national Center for Climate Integrity, bought five billboards — three on 836 and two on I-95 — to pitch the idea that energy and utility companies should pay for the expensive infrastructure projects needed to shore up the region against the effects of climate change.

“You hear them say the responsibility should be shared with states and federal government, but we’ve never had the conversation about polluters. What responsibility do they have?” said Maggie Fernandez, committee chair of the Miami Climate Alliance and president of Sustainable Miami.

So far, the costs of adapting to climate change remain little more than guesses, with some experts predicting a price tag in the billions for South Florida in the coming decades. Part of the groups’ campaign, which will continue even after the $16,000 billboard ads disappear on Sunday, includes asking residents to push county commissioners to produce a potential price tag for dealing with more flooding, heat waves and health impacts.

Lynsy Smithson-Stanley, director of communications for the Center for Climate Integrity, said she’d like to see the county partner with scientific groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists to pinpoint exactly how much of that cost could be be attributed to companies.

Her group picked Miami to kick off the campaign, she said, because the region is beyond the conversation about what needs to be done and on to the question of who pays for it.

“To have that conversation without including the companies that knowingly directly contributed — I think it’s negligence,” she said.

They hope to inject the idea into Florida’s upcoming election, she said. Former Miami Beach Mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine has already brought it up while campaigning.

The “polluter pays” idea may be new in terms of climate change, but the concept has a history in Florida, albeit an unsuccessful one.

A 1996 constitutional amendment that would hold Florida sugar companies financially responsible for cleaning up the agricultural pollution that flowed into the Everglades passed with two thirds of the vote, but lawmakers never made any legislation to enforce it. The state’s Supreme Court later ruled the amendment was toothless without legislation to back it up, leaving three quarters of the $106 million a year tab on nearby residents, according to a 2012 study from the Everglades Foundation.

The latest campaign aims for a bigger target: politically powerful energy and utility companies.

It isn’t difficult to trace the link between companies and impacts. Last year, a report from the Climate Accountability Institute found that 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 were from just 100 oil and gas companies.

Activists hope a string of ongoing lawsuits seeking compensation from energy producers — most of them filed in California — backed by more public support could provide a real chance to hold corporate America accountable for climate impacts. Reaction to Miami’s billboards could be an early measuring stick of how the message will resonate with the public.

“There’s for-profit companies that have known since the ’70s that their business efforts are directly causing climate change,” said David McDougal, treasurer and founding member of the Miami Climate Alliance. “We just want to connect the dots and help people see that there are folks that are responsible.”

The oil and gas industry doesn’t have much presence in South Florida, so activists here point to Florida Power & Light as a potential place to send the climate change bill.

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said activists had picked the wrong target.

Although FPL is the third largest utility in the country with almost five million customers, it’s not as reliant on oil and gas as its national peers, he said.

The majority of FPL’s power is generated with natural gas, which emits about half as much carbon as coal, and nuclear power, which has zero emissions. About 1 percent — on par with the national average — comes from the utility company’s 14 solar plants, eight of which were added this year. FPL plans to build 20 more solar plants in coming years. Bubriski said that would put the company on track to generate more power from solar than coal and oil combined by 2020 or sooner.

It’s also more upfront about the risks its business model faces from climate change than others in the industry and touts itself as “the largest renewable energy business in the nation.”

Bubriski called the Polluters Pay Up campaign “intentionally misleading” and an attempt by the associated environmental groups to raise money and publicity.

“If you really cared about climate change, why would you target one of the cleanest utilities in the country that invests billions in clean energy unless it’s politically motivated?” Bubriski said. “They’re buying billboards. We’re investing billions in solar and clean energy.”

But critics of the utility say FPL also poured millions of dollars into a campaign to pass a purposefully misleading amendment that appeared to support the rights of home solar panel owners but would have actually opened the door to new fees and costs and kept out solar energy generator competitors. It failed.

Activists cite that campaign, plus a one-time proposal to push the estimated $1.3 billion cleanup costs from Hurricane Irma onto customers, as examples of times they saw FPL as trying to avoid paying for something they see as its responsibility, like the effects of climate change.

“Ultimately, we want to hit FPL in a big way so they move faster toward green energy,” said McDougal, of the Miami Climate Alliance. “We’re starting to make massive payments to invest in our future, but it’s no match for our needs.”

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