Member of Miami Sea Level Rise Committee Berated Climate Activist Until She Cried
City of Miami

Member of Miami Sea Level Rise Committee Berated Climate Activist Until She Cried

Update 4/5: City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has called for board member Reinaldo Borges to resign, and has suggested that every single incumbent member of the board be replaced. He also endorsed expanding the board's mandate and changing its name to reflect that the panel is designed to fight against climate change in all forms, instead of simply sea-level-rise.

Maggie Fernández showed up at last week's Miami Sea Level Rise Committee meeting with a simple pitch. Her group, the grassroots Miami Climate Alliance, wants the city to account for all the money it spends battling rising seas. Her group encourages cities to potentially sue oil companies and carbon polluters to pay their bills instead of raising residents' taxes — but last week, she was just asking the city to make a spreadsheet tallying up the money it was spending to fight against sea-level rise.

That creative idea was not met with enthusiasm. In fact, the committee's head, local lawyer Wayne Pathman, shot Fernández down and, oddly, told her the board had no role in going after carbon polluters. Then, another board member, architect Reinaldo Borges, lobbed insults at Fernández and told her to never come back — all because she asked the committee to push harder to fight climate change and criticized the group for a lack of diversity.

Fernández says she left the meeting in tears and immediately texted Mayor Francis Suarez to say she has "never, ever been spoken to like that to anyone, let alone an appointed member on a [government] committee." (Fernández provided New Times with screen shots of her texts.)

But Borges did not shy away from berating the activist.

"I believe life is too short not to put people like this in their place," he tells New Times. "She was telling us all that we’re just a bunch of idiots. If I made her cry, good for her. Let her express her emotions."

The exchange illustrates a growing divide between activists who want the city to fight hard against carbon pollution rather than simply approve patchwork solutions to the rising seas caused by that pollution. Some board members say city leaders made it clear the committee's mandate ends with suggesting sea walls and raised streets — not going after the polluters creating the problem.

But aside from that ideological debate, activists also say they're horrified Borges openly berated a climate activist and told her she's not welcome at public meetings.

The committee, established in 2015 under then-Mayor Tomás Regalado, meets monthly and can only "advise" city commissioners to take actions to mitigate climate change. Commission member Albert Gomez invited Fernández to speak on behalf of the Miami Climate Alliance because Gomez himself cofounded the group.

The Climate Alliance has partnered with the group Center for Climate Integrity to push a campaign called #PayUpClimatePolluters. Both groups paid for anti-carbon-pollution billboards along I-95 last month. The activists want the government to sue major climate polluters such as oil and utility companies to force them to pay for resiliency efforts because those companies are playing an outsize role in creating the mess.

Fernández says she didn't demand the board endorse the #PayUp campaign. (She said she never once asked the city to sue anyone and did not use the word "lawsuit" at all, but the #PayUp website explicitly discusses using lawsuits as a potential tool to fight pollution.) Instead, her request was simply that the city keep a tally of the amount taxpayers are paying to fight sea-level rise. For example, Miami voters last year agreed to raise taxes to pay for $200 million in new storm-water pumps and other structural upgrades.

"All I was asking was for them to itemize and track the cost of climate change," she says, "because that burden typically falls on taxpayers, who are choosing to tax themselves to address the monstrous issues they’re facing in regards to climate."

But this idea proved too radical for some members of Miami's sea-level-rise committee. Pathman told her the group's job was not to fight the root causes of climate change. Instead, he argued the focus should simply be figuring out ways to help the city cope with rising seas. Pathman tells New Times that going after climate polluters would be "expanding the role" of the committee.

"Climate is a global issue, and there are all these issues that fall under the umbrella," Pathman says. "Sea-level rise is one element. Maggie was there to ask, 'How do we hold people responsible for impacting our climate?' But our commission is limited in trying to address those issues. What she is talking about is a very important issue for her, but if our committee took a position, that might end up being a negative issue for the city."

He says he offered to meet further with the Climate Alliance and to help connect the group to other members of the city government, but Fernández says she felt like she was "shot down, like there was a door being shut in [her] face."

During the meeting, Gomez argued it was "disrespectful to disconnect" sea-level rise and climate change. He said Pathman was "giving his legal interpretation as to what he thinks the board's charter spoke to. But looking at cause and effect, you can’t decouple the two things. In fact, we've been on the dais and talked about the connectivity of climate change and sea-level rise in the past."

In some ways, it's incredible the Republican-dominated Miami government has multiple panels devoted to fighting rising oceans. Miami-Dade created a countywide climate-change committee in 2013, but the pace of change has been somewhat slow: County Mayor Carlos Gimenez did not formally hire a county resiliency officer until 2015 after numerous environmentalists complained that Miami-Dade's climate-fighting budget was ten times smaller than Broward's.

Within the City of Miami, former Mayor Regalado's "Miami Forever" sea-level-rise bond (which the committee helped push) represented the first massive infrastructure upgrade designed to fight the encroaching ocean — and voters only approved it in 2017. But that bond does nothing to combat carbon emissions, and neither the county nor local cities have been particularly proactive about lobbying for stricter federal or state emissions standards or about possibly suing oil companies in the same way numerous state and city governments have sued opioid-pushing pharmaceutical companies in recent years.

According to the Climate Accountability Institute's Richard Heede, only 90 companies are responsible for creating two-thirds of the world's carbon emissions. The institute suggests those companies be held responsible for the damage they've (in many cases knowingly) done to the Earth. In the meantime, sea-level-rise projections continue to look worse for Miami. Multiple reports warn that two feet of ocean rise might be possible by the year 2100, but even six inches or a foot of change would spell disaster for Florida's flat, porous landmass. Just yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that Miami's streets could begin to flood daily by 2070, according to the Miami Herald.

That's why Gomez said he's been pushing the city to rename the committee and formally expand its scope. He wants the city to rechristen the group the Climate Change Resiliency Committee. He said he wants to explore using the Miami climate board as a "pulpit" to discuss state or federal regulatory issues, which is why he asked Fernández to speak at last week's meeting.

In fact, Fernández spoke to the board twice — first to educate the board about the concept of "climate liability" (holding polluters accountable for carbon pollution), and, second, to address what she thought were other issues with the board: namely, racial and gender diversity. She said she told the board she was upset that she was forced to address "all white men" and also lobbed some fairly harsh criticism about how she thinks the board isn't moving fast enough to fight the surging seas. But something in Fernández's speech ultimately ticked off Borges, another member of the board.

In response, Borges laid into her.

"This lady has never really talked to us. She sits through, like, one meeting and then starts yelling about what we’re doing, what we're not doing, being critical, insulting all of us," Borges says. "I’m never going to be a politician; I’m an architect. But I care about this community more than most, and I thought it was insulting for someone to be so critical without even knowing us. So I said, 'Look, I think it’s insulting you are here, and I don’t want to see you here again.'" He tells New Times he thinks suing climate polluters is a waste of the city's time — but, he adds, he supports other methods of taxing carbon-spewing companies.

Regardless, multiple people who witnessed Borges' response say they were stunned. Gomez says he tried to interrupt Borges and calm him; another activist (who did not want to be named) says he found the tirade insulting; and Fernández herself says she fought off tears by the end of Borges' tirade.

"It was a minute or two minutes of him just yelling at me," Fernández says. "He said so many things to me, like I was calling them idiots? I wasn’t! I don’t think any of them are idiots — I just think they're not acting fast enough. By the end,I was just telling myself, Hold it together. Hold it together."

When Borges finished his speech, he stood up and left. And when Fernández finally left the room, she teared up, she says. She then texted Suarez, the city's new mayor, who himself appointed Borges to the committee.

"I am seriously considering filing a complaint or something," Fernández told the mayor. "He definitely did not represent you well. He told me that he never wanted to see me [there] again. I am still shaken up."

"Let's discuss tomorrow if that is ok," Suarez responded. "I hope you are ok."

Pathman, the board's chair, left the meeting early and did not witness the ordeal. But he says he heard about the exchange before New Times contacted him the next day and, though he did not witness the event himself, says the incident as described didn't sit well with him. Though he says he doesn't necessarily agree with Fernández's criticisms, he says he contacted her to offer an apology.

"I expressed to Maggie that I wanted to apologize if she was offended, but I can’t really comment yet since I have not watched the tape," he says. "I hope that one bad exchange doesn't end up impacting Maggie or Reinaldo, since they're both good people."

Borges tells New Times that if he encountered the activist again, he'd "probably be apologizing to her," but Gomez, the board member who invited her, says he thinks that kind of conduct doesn't help the city fight climate change.

"Resilience starts with people," Gomez says. "'Resilience' was originally a metallurgical term. When you hit something hard and keep hitting it hard, resilient metal will yield and shift and absorb the force. So if you have an argument that doesn’t shift, if you can’t take constructive criticism, that’s also not very resilient."

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