In the eye of the storm

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They say there are two types of people who run toward a disaster: firemen and reporters. And that’s exactly what Miami Herald Reporter David Ovalle did. As others across the city camped out in their offices waiting for hurricane Irma’s fury to abate so they could go home, he headed straight for the storm.

When his editor asked him if he was willing to leave his usual beat for a few days and cover the hurricane, he didn’t think twice.

In his backpack he carried a head torch, batteries, a notebook wrapped in a see-through plastic bag, pencils and a pencil sharpener he had borrowed from his next-door neighbor’s son. When there’s no power and possibly no signal you have to ditch the computer and cellphone and go old school.

A number of scenes stuck in Ovalle’s mind. One was of a homeless man who wore goggles and a snorkel and refused to seek refuge in a shelter. “I’m just gonna weather the storm on the streets, man,” he told Ovalle.

Hurricane Irma left many parts of Florida with no water or electricity for several days, and the poor and homeless were hit hardest.

In Ocean Drive, one of the most affluent parts of Miami, where we stayed for three days, you’d never guess that the city had just been hit by a hurricane. The utilities had been promptly restored and the fallen trees and debris had been cleared away.

But even though local authorities were eager to send out the message that Miami was open for business, there was no getting away from the fact that with the threat of climate change looming, the city might become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather patterns.

“Hurricane Irma is why we need an urgent conversation on climate change - now,” wrote syndicated Miami Herald Columnist Andrés Oppenheimer on September 13, a few days before we met during our visit to the newspaper.

Not surprisingly, climate change has been one of the three major fellowship topics for our meetings with experts and policy makers.

President Trump’s assertion that “climate change is a hoax” and his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement last June, branding it as “a deal which punishes the United States,” has led to concerns over the future of the agreement.

“The Trump administration is shaking down the environmental legacy of Obama with a vengeance. While healthcare and immigration have gone nowhere, climate policies have been repealed in a very significant way. What does he seek to gain from this? Is it an attack on European leaders who have shunned him?” says Roopali Phadke, a professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College’s Institute for Global Citizenship.

Nevertheless, Paul Bodnar, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a key architect of Obama’s international climate policies, is confident the agreement will survive.

“When Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 other countries privately wished they would have thought about that, too. Now, with the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement you’re observing a very different reaction and people are annoyed with the U.S.,” says Bodnar. “What really guides behavior is not the terms of the treaty itself but willingness for cooperation. This means Paris will survive because it’s constructed on the self-interest of countries and countries have realized that fighting climate change is in their interest.”