The Planet

How A Florida Wildlife Biologist Became One Of The Greenest Mayors In America

by Gillian Neimark

February 14, 2018
South Miami mayor Philip Stoddard addresses the media prior to the release of the Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes in South Miami. Photo by Photo by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

There are 392 “climate mayors” in America today, all dedicated to upholding the Paris treaty’s goals for reducing our carbon footprint. They represent nearly 70 million Americans, and their cities are making strides toward ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse emissions. South Miami mayor and wildlife biologist Philip Stoddard is one of the most outspoken and active among them. He’s the guy who said that Sen. Marco Rubio was “an idiot,” that Florida’s “sugar barons have bought themselves a government, and that Florida’s major utility, Florida Power & Light, was “ an evil genius.” He once stood in his jungle-green backyard talking about climate change to actor Jack Black for National Geographic’s “ Years of Living Dangerously.” 

“Based on our dense population and location, Florida is the state most vulnerable to climate change in all of America,” says Stoddard. Cities on the Florida coast are already seeing streets flood at high tide and sewage burble up through street drains.

The energetic mayor has jumpstarted rooftop solar programs with cheap prices and rebates, has protected the region’s butterflies and bats from too much mosquito spraying, has spearheaded the use of genetically engineered mosquitos to prevent mosquito-borne outbreaks, and is finding new ways to prevent sewage and septic waste from coming up through street drains as sea levels rise. As a fearless David to a statewide Goliath — Florida Power & Light — he has fought the utility’s proposed high power transmission lines and their leaky cooling canals. This is all in his municipality of 12,000 residents, 20% of whom live below the poverty line and many of whom have electric bills nearing $200 per month.

10 years ago, Stoddard and his wife, Florida International University architecture professor Gray Read, were quietly happy academics and community activists. Then he decided to “do something completely crazy” and run for mayor. Locals were urging him to do so after he gave talks and wrote letters to fight 89 miles of proposed high-power transmission lines — lines whose magnetic fields, he says, have been linked to an elevation in childhood leukemia. “I got to thinking about how effective an environmentalist could be in public office, and I got excited. I filed in 2010, half an hour before the deadline, and won 59% of the vote. The position pays me $14,000 a year, and FIU cuts my pay 10%.”

On Feb. 13, South Miami voiced its support for his pro-environment policies by re-electing him for his fifth and final term. In the last decade, he has been featured countless times in various media and several documentaries. He was named to the Politico-50 “guide to the thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics in 2016.”

So far, Stoddard is having remarkable success. The transmission lines, which were proposed as part of two new nuclear power plants, have foundered as the reactor plans have been postponed for the next four years. “The cost of nuclear has more than tripled,” says Stoddard, “while the cost of solar has fallen like a rock.”

For rooftop solar, Stoddard passed an ordinance requiring it on any new construction, and he utilizes Solar United Neighbors of Florida to help with competitive rates through co-op buying for every 30 homes that want solar. “We also launched an individual membership program to help homeowners go solar when there is no co-op available.”

He has filed briefs on behalf of the City of South Miami against Florida Power & Light’s proposed new gas-burning “peaker” plants. He sought and received money from the state to consider municipal sewer systems in vulnerable neighborhoods where homeowner septic can overflow into bathtubs as seawater surges. In addition, he designated South Miami as a wildlife sanctuary to protect endangered butterflies and bats that were dying as a result of intense mosquito spraying. At the same time, because of the risks associated with mosquito bites — such as Zika, yellow fever, and other viruses — he spearheaded a novel program to release 666 million lab-bred Zika-fighting mosquitos. The male mosquitos, which do not bite humans, are infected with a natural bacterium found in mosquitos in other parts of the world. That bacterium renders them sterile, so when they breed with females, the females don’t reproduce. “This is the safest mosquito control experiment they could have done,” says Stoddard. “You have to release a lot more of these males than existing natural males because you want these mosquitoes to be the ones to find the female.”

For all his success blending science and politics, Stoddard is no dewy-eyed environmentalist. He predicts that sea level rise will force south Florida to depopulate. “There’s no keeping the water out,” he says and proposes that residents of South Florida will need to move inland. He’d like to see Miami transformed someday into protected wetlands and aquatic parks.

But in the meantime, he’s busy trying to protect his vulnerable city from the changes that are already assailing it. From butterflies to solar energy, transmission lines to flooding streets, the perils of Zika virus and the cost of fracked gas, Stoddard is there on the front lines. Like the nearly 400 other concerned mayors, he has faith that cities can make a difference.

Share image by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

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How A Florida Wildlife Biologist Became One Of The Greenest Mayors In America