Climate lessons from South Florida in 2011

Chris Carnevale | December 19, 2011 | Climate Change

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, hosted by Monroe County—the county of the Florida Keys.  The highlight of the event was the unveiling of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact LogoChange Compact’s Climate Action Plan, which is the written formal response of Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties to climate change.

The action plan is the product of two years of multi-jurisdictional collaboration to determine what are the most effective regionally-appropriate solutions to deal with the impending problems that climate change will cause in coastal communities.  The approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation outlined in the action plan are varied and dive into issues such as water management, transportation, emergency planning, energy and fuel, ecosystem management, and agriculture.  While climate action plans are not a new concept, the scale and the number of stakeholders involved in this plan (i.e. four counties and 5.6 million people) and its heavy emphasis on climate adaptation make it a breakthrough for climate action in the U.S.

Miami Coastline
A half-meter sea level rise will cover about 23 percent of Miami's urban area and inundate $3.5 trillion dollars worth of real estate and infrastructure.

However, it wasn’t the landmark action plan itself that stood out so much for me as much as it was the apolitical tone of the conversations and process considering so many participants were public officials who represent notably diverse populations.  It goes without saying that in many Southeastern cities it is hard enough to get public officials and citizens to willingly convene gatherings to even talk about climate change, let alone make concrete plans to DO anything about it.  Harder still to imagine such an effort being nonpartisan.  Yet the counties of southeast Florida did just that—they kept the conversation scientific, matter-of-fact, and sought to address the many very real concerns of the citizens.

After all, south Florida is ground zero in the Southeast, if not the entire country, for the ill effects that climate change will cause, from impacts on wildlife (think the Everglades and Keys diving) to weather (think of Hurricane Andrew happening more frequently or with even greater intensity or Miami heat waves getting even hotter).  Florida’s agriculture base will feel the impacts and so will tourism and the seafood industry due to ocean acidification.  According to Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Miami has the most vulnerable real estate and infrastructure in the entire world at risk to sea level rise—estimates are that $3.5 trillion could be impacted by 2070!  These estimates complement sea level rise mapping projections by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Architecture 2030 released in 2008.  As such, south Florida does not have the luxury to treat climate change as a theoretical issue—it is real and it is happening.

What I saw at this meeting was that in south Florida, the subject of climate change is not relegated to the realm of debate by pontificating political theoreticians in their ivory towers and overly zealous environmental activists on high horses as is the case elsewhere in the country.  Rather I witnessed a community coming together to collaboratively solve a problem on terms that people can relate to.

The keynote address of Thursday evening’s program was given by Bryan Norcross, the first meteorologist to warn people of Hurricane Andrew’s potential impacts from landfall back in 1992.  He painted a vivid scene for us as he recounted his personal experience with Andrew—the lead up to the storm, the day-by-day ever increasing likelihood of impact, and finally landfall just south of Miami. For days leading up to landfall, many meteorologists were dismissive that Andrew would cause any real damage, speculating that “hopefully we’ll be okay.”  Even though Andrew was on the radar for days, many did not actively urge people to take precautions.  At a certain point, Norcross couldn’t take the naive wishful thinking anymore, so he got on his microphone and told everyone something to the effect of “this could be really, really bad and we are going to need to brace for it.”   The preparations he encouraged his viewers to take in the hours leading up to the storm saved countless lives.

Pew State Adaptation Measure Map
This map shows that as of October 2011, Florida is the only Southeastern state to have begun implementation of a statewide adaptation plan.

According to a Duke University Nicholas Institute study published this month, just  15 Southeastern cities with populations greater than 100,000 have completed a climate action plan and a 2008 Pew report told us that Florida is the only Southeastern state that has enacted statewide adaptation measures.  Yet the Southeastern United States is arguably the most vulnerable region in the country to climate change.  Suddenly, a climate bunker doesn’t seem like such a silly idea after all.  Even though climate change will inevitably bring about certain unfavorable conditions, we do not necessarily have to be victim to them—we still have plenty of time to adapt if we get serious about it.  If Norcross’ warnings within the final hours before the storm saved hundreds of lives, imagine what we could do with years of preparation.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
My Profile