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Florida is poster child for the effects of climate change — and for denial of it

The problem’s worse than mere obliviousness

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In mid-January, plenty of Pennsylvanians would rather visit Florida. But this is 2016. A few decades from now, Florida will be a very different place — somewhat smaller, and much wetter and saltier. And nobody seems to have a real plan to cope.

I just spent 10 days in Florida, a state some call a poster child for the effects of climate change. Most worrisome is sea-level rise. Oceans fed by melting glaciers and ice sheets, and expanding as they absorb more heat, are rising at more than an inch per decade. Florida has 1,350 miles of coastline, second-most of any state, and the second-lowest mean elevation of any state. In Miami-Dade County, home to 2.7 million, the average elevation is 6 feet above sea level.

Six feet versus one inch per decade might not sound too scary. But globally, sea-level rise is accelerating. And in Miami, according to University of Miami figures, the high-water mark in recent years has been (for reasons unknown) shooting up even faster, by nearly an inch a year. In areas including Miami Beach, flooded streets no longer require a big storm; all that’s necessary is an especially high tide.

“Year by year, flooding due to heavy rain, storm surge and high tides will become more frequent and more severe,” Brian McNoldy, a researcher at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, has written. “Water tables will continue to rise, and saltwater intrusion will continue to contaminate freshwater supplies.”

Of the 10 cities globally with the most assets at risk from rising seas, according to one 2008 report, four occupy coastal Florida. Further inland, even a sea-level rise of 3 feet by 2100 could threaten the Everglades’ unique freshwater ecosystem with inundation by saltwater. And 3 feet is the most optimistic prediction: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects a rise of up to 6-and-a-half feet.

So Florida’s collective hair must be on fire, right? It’s ready to relocate vulnerable populations, provide drinking water for millions and go all-in for renewable energy to cut emissions of the greenhouse gasses driving such changes?

Sorry, no. Tidewater is lapping at gated, multimillion-dollar homes and Porsche chassis, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in “The Siege of Miami,” her article in the Dec. 21 New Yorker — but people, too, continue flooding south Florida and buying expensive oceanfront real estate. How long until insurers and mortgage lenders start backing out? The only plan, Kolbert writes, seems to be installing more pumps and vaguely hoping for some yet-unknown technological fix.

Elsewhere, off Key Largo, I took a two-hour glass-bottomed boat tour of a coral reef; our guides noted such environmental concerns as invasive fish species and discarded plastic bags; they never once mentioned climate change, which is expected to devastate reefs worldwide.

But the problem’s worse than mere obliviousness. In October, Florida was among the states that sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the federal Clean Power Plan, meant to curb carbon emissions. Last March, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Gov. Rick Scott had barred state employees, contractors and volunteers from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications. Meanwhile, the two Republican presidential hopefuls from Florida, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush — both Miami residents — have been so blasé about climate change that in January, 15 south Florida mayors felt compelled to write the two to request a meeting to “help us chart a path forward to protect our state and the entire United States.”

Pennsylvania, too, faces risks from climate change, including more extreme weather and the dangers associated with higher peak summer temperatures (like deadly heat waves). Unlike Florida’s, these risks are not existential. But remember: Just 13 months ago our traditionally fossil-fuel producing commonwealth had a governor who was himself never known to utter the words “climate change.” Even now, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature wouldn’t mind crippling our own approach to complying with the Clean Power Plan.

A few years back, a Union of Concerned Scientists report predicted that by 2050, climate change might give Pennsylvania a climate more like that of Alabama. And that, after all, is right next door to Florida.



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