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Climate scientist says Florida 'not acting fast enough' as new global climate change report says time to act 'rapidly closing'

Residents clear debris from a flooded street in the Driftwood Acres Mobile Home Park, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta.
Lynne Sladky
Residents clear debris from a flooded street in the Driftwood Acres Mobile Home Park, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Davie, Fla. The storm unleashed a deluge that flooded entire neighborhoods and covered the floors of some homes and businesses.

A new report on the impact of climate change says the effects are already being felt here in Florida, and are going to get worse. How will the state adapt and pay for the increasing costs of rising seas, flooding, extreme heat and more?

Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. That’s one of the conclusions of the latest global report on climate change from a group of scientists gathered by the United Nations.

The report says rapid decarbonization needs to happen soon for the planet to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but notes some impacts are already baked in and can’t be stopped. The report repeatedly mentions Florida as an example of a place where some irreversible changes have already happened.

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This is the sixth report in the last 30 years from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it warns more weather and climate extremes have led to irreversible impacts on the environment and society.

"If we do not increase ambition in reducing emissions of heat trapping gases now, basically, you know, ideally a decade ago, we will increasingly encounter hard limits on the effectiveness of those adaptive actions," said Katharine Mach, a lead author on the report and a climate scientist at the University of Miami. "Without coordination by governments and by households, by people on their commute, and by the private sector, we're not going to get far enough in terms of making sure that those adaptive efforts keep people safe."

Higher seas, hotter temperatures, flooding and wetter weather are some of the threats to Florida.

"The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet," the report said. "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

Ben Kirtman is professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School and Director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies. Among the risks he identifies for Florida are sea level rise fueled by melting ice and warmer ocean temperatures, and hotter overnight temperatures, which requires higher electricity demand to power air conditioning. That serves as a feedback loop for carbon emissions if fossil fuels are used to generate the electricity.

Professor Kirtman sits at his office desk. There are papers and a white board, and his computer screens show global temperature records.
Carla Javier
Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School and Director of the UM NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies Ben Kirtman.

"The state of Florida is not moving fast enough (to address climate change), but that's not entirely the state of Florida's fault," he said. Kirtman pointed to the scientific community for not providing more local information. The IPCC report is a global view of climate change. "The decision makers are seeing a firehose of information and they don't know how to bring that down to the local level," he said.

And then there is the politics of climate change. That was on display this week in the Florida House debating a bill that would create the state's first chief resilience office and charge that office to create a state priority list of projects to protect against rising seas.

House Bill 7053 did pass with overwhelming bipartisan support, but not before two amendments proposed by Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg) failed, including one to address the causes of sea level rise and more flooding. In other words, carbon emissions.

(Resiliency is) an amorphous term.
"The Geography of Risk" author Gilbert Gaul

"In my opinion, for this work to be successful, the chief resilience officer must be charged to address the root causes of these issues. You know, only erecting walls to protect highways and mitigate against flooding is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. It might look like we're doing something, but we're not addressing the main issues that are causing the pain," said Diamond on Wednesday on the House floor.

We've rejected the toxic politics that are more concerned about grandstanding than tackling real issues and finding real results. And that's what this is, because Floridians care about action. They care about real results and that's what this does. It protects our homes. It protects our communities, it protects our families, our businesses and our state as a whole," said bill sponsor Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera (R-Coral Gables).

This type of legislation is "begging the question of what is resiliency?" according to journalist Gilbert Gaul, author of The Geography of Risk. "It's an amorphous term. It can mean pumping sand onto a beach. It buys you a little bit of time, but it doesn't really solve anything. Is that resiliency? Is elevating vacation houses resiliency? How does resiliency apply to all of those giant hotels and condominiums you have lining the coast of Florida? You can't elevate them. You can't lift them. You can't really move them. So what do you do? Do you build a seawall or something else? It's really confusing."

Instead, he said, addressing planning and land-use issues would have a bigger impact on dealing with and preparing for the threats of climate change.

Florida likely will reach around 22 million residents sometime this year. That represents a 10 percent increase in the past decade.

"It's the politicians and the planning boards and the zoning boards in each community that determine what's going to get built and where it gets built and how it gets built. And those decisions are very squishy. They're subject to politics. They're all obviously economic decisions," said Gaul.

The IPCC report mentions Florida several times, citing research and impacts already being experienced. The research finds tidal flooding made worse by sea level rise has cost $500 million in lost real estate value in Miami-Dade County alone, “and it is likely that coastal flood risks in the region beyond 2050 will increase without adaptation to climate change.”

"We don't have a long window here where we can react," said Kirtman from the University of Miami. "The climate system evolves slowly and adjusts. It takes about 30 years for the climate system to respond and we need to act now."

A study released last month from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration estimated sea levels will rise by a foot or more on average by 2050. At the current pace, seas could be at least two feet higher by the end of this century.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.