12 Jan 2012: Report

Florida Counties Band Together
To Ready for Warming’s Effects

While U.S. action on climate change remains stalled, four south Florida counties have joined forces to plan for how to deal with the impacts — some of which are already being felt — of rising seas, higher temperatures, and more torrential rains.

by michael d. lemonick

If you worry about the looming risk posed by climate change, it’s easy to start feeling hopeless. Last month, the UN’s COP-17 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, ended with little more than a commitment to keep working toward a new agreement to limit emissions, which might or might not eventually be ratified. In the U.S., at the national level, many politicians won’t even talk about climate change. Many of those who do it claim they’re not convinced — even though the vast majority of climate scientists are — that humans have much if anything to do with it.

As the scientific sense of urgency about climate change has increased, in short, the political will to do anything about it, in the U.S. at least, has mostly vanished. More than 23 years after James Hansen’s dramatic testimony in Senate hearings, which first brought widespread attention to the potential danger of global warming, serious attempts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions have gone pretty much nowhere. Over that same period, humans have pumped tens of billions of tons of additional CO2 into the atmosphere.

For the people who actually have to make government work at the local level, however, despair and hopelessness are luxuries they can’t afford. The sea is already rising. Droughts, heat waves, and other forms of extreme
The plan lays out steps governments must take to make sure infrastructures can withstand the coming changes.
weather are coming more often and with more intensity. Major cities around the world, from Amsterdam to London to Shanghai to Jakarta, have begun active planning for the changes a warmer world will bring. And despite its virtual disappearance from the national conversation in the U.S., things are very different at the local level. New York, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and other cities have all begun to prepare their own defenses against climate change.

In Southeast Florida, however, the planning is especially comprehensive, and it covers not just individual cities but four entire counties that stretch across more than 200 miles from Key West to Palm Beach and are home to 5.6 million people. With its beachfront cities, flat, low-lying terrain, extensive swampland and exposure to frequent hurricanes, Southeast Florida is at unusual risk for climate-related disaster.

It’s also at the forefront of efforts to stave that disaster off. On Dec. 9, representatives from Monroe, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties met to approve a far-reaching, bipartisan Climate Action Plan that lays out the steps local governments need to take, working together, to make sure the region’s water supplies, transportation networks, buildings and other infrastructure can withstand the coming changes.

“We recognize each others’ differences,” says Susanne Torriente, Fort Lauderdale’s assistant city manager and the former director of sustainability for Miami-Dade County, “but also recognize that if we work together we can make South Florida more resilient.”

Miami Florida Climate Change
Florida Center for Environment Studies
With its low-lying terrain and beachfront cities, such as Miami, Southeast Florida is at unusual risk for climate-related impacts.
The idea of welding four counties — each with widely varying terrain and populations (most of Monroe County’s area is the nearly uninhabited Everglades and Big Cypress swamps; Miami-Dade, by contrast, includes Miami and Miami Beach) — into the entity called the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact first arose during a visit to Washington in 2009. “Some of us from several different cities and counties,” says Torriente, “were visiting our congressional delegation to talk about the work we were doing individually on climate change and sea-level rise.” And by “talking,” Torriente means they were looking for federal funding to support individual projects.

During that trip, says Torriente, Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs and several of their colleagues realized that while they all represented cities and counties in Southeast Florida, each was working off different scenarios for how the climate was changing and had different ideas of how to deal with it. “The thought was, ‘Why don’t we come together and pool our resources, time and work, and do our planning regionally?’”

At more or less the same time, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who had originally embraced the issue of climate change to the point of holding annual statewide summits to wrestle with the issue, decided to run for the Senate. Climate change was then becoming a politically toxic issue, so Crist stopped holding climate summits. The new governor, Rick Scott, “doesn’t even think there is such a thing as climate change,” says James Murley, a land-use attorney and member of the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

As a result of the Washington trip and the change of heart in Tallahassee, the four county commissions — two dominated by Democrats and two by
Rising seas have begun to have an impact on drinking water, as the ocean forces itself into underground aquifers.
Republicans — signed on to what would come to be known as the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. They began holding their own annual summits starting in 2009, working toward the goal of a unified action plan to limit local emissions of greenhouse gases and, because there’s no good reason to believe worldwide emissions will slow down any time soon, to protect themselves against the changes that are already happening.

It didn’t hurt, says Murley, that “we live under constant climate events.” Much of South Florida is crisscrossed with drainage canals, built to turn swampland into solid ground. The canals were built at a time when sea level was lower; now, during particularly high tides, or in the aftermath of heavy rains, the canals can’t drain properly into the ocean. “We get water backing up along the beaches,” he says. “People see that and they ask officials, ‘What’s going on?’”

Rising seas have also begun to have an impact on drinking water, as the salty ocean forces itself into underground aquifers. City planners all along the coast are now laying out plans to retreat from the contamination by drilling new wells further inland. “The point,” says Murley, “is that you can do all sorts of adaptation [to climate change] without using the term” — raising coastal roadbeds, for example, in the name of highway improvement rather than climate adaptation, even though that’s what it really is. The pumps installed by the South Florida Water Management District on some of the region’s canals to handle backups during high tide or torrential rains are another good example.

The plan approved at the recent four-county summit is full of intentional language: words like “develop,” “study,” “identify,” “adopt,” and “evaluate” pepper most of the 100 recommendations it contains. That may sound frustratingly vague in the face of what promises to be a slow-moving but
Ultimately, local officials will likely have to impose restrictions on development in the most vulnerable areas.
inexorable disaster — the phrase “begin immediate construction of a ten-foot sea wall to protect the entire coastline” would feel a little more definitive.

But in fact, while the effects of climate change are generally understood, the specifics — What exactly is likely to happen along this particular ten-mile stretch of coastline? How will Palm Beach’s water supplies fare if sea level goes up another foot, and how different will the situation be in Fort Lauderdale? — are still mostly unknown.

“We have some great academic and agency scientists involved in the compact,” says Murley, “and the work we’ve done collectively has convinced us that global climate models are not fine-tuned enough to tell us what Southeast Florida in particular can expect,” says Murley. “A lot of the work over the next five years,” he says, “will be in downscaling the models.” Another major focus for the near future, he says, will be on resilience — how climate change will affect the built environment. “We’re about six months into a three-year project to understand this,” says Murley.

The really tough going is likely to come after the scientists finally do come to understand the specific threats facing Southeast Florida. Ultimately, county and city officials will likely have to impose restrictions on development in the most vulnerable areas — and that could be a lot riskier politically than improving drainage canals or digging wells.

MORE FROM YALE e360

The Secret of Sea Level Rise:
It Will Vary Greatly By Region

Sea Rise
As the world warms, sea levels could easily rise three to six feet this century. But increases will vary widely by region, Michael Lemonick writes, with prevailing winds, ocean currents, and even the gravitational pull of polar ice sheets determining whether some areas will be inundated while others stay dry.
READ MORE
Still, the fact that officials are looking at climate adaptation at the regional rather than the purely local level, and the fact that they’ve already shown they can work together, may allow them to take actions they couldn’t easily take on their own. “The compact enjoys bipartisan support,” says Steve Adams, of the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Adams, a Florida native and a former climate and energy advisor to Governor Crist, attended the recent summit. The final panel, he says, had four elected officials, two from each party. “They referred to each other,” says Adams, “as ‘good Republicans’ and ‘good Democrats.’”

In an era of hyper-partisanship, that’s almost shocking. But it’s also evidence that when people start to see the effects of climate change in their daily lives, political posturing starts to look a lot less important.

POSTED ON 12 Jan 2012 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Science & Technology North America North America 

COMMENTS


How do we develop a sustainable civilization?

The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

Sustainable Land Development Initiative
http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

Posted by Terry Mock on 12 Jan 2012


There's nothing for it but for geopolitical units like counties to band together to plan for managing or averting this and other crises (including proactive land-use planning) that go begging for Federal attention.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 12 Jan 2012


This article misses a key point: the Florida regional climate compact was orchestrated by my organization, The Resource Innovation Group, which is based in Oregon. Steve Adams, now with the Institute for Sustainable Communities, worked for us in bringing the counties together.

The important point is that it often takes an outside organization to organize these types of inter-governmental processes. In some cases they are they can be very helpful, and in others they might not be. It depends on the issues, the politics, and culture of the setting. But climate change requires a response at the proper scale, so with certain issues working at a larger regional scale is important.

Bob Doppelt
Executive Director
The Resource Innovation Group

Posted by Bob Doppelt on 12 Jan 2012


"Rising seas have also begun to have an impact on drinking water, as the salty ocean forces itself into underground aquifers."

Is this the result of rising sea levels or over pumping freshwater aquifers?

Key West has the longest sea level record in the western hemisphere and shows NO CHANGE in the rate of relative sea level rise since 1920 and perhaps in the last 160 years according to Dr. Maul of the Florida Institute of Technology. See: http://www.fsbpa.com/documents/Florida%20Sea%20Level_rev04042008.pdf

In fact most of the entire land mass of the State of Florida including Key West has drifted some 36 inches to the west- northwest since 1920! Continental drift helps puts relative sea level rise into perspective doesn't it? Readers should also be aware that much of Florida is naturally sinking although Key West may be slightly rising. So if the land is sinking is it it correct to say the ocean is rising?

The temperatures in the Dry Tortugas seem to be significantly cooler than 200 years ago.
http://climate.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Lund_lamont09_dcl.pdf

Posted by Patrick Moffitt on 13 Jan 2012


Patrick,

If Key West has been rising slightly over the last several decades as you note, but sea-levels recorded there have been stable relative to Key West's shoreline, doesn't that imply that sea levels will have been rising in order to remain constant relative to the rising land mass, as you also note?

Not sure it matters either way as it doesn't really pertain to main premise of the article, but I am curious of your interpretation nonetheless.

Posted by James on 08 Feb 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
michael d. lemonickABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael D. Lemonick is the senior writer at Climate Central, a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to communicate climate science to the public. Prior to joining Climate Central, he was a senior writer at Time magazine, where he covered science and the environment for more than 20 years. He has also written four books on astronomical topics and has taught science journalism at Princeton University for the past decade. In other articles for Yale Environment 360, Lemonick has written about the impacts of climate change in the U.S. and projected sea level rise worldwide.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Eyes in the Sky: Green Groups
Are Harnessing Data from Space

An increasing number of nonprofit organizations are relying on satellite imagery to monitor environmental degradation. Chief among them is SkyTruth, which has used this data to expose the extent of the BP oil spill, uncover mining damage, and track illegal fishing worldwide.
READ MORE

How Science Can Help to Halt
The Western Bark Beetle Plague

Entomologist Diana Six is focused on the beetle infestation that is wiping out conifer forests in western North America. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she explains why the key to combating this climate-related scourge is deciphering the trees’ genetic ability to adapt.
READ MORE

To Protect Monarch Butterfly,
A Plan to Save the Sacred Firs

Mexican scientists are striving to plant oyamel fir trees at higher altitudes in an effort to save the species, as well as its fluttering iconic winter visitor — the migrating monarch butterfly — from the devastating effects of climate change.
READ MORE

Why Paris Worked: A Different
Approach to Climate Diplomacy

A more flexible strategy, a willingness to accept nonbinding commitments, and smart leadership by the French all helped secure a climate deal in Paris. The real work lies ahead, but Paris created a strong, if long overdue, foundation on which to begin building a carbon-free future.
READ MORE

Turning Point: Landmark Deal
On Climate Is Reached in Paris

In what could be a turning point, the world’s nations reached an agreement in Paris that would commit them to cutting emissions and keeping global warming below 2 degrees. Although the pledges are not binding, the deal includes a review process to determine if countries are meeting their commitments.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Once Unstoppable, Tar Sands
Now Battered from All Sides

by ed struzik
Canada’s tar sands industry is in crisis as oil prices plummet, pipeline projects are killed, and new governments in Alberta and Ottawa vow less reliance on this highly polluting energy source. Is this the beginning of the end for the tar sands juggernaut?
READ MORE

In Japan, a David vs Goliath
Battle to Preserve Bluefin Tuna

by winifred bird
A group of small-scale Japanese fishermen are waging an increasingly public struggle against industrial fishing fleets that are using sonar and huge nets to scoop up massive catches of spawning Pacific bluefin tuna.
READ MORE

What’s Causing Deadly Outbreaks of
Fungal Diseases in World’s Wildlife?

by elizabeth kolbert
An unprecedented global wave of virulent fungal infections is decimating whole groups of animals — from salamanders and frogs, to snakes and bats. While scientists are still trying to understand the causes, they are pointing to intercontinental travel, the pet trade, and degraded habitat as likely factors.
READ MORE

Eyes in the Sky: Green Groups
Are Harnessing Data from Space

by jacques leslie
An increasing number of nonprofit organizations are relying on satellite imagery to monitor environmental degradation. Chief among them is SkyTruth, which has used this data to expose the extent of the BP oil spill, uncover mining damage, and track illegal fishing worldwide.
READ MORE

Unnatural Balance: How Food
Waste Impacts World’s Wildlife

by richard conniff
New research indicates that the food discarded in landfills and at sea is having a profound effect on wildlife populations and fisheries. But removing that food waste creates its own ecological challenges.
READ MORE

To Protect Monarch Butterfly,
A Plan to Save the Sacred Firs

by janet marinelli
Mexican scientists are striving to plant oyamel fir trees at higher altitudes in an effort to save the species, as well as its fluttering iconic winter visitor — the migrating monarch butterfly — from the devastating effects of climate change.
READ MORE

Indonesian Coal Mining Boom
Is Leaving Trail of Destruction

by mike ives
Since 2000, Indonesian coal production has increased five-fold to meet growing domestic demand for electricity and feed export markets in Asia. The intensive mining is leading to the clearing of rainforest and the pollution of rivers and rice paddies.
READ MORE

Can Pulling Carbon from Air
Make a Difference on Climate?

by nicola jones
Numerous technologies exist to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and new companies are entering the field. But can CO2 ‘air capture’ scale up from a niche business to an industry that will lower atmospheric concentrations of CO2?
READ MORE

Canada’s Indigenous Bands Rise
Up Against a Tar Sands Pipeline

by jim robbins
TransCanada, the company behind the now-defunct Keystone XL, is proposing another pipeline that would ship Alberta tar sands oil to Canada’s Atlantic coast. But fierce opposition from First Nation communities could derail this controversial project.
READ MORE

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


Paris Climate Coverage COP21

CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

“Alaska
A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale