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Florida Cities, Counties Lead Climate Change Response

Solar panels in Miami-Dade.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Orlando has committed to powering itself entirely with renewable energy by 2050. Miami-Dade County has a goal to plant 1 million trees by 2020 to achieve a 30 percent tree canopy cover. Satellite Beach, south of Cape Canaveral, is implementing aggressive plans to protect itself against climate change. And inspired by the nationally recognized Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition launched last month to respond to climate change through collaboration.

In Florida, local governments are already planning for a future plagued by climate change and responding to impacts that have begun to affect the state.

“In the absence of state and national leadership on climate, you’re seeing local governments take the lead on this issue,” environmental reporter Amy Green, of WMFE in Orlando, said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “You’re seeing local governments take the ball and run with it at this point.”

Last week, federal officials released the 1,700-page National Climate Assessment, a major report that examines how climate change is affecting life in the United States. The report, which breaks impacts down by region, was produced by 300 scientists, with input from 13 federal agencies, including NASA and the Defense Department.

The report warns that climate change will have devastating impacts on the U.S. economy. “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen,” the report states. “The impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country and … climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”

In the southeast, stronger storms, sea level rise and warmer temperatures are already affecting communities. The report warns impacts will continue across the region, costing billions of dollars and threatening livelihoods.

Outgoing Florida Governor Rick Scott, who was elected to the U.S. Senate earlier this month, has been slammed for his climate record.

And President Trump, whose administration has sought to weaken restrictions on fossil fuels, has already expressed skepticism about the report’s findings, stating, “I don’t believe it.”

Press secretary Sarah Sanders Huckabee responded by saying the assessment “is based on the most extreme modeled scenario.”

But Dr. Ben Kirtman, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science, said Friday on The Florida Roundup that the report’s conclusions are “actually pretty conservative.”

“It’s a consensus statement based on multiple lines of evidence from disparate studies involving different scientists with different views of the world,” he said. “This report is pretty well balanced … in identifying that the impacts are quite severe.”

Kirtman said the report shows that impacts in Florida will touch the spectrum of industries, from agriculture to tourism to transportation to property values and more.

For instance, by the end of the century, over one-half billion labor hours could be lost from extreme heat-related impacts. “Such changes would negatively impact the region’s labor-intensive agricultural industry,” the report states.

Some of the impacts laid out by the report may not seem severe but pose serious threats. For instance, in the southeast, the number of warm nights (minimum temperature above 75°F) has doubled on average compared to the first half of the 20th century.

“At first you might say ‘Well, what’s big deal about warm nights?’” Kirtman said.

But “warm nights have an agricultural impact; it affects the growing season. Warm nights affect the distribution of mosquitoes, and therefore mosquito-borne diseases. The communities that typically open their windows at night because they can’t afford to run the air conditioning 24/7, that very much affects them. And, of course, when you have many more warm nights, there’s more energy usage to cool your home, and that again has a positive feedback on climate change because that produces more carbon emissions.”

Kate Stein, WLRN’s environmental reporter, said the report presented nothing new for South Florida climate leaders, who have been working for years to respond to climate impacts being felt on the ground. “The respond is more alarm bells, more urgency,” she said.

Kirtman said the report’s findings points to the need for more Florida-specific research. 

“Florida needs to do some of its own assessments,” Kirtman said. The impact of climate is very different in Florida. We might have very different interests than the whole southeast in general. We need a report that focuses on our needs.”

Lt. Governor-Elect Jeanette Nuñez said this week on WLRN that Governor-elect Ron DeSantis will focus on the environment. DeSantis is “committed to making sure that we’re addressing environmental issues that are specific here to Florida,” she said.

“He wants to make sure that he’s appointing the best, the most qualified individuals that have accurate information, that have the science background, that have the knowledge and the know-how to address issues that are important for us here,” she said.

Stein said it remains unclear whether years of grassroots efforts to respond to climate will finally yield state-level actions.

“With the new administration coming in, [it will be interesting to see] if the state of Florida will do something to act on climate,” she said.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Weiss