Climate Change: As water rises, Florida officials sit on their hands

Jul 11, 2011

The following article was published in the St. Petersburg Times on July 11, 2011:

As Water Rises, Florida Officials Sit on their Hands

By Kathy Baughman McLeod

How is it that the government of Florida — the state most vulnerable to rising seas, most exposed to hurricanes, and highly reliant on tourism and agriculture as its economic drivers — is doing nothing to address climate change?

I was a member of the Florida Energy and Climate Commission, which held its final meeting two weeks ago. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature abolished the commission, and now there is no state entity addressing climate change and its impact. Where is the political leadership in Florida on this issue so important to all Floridians?

Corporate America — including Johnson & Johnson, Levi Strauss & Co., National Grid, Nike, Starbucks, Sun Microsystems and our own FPL Group — are dedicated to meeting the challenges of climate change for economic and business reasons. Religious, moral and ethical leaders — from the National Association of Evangelicals to Pope Benedict XVI — have long accepted the science and are pushing for action. No reputable scientific organization questions the realities of climate change. Sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are changing.

Florida’s extreme weather events, like wildfires and hurricanes, are made more intense by climate change. We are seeing the results of rising seas — roughly 9 inches in the last 75 years, with acceleration in the rate of rise in the last decade, according to a report from Florida Atlantic University. On Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys, what used to be a pine forest has turned into a tidal marsh. Water management districts are dealing with — and paying for — saltwater intrusion solutions as water supplies are affected. And climate change raises the stakes for taxpayer-owned insurance companies that already cannot raise premiums high enough to cover all of the claims for hurricanes.

The state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is the largest insurer of coastal properties in Florida and the state’s largest insurer with 1.3 billion policies. Taxpayers also own the insurance company that backs up or insures Citizens — the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which is exposed up to $24 billion and is managed by the governor and Cabinet. Both Citizens and the cat fund assess insurance bills, for all insurance customers, inland or coastal dwellers, whether a Citizens customer or not, to make up shortfalls.

While Florida’s state government sits on the sidelines, others are leading the way on climate change. Local governments are focused on job creation through renewable energy and efficiency programs, and they are working to attract clean-tech businesses. They are also addressing emissions reductions and adaptation to sea level rise, like the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact that has Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties working together.

In addition, our state’s universities are making great strides in clean technologies that are being commercialized through the Florida Energy Systems Consortium, a collaboration of public research institutions. We also have the Florida Solar Energy Center with a long history of solar power innovation and success.

Finally, the private sector is making significant investments and providing power and fuel in addition to employing industrial efficiencies and innovations that are performing well in our state. In the Tampa Bay region, the Mosaic Co. is powering equipment with waste heat, and U.S. EnviroFuels is building one of Florida’s first sugar cane-based ethanol plants.

There are many actions the state could be taking, including creating clear renewable energy goals and time frames, identifying targeted renewable technology incentives to drive economic development, and increasing net metering beyond 2 megawatts (expanding a consumer incentive, giving utility credit to small renewable producers for unused power). Each of these steps was recommended by the recently eliminated Energy & Climate Commission but saw little or no action by the Legislature.

Removing climate from the state’s agenda is shortsighted. Failing to seize the future — and expand our economy and protect our environment — leaves all Floridians exposed.

Kathy Baughman McLeod is a Tallahassee consultant and former Florida energy and climate commissioner. She is a national board member of the Clean Energy States Alliance, a former member of the Florida Energy and Climate Action Team and a trustee of the Collins Center for Public Policy.

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