A State of Indifference - Sea Level Rise and Florida
The news cycle was pretty bad. Just before I left New York City in late February for a cycling tour in Florida, a story broke in the New York Times about an online report on sea level rise published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Essentially, this report offers new evidence that oceans are now rising at a faster rate than they have for the past 28 centuries. This article appeared about the time that a bipartisan coalition of 15 South Florida Mayors asked to have a special meeting with then GOP presidential primary candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to discuss the impact of increasing levels of sea level rise. It seems that mayors of coastal communities in Florida are growing concerned about this issue, even if Florida Governor Rick Scott prohibits his administrative staff from using the words “climate change” in any official state documents (I am not making that up)!
Clearly, something fascinating and dare I say it - dysfunctional- is playing out in Florida’s Republican Party. Florida state policies toward renewables tell part of the story: The Solar energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports that “the sunshine state” of Florida ranks third in the nation for rooftop solar potential, but all the way down at 14th for cumulative solar capacity installed. Florida’s solar policies lag behind many other states in the nation: it has no renewable portfolio standard and does not allow power purchase agreements, two policies that have driven investments in solar in other states.
In late March, the news cycle went from bad to worse for Floridians. The respected journal Nature published a study with evidence that the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet was happening faster than scientists previously thought, and unless there is a drastic reduction on carbon emissions very soon, it is likely the sheet may deteriorate by 2100, adding additional sea level to current predictions. With ice melting in other regions, too, the total rise of the sea could reach five or six feet by 2100, the researchers found. That is roughly twice the increase reported as a plausible worst-case scenario by a United Nations panel just three years ago, and so high it would likely provoke a profound crisis within the lifetimes of children being born today. If one does the math, that much sea level rise will put almost all of Florida south of Lake Okeechobee under water. In maybe 80-90 years.
I kept thinking about the inevitability of rising water in the latter part of February and early part of March, 2016 as I cycled 700 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Palm Beach on the East Coast. I relaxed some as I headed west to Ocala in the center of North Florida (much of the forest is several hundred feet above sea level). But as I continued west to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Florida and south on the West Coast through Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and onto Naples, the sea - and a subtle anxiety - became my sidekick again. When I headed across the “Old Alligator Highway” (State Highway 41) through the Everglades into Miami – Dade County, I felt that anxiety a lot. But then, the traffic was merciless and on a bike, traffic can color one’s reflections. Finally, I went north through the western edge of Hialeah to Fort Lauderdale (a land of endless shopping malls), over to Boca Raton, and up the coast to West Palm Beach (a land of beaches, mainly hidden by ubiquitous and palatial mansions next to the water).
It was my intention to talk with locals about what they thought along the route, and I did so whenever I could. However, the answers to my questions were so similar I was left with one persistently nagging impression. Few people in Florida, if any, seem to be paying attention. To be sure, developers are not. Someone even said to me that as long as the developers can pay off their loans in 15 years, why should they care? Sea level rise will be someone else’s problem.
In fairness, though, I think some individuals who live in areas recently affected by King Tides (Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale are great examples) are already concerned about “sunny day” flooding. And clearly, 15 South Florida Mayors are concerned. It's reasonable to assume their city planners are as well. But the average citizen? I think most Florida citizens take great pleasure in enjoying the sunshine, the beach and the wonderful winter temperatures. And few deny climate change outright, but clearly are focused on “living in the moment” in spite of the sword of Damocles hanging over them. One colorful character who claimed to have been the head of the “Airboat Captain's Association” back in the day, definitely thinks it's getting hotter every year in the Everglades. Others agreed.
I wasn't able to get to the parts of Orlando or Tampa/St. Petersburg with emerging tech cultures so I didn't talk to millennials. Most of the people I saw, and met, were older. And more than one retiree told me they wouldn't be around long enough to affected by sea level rise anyway, so what the hell. The bottom line? As beautiful as parts as the state are, as incredible as the winter sunshine and light can be, and as much as I enjoyed the people I met - and took great pleasure in the company of my cousins who live there - it is not a place where I would want to put down stakes. At least without a really good raft.