Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Miami’s Atlantis, interrupted

What are the stakes for Miami and South Florida if we continue to let Nature — addled by the devastating climate change effects caused by spiking carbon dioxide emissions (mostly from coal-fired power plants) — take its course? Science points down under, to Miami as a 22nd century Atlantis, buried under the sea.

The recent Rolling Stone magazine story on climate change’s effect on Miami has caused the predictable international buzz. Truth is, South Florida has not ignored climate change. Officials from seashore counties from Monroe to north of Palm Beach have been working together for years to promote new technologies for the long term — and short-term fixes like more sand and sea walls to stop the encroaching seas.

Now enter President Obama, who last week announced an ambitious agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act, with Environmental Protection Agency rules and executive authority from the White House. It should not have come to this, but four years ago a common sense cap-and-trade bill that the then-slim Democratic majority passed in the House to reduce CO2 emissions failed in the Senate and it has had no chance of resurrection since the tea party hijacked the House.

Meanwhile, climate change has roared on with bizarre weather patterns — producing mega-tornadoes, floods, scorching heat or freezing snows off season and hurricanes in odd places throughout the world. Congress, in perennial partisan fights that result in political stalemates, has done absolutely nothing that’s forward-looking to at the very least slow down emissions. Indeed, tea party-aligned members of Congress even fought federal aid to New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Under the president’s new focus, South Florida stands to gain. Aside from ordering the EPA to come up with emissions standards for power plants and ambitious goals to move from the traditional coal-fired plants to generate electricity using more natural gas, nuclear energy and alternative sources, like wind and solar, President Obama is offering federal help to protect cities like Miami from rising sea levels.

That will mean making smart decisions now, at the local level, about our electric generation and the location of our water and sewer facilities and pipes. Moving a wastewater treatment plant out of Virginia Key, for instance, should be at the top of the discussion about smart uses of limited resources in Miami-Dade County.

The president’s 2020 goal is to reduce overall emissions by 17 percent to 2005 levels. His critics say Mr. Obama is waging a “war on coal” that will hurt the U.S. economy, and that market forces already are nudging industry toward alternatives.

No question his plan will set off legal battles, but they are worth having. The burning of coal wreaks havoc on the planet. After centuries of use, coal’s harmful effects on human health and on our planet’s climate are beyond debate.

The Chinese government has been investing heavily in alternative energy sources because its people have experienced first hand the health effects of black soot from factories poisoning the air of entire cities. Not only must the United States lead on reducing emissions, it must invest much more heavily to spur new energy technologies.

The administration, with the help of the Democratic majority in Congress during Mr. Obama’s first year in office, toughened auto emissions standards. This has ushered in a new push among automakers to build cars and trucks with higher gas mileage, and the market is recovering nicely. Already, it has resulted in lowering U.S. pollution emissions from the transportation sector.

Mr. Obama’s 2020 interim goal to curb greenhouse gases is prudent and achievable. Much more needs to be done at the state and local levels, though, to save Florida from an underwater burial.

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