Environment

Federal report says what Florida already knows — climate change is affecting us now

Is climate change making hurricanes worse? Yes, here’s why.

Rising ocean temperatures have fueled some of the most devastating storms in recent years. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on The New York Time's climate team, explains how.
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Rising ocean temperatures have fueled some of the most devastating storms in recent years. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on The New York Time's climate team, explains how.

The message of the most comprehensive climate change report the United States has ever released is clear: climate change is already impacting Americans, and if nothing is done it will devastate the economy and disrupt millions of lives.

For South Florida, among the most vulnerable regions in the country, the report also underlines that spiraling effects are going to be a lot more costly and challenging than worrying about wet feet when crossing flooded coastal roads during the annual King Tides.

Of course, the latest 1,600-page of the National Climate Assessment won’t be enough to change the minds of hardened climate change deniers — most notably, a billionaire businessman who owns and frequents a resort in the coastal town of Palm Beach. Just a few days after the post-Thanksgiving release of the alarming findings, President Donald Trump’s dismissed the work of his own government, saying: “I don’t believe it.”

But climate scientists and experts say the facts are undeniable, pointing to changes that have long been evident in South Florida — rising tidal levels, sunny day flooding, stronger hurricanes, disappearing corals and longer mosquito seasons.

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“Our leading scientists sent a stark message that climate change is already affecting our lives,” said Kim Knowlton, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Science Center. “There is no scientific debate and no plausible alternative cause.”

The newest edition of the National Climate Assessment — a congressional mandated report released every four years — combined research from hundreds of the nation’s top scientists. South Florida is frequently cited in the report as a place already feeling effects, many that will only worsen in coming decades.

That means, the experts say, more economically destructive Red Tides (the toxic algae bloom fueled by pollution and warming waters), hotter nights and stronger hurricanes in a warming world.

For the Sunshine State, higher temperatures alone pose huge problems — bad for human health and for agricultural production, said University of Miami atmospheric scientist Ben Kirtman.

“It’s a compounding kind of problem,” he said. “It creates an enormous energy demand, which of course has a positive feedback on the energy production that causes carbon emissions.”

SeaLevelRisePIC1
In August, 2017, a woman walks along a flooded sidewalk along Alton Road near Michigan Avenue in Miami Beach. New research from NOAA suggests this kind of flooding could happen every day by 2070 under most climate models. Emily Michot MIAMI HERALD

South Florida was name-checked repeatedly, for the heat that already enables year-round transmission of mosquito-borne diseases and the hundreds of thousands of people with “extreme” or “high” vulnerability to sea level rise.

Florida has more real estate at risk than any other state, and its economy is dependent on some of the industries most vulnerable to climate change — tourism and agriculture.

That risk came up when authors of the report tackled the cost of inaction. The price tag of adapting to climate change without doing anything to stop it could be a tenth of the annual U.S. economy by the end of the century. That’s double the hit of the Great Recession.

Unlike other parts of the country, South Florida is no stranger to high adaptation costs.

Miami Beach’s multimillion dollar project to raise roads and seawalls got a shout out from authors referencing cities’ adaptation efforts. Miami plans to spend nearly $200 million dollars to fight sea level rise with its “Miami Forever Bond.” In the Florida Keys, raising one mile of road could cost upwards of $500,000.

But scientists hinted that despite those millions poured in to help coastal communities, some may have to be abandoned altogether, a process already happening in coastal Louisiana.

“Retreat will become an unavoidable option in some areas of the U.S. coastline,” the report said.

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Florida has been under the media spotlight for visible symptoms of climate change for years, but this report points out that the state is far from alone in experiencing the ravages of climate change.

In the West, the prediction is for more frequent droughts and wildfires. Already, the report said, climate change is causing wildfires to burn twice as much acreage than would have occurred otherwise. Scientists predict the chance of wildfires could triple in coming decades.

The Southeast faces the prospect of a half billion labor hours lost by 2100 due to extreme heat and the shellfish industry taking a couple hundred million dollar hit thanks to ocean acidification. Even the future of chicken nuggets, the byproduct of poultry largely raised in the region, is at risk.

“People are seeing the effects right now in their daily lives,” Kirtman said. “There’s a much larger population nodding their heads and saying yeah, I’m starting to notice it.”

For the first time, the report tackled the U.S. Caribbean, a collection of island states and territories that are perhaps some of the most vulnerable spots in the country.

Scientists say the Caribbean should brace for more floods, more droughts, stronger storms and less rain — way less rain. Some models predict 10 percent less rain, the main source of freshwater, by 2050.

The coral reefs that protect these islands from storm surge and bring tourists to town are increasingly at risk from stronger hurricanes and a hotter and more acidic ocean.

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The sole solution to halting the worst effects of climate change is cutting off the source of the problem — carbon dioxide emissions. But the nation isn’t doing it.

Scientists highlighted examples of emissions caps at the city and county level, but the U.S. government has backed away from meaningful climate action under Trump. That includes leaving the Paris Agreement, a landmark collaboration between world governments to cut emissions.

“While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades,” the experts wrote.

This report, which clashes with statements and policy from Trump’s administration, was originally intended to be released in early December at the American Geophysical Union annual conference. Instead, it was released on Black Friday, one of the slowest news days of the year.

“Releasing such information that’s so important on a holiday when people are less likely to notice is a disservice to the American people,” said Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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