King tide sets stage for climate talks in South Florida

High tide causes flooding in Miami Beach

High tide brought severe flooding to Miami Beach Monday morning making it difficult for pedestrians and cars to navigate.
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High tide brought severe flooding to Miami Beach Monday morning making it difficult for pedestrians and cars to navigate.

As if on cue, a king tide powered by a supermoon flooded parts of South Florida Sunday and Monday, setting a soggy stage for international forums aimed at drawing attention to the perils of climate change.

In downtown Miami, about 1,200 people gathered to train for a climate corps led by former Vice President Al Gore, who drew mainstream attention to the issue in his 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. For nearly three hours, Gore walked a crowd that included participants from 80 countries through his now-famous slide show, rebooted with a decade’s worth of new science and data supporting the dire consequences of a warming planet.

Across Biscayne Bay, where climate change has made Miami Beach ground zero for rising seas, the French Embassy hosted another panel in advance of a U.N. summit in Paris in November.

“The scientists have long since told us we have to change,” Gore told the packed room at the Hyatt Regency overlooking the Miami River. “But now Mother Nature is saying it with water in the streets in this city.”

Though Gore largely avoided politics, he accused the state’s power companies of standing in the way of solar power and took a subtle jab at Gov. Rick Scott, whose environmental regulatory agency has tended to avoid using the term “climate change” in official documents. Scott has denied reports that he banned the phrase.

“Miami has an enormous amount at risk,” Gore said as he showed pictures of sunny-day flooding in South Florida during a 2013 king tide. “I just wonder how the governor watches this and says, ‘I don’t notice anything. Do you notice anything?’ Not to make an ad hominem comment, but I’m genuinely curious.”

This year’s king tide coincided with a Sunday supermoon that put the moon closest to the earth in its oblong orbit, fueling higher than expected tides. A second king tide was forecast for about 9 p.m. Monday, followed by a second round just after 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. Wednesday.

The seasonal high tides, which scientists say have been inching up with rising sea levels, put Indian Creek Drive underwater for part of the day. Flooding was also reported in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and farther north in the Hillsboro and Deerfield Beach areas, said Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward County’s division of Environmental Planning and Community Resilience.

Around Miami Beach in areas where new pumps kicked on as part of a $200 million plan to keep the city dry, no flooding occurred, the city reported. The city has touted its approach as a model for other coastal communities that will inevitably be dealing with increased flooding.

“Sunset Harbor is bone dry. You used to not be able to get into the Publix, and it’s all dry,” said spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez. “Even Purdy Avenue is dry. Tenth and Alton: totally dry.”

The city is working with the Florida Department of Transportation to fix flooding on Indian Creek Drive, a state road, Rodriguez said. Other neighborhoods where old injection-well pumps operate may also experience flooding because the pumps were not designed to address sea level rise, she said.

Since making the documentary, Gore has toured the globe to rally activists, using the slide show that formed the foundation of the documentary for his grassroots climate change project. With dramatic photos and videos of climate-related events, Gore on Monday ran through the mayhem around the globe: fatal heat waves in India and Pakistan triggered by the hottest decade on record; floods from Chile to Japan fueled by a 4 percent increase in humidity across the globe; and widespread drought that has dried up lakes, left reservoirs at record lows and worsened a worldwide food crisis.

“Almost every night, the evening news is a like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations. We get a little numb,” Gore said.

Gore directed his harshest criticism of Florida at the state’s policy on solar power, which he said robs the state of one of the best solutions to combat climate change.

Florida is one of just four states that only allows the sale of electricity from one of its four major utilities but is ranked third for its potential to produce solar energy. That prevents any solar companies from installing panels and covering the cost by having customers pay for the electricity they produce — the most widely-used model for the pricey system.

“The utilities use their legacy power and wealth … to absolutely control the state Legislature and the governor’s office,” he said, denying Florida residents “the opportunity to take advantage of buying electricity at a cheaper price by turning away a monopoly.”

Of the 1,200 participants, only about 300 came from Florida. Others came from as far away as Pakistan. Sebastian Stadler, a commercial Realtor originally from Germany, traveled from Austin. Stadler said that a year ago he decided to sell off some offices to invest in sustainable businesses, including a pecan farm and a green housing project.

“I’m going to try to be even more progressive now, just to set a good example,” he said during a break.

While much of his presentation was gloomy, Gore said that advances, particularly in solar energy, show that making change is possible.

“This is a bigger challenge than we’ve ever faced, ‘we’ being humanity,” he said. “It sounds grandiose to put it that way, but that’s where we are.”

At the meeting hosted by the French Consulate and Miami Beach later in the evening, climate concern continued to be a major topic.

The discussion touched on sea-level rise, the media’s coverage of it and the $400 million stormwater pump program planned in Miami Beach. The conference, convened at the Miami Beach Convention Center, is one of several nationwide in advance of a U.N. series of meetings on climate change to be held later this year.

Addressing skepticism of global warming, University of Miami researcher Ben Kirtman cited studies concluding that it’s 95 percent certain that human activity has contributed to increasing temperatures since the 1950s.

“If you were 95 percent certain that your house was on fire, wouldn’t you do something about it?” he said.

Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of Califorina-Irvine, said that for the first time in human history, mankind is witnessing the breaking apart of large glaciers due to rising temperatures.

“We’re going into unobserved territory,” he said.

Uncharted territory was a theme as Beach officials said the ambitious, $400 million plan to install more than 50 pumps across the city is a big experiment.

“When you do this, there’s no playbook,” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said.

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