Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: For local leaders, rising seas outweigh election politics

They seemed serious. Not at all like a convention of hoaxers.

They certainly had serious credentials. Engineers, scientists, architects, urban planners, elected officials, educators, business leaders, government technocrats, insurers, environmentalists, White House officials, not to mention the consul generals from France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

They lined a hallway of the Miami Beach Convention Center with exhibits related to global warming and rising sea levels. They conferred about complex engineering solutions that might stave off the encroaching waters in low, flat and vulnerable South Florida.

They talked about architectural concepts that might lessen the coming catastrophe. They talked about embracing alternatives to the fossil fuels that got us into this mess (I saw an attendee, someone from a nonprofit, carrying a computer bag equipped with a solar panel.).

None of the participants at the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit last week skulked around as if they were conspirators in some giant fraud on the American people.

But for all the respect the climate summit attendees get from the governor and a majority of Florida's legislature and congressional delegation, they might as well have been dressed up as superheros at a Marvel Comics convention.

This was the sixth annual regional climate leadership summit. John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, told the South Floridians that they had become “a model for what we need to see going on around the country.” Yet Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and most of the state Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington regard the summit's underlying premise as fiction. As if the 650 civic leaders at last week’s summit were essentially a gang of liars.

“I don't agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what's happening in our climate,” Rubio told ABC News earlier this year. Though lately Rubio and Scott, when asked about climate change, have disguised their denier status with variations of a non-answer: “I am not a scientist.”

“We've heard these kinds of ‘the sky is falling’ stories,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told reporters after the White House released its dire National Climate Assessment. Except, of course, as the folks gathered at the convention center might have told her, it’s not the sky falling, but the sea that is rising, with study after study warning that her own South Florida constituents were especially vulnerable.

Ros-Lehtinen, of course, didn’t attend the summit. Rubio didn't attend. Scott didn’t attend. Else their do-nothing approach to global warming would have been juxtaposed against the sense of urgency conveyed by mayors and city and county commissioners at the gathering.

“We're like first responders,” said Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, who told me that local elected leaders didn’t have the luxury of applying political considerations to the climate change emergency.

South Florida’s local government officials came to the climate summit to talk about the region’s basic plumbing. About the gravity-based drainage canals and sewers that will flow inland with only a few more inches of sea level rise. About the streets that already flood after heavy downpours in Miami Beach, Sweetwater and Hollywood and other low-lying cities. Maps hanging in conference rooms showed in stark detail which neighborhoods will be inundated.

As the talk turned to soil density and ocean hydraulics, it was apparent that the civic leaders at the gathering were not there to recite national party talking points. Nor were they worried about how to negotiate the next election without angering the tea party.

No one at the summit repeated the weary deniers’ line that the overwhelming percentage of climate scientists who conclude that global warming is both real and attributable to human activity are just mendacious actors, ginning up dishonest research just to grab grant money.

Harold R. Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami Department of Geological Sciences and chairman of the Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force, laughed at the notion that warning folks about climate change — and getting lambasted by conservative politicians for their trouble — was a lucrative pursuit. “I pay my own way to most speaking engagements. I don’t get paid to speak. I do it for the same reason most scientists do it. Because we clearly see a horrible situation. We’re just trying to awaken people.”

The real money, he said, was in climate change denial. The fossil fuel industry has the big bucks — much more than academia — and funds pseudo-science outfits like the Heartland Institute to generate doubt and skepticism about global warming.

Wanless noted that he paid his own way when he accompanied four fellow Florida scientists to Tallahassee in August to meet with the governor in a futile attempt to convince him that Florida faced a climate change catastrophe. Scott gave them 30 minutes. The governor asked no questions about the actual science they outlined.

Last month, some 42 scientists from six state universities, the University of Miami and Eckerd College, sent Scott a letter reminding him that this year’s National Climate Assessment warned that Florida was “exceptionally vulnerable” to sea level rise, extreme weather and a loss of fresh water. “It is crucial for policymakers to understand that human activity is affecting the composition of the atmosphere,” the scientists wrote. “There is a clear need to develop a state plan to both mitigate and adapt to the threats to Florida’s communities, businesses, tourism industry and protect the state’s economic well-being.”

They invited Scott and other state political leaders to a Climate Science and Solutions Summit to be held Monday at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. It will be another gathering of scientists, engineers, business leaders, local government officials — folks whose climate change concerns transcend the next election.

Scott and the state’s Republican leadership aren’t expected to show. Of course not. They’ve got to pretend the educators and civic leaders worried about climate change are deluded liars. They got politics to worry about.