Ground Zero for climate change

The headline on a Herald front-page story last week nearly says it all: Florida leads nation in risk to property by climate change. The report measures the state’s vulnerability in dollars-and-cents and finds, not surprisingly, that we’re Number One. But not in a good way.

Most sentient people in what we like to call the Sunshine State already knew that Florida was Ground Zero for climate change. Our peculiar geography is both a glorious bounty — wonderful, world-famous beaches at our fingertips — and the reason that our state is so dangerously exposed to rising seas and other effects of global warming.

Now we learn that Florida has more private property at risk from flooding linked to climate change than any other state. And, if that’s not enough, the level of risk could double in the next four decades, according to a new report by the Risky Business Project.

The numbers are so big that they are hard for the average person to fathom, but here’s one measure of how bad it is: The $69 billion in Florida coastal property that is not at risk today but could flood at high tide in the future is nearly as big as the current state budget for Florida. And that is projected to climb to $152 billion by 2050.

Short of moving to Iowa — not that there’s anything wrong with Iowa — what are we supposed to do? The short answer is for everyone to become aware that there is no time to lose. And, perhaps more important, for business leaders to get into the game.

The projections cited above are within the lifetime of most people reading this. Which means, it’s later than you think. It’s not about the far-distant future, nor is it a problem we can pass on to future generations. It’s about us.

The leaders of the Risky Business Project, like co-chair and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, put the report in modest terms. “We are just simply looking at the risk.”

Yet the report is much more than a mere accountant’s ledger of the costs of climate change. It’s a call to action on the part of the business community, a plea for those who have the most at stake to get involved in the biggest challenge facing this generation and future ones. Mr. Paulson and his colleagues believe that putting the problem in a business perspective should arouse the business community to become more active.

That’s a smart approach. Business leaders, acting in unison and on a nonpartisan basis, can influence government in a way that special-interest groups can’t. They are better equipped to get the ear of government leaders. Ultimately, only changes mandated by government can create the policies that can help keep us safe from climate change, but government leaders are unlikely to act without being prodded into action.

In concrete terms this means that Gov. Rick Scott, a climate-change denier (“I’m not a scientist”), might be more willing to listen if his friends in the business community told him the facts.

It means government leaders might be more willing, even eager, to design a building code that can withstand the coming changes (and offer incentives for energy-efficient structures) if builders and developers lobby for it.

It means the four-county South Florida Compact that has been working for years to address the risks might act with urgency if it has the active backing of the business community.

The worst effects of climate change are rushing toward us. At least, thanks to efforts like the Risky Business Project, we can’t say we weren’t warned.