THE BLOG

Florida: Leader or Laggard?

07/10/2014 03:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

For the last five years my wife and I have been blessed to call southwest Florida our home. It's a beautiful place with abundant opportunities to enjoy and thrive in God's good creation. (For me this includes chasing down snook and tarpon in my kayak.)

But it's also a vulnerable place, so over the years I've been involved in helping conserve and protect the health of our land and waters. I've volunteered with various organizations to protect sea turtles and gopher tortoises; I've helped gather data about the health of sea life in coastal regions affected by human impact.

But climate change is a much bigger threat than any of us can address on our own, and we're already experiencing the rising health, economic, and environmental costs of inaction. We need our political leaders -- beginning with Gov. Rick Scott or his successor -- to join us in tackling the diverse challenges and seizing the rich opportunities that climate change brings.

Gov. Scott used to assert that he was unconvinced about the science of climate change. Most recently he appeared to nuance his position by saying simply, "I'm not a scientist." Fair enough. Gov. Scott is not a scientist. But he's supposed to be our leader, and a good leader would listen to the consensus of our best scientists. Contrary to the false impressions presented by one cable news network, they agree nearly unanimously that climate change is real and human-induced and demands bold action.

With Congress too gridlocked to act, and backed by rulings from the Supreme Court, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced draft standards that would limit and reduce emissions from the largest source of carbon pollution in America: power plants. These proposed standards are significant but pragmatic and have been written to give states considerable flexibility in coming up with the required compliance plans.

Florida has to develop a plan that will reduce our emissions by 38.3 percent over the next 15 years, from 1,200 pounds of CO2 per MWh of electricity in 2012 (the chosen benchmark year) to 740 pounds of CO2 per MWh in 2030. So Gov. Scott has a critical role to play here, and the EPA's carbon standards present him with a timely and tangible opportunity to make Florida a much-needed leader in climate action, not a laggard.

In the recently released National Climate Assessment, our country's foremost experts laid out the climate impacts we have experienced and will continue to experience in our lifetimes and those of future generations. Here are some of the points that the assessment makes concerning Florida in particular:

  • Stronger and more devastating hurricanes (categories 4 and 5) "have increased substantially since the early 1980s" and are projected to continue worsening. We in Florida are only too aware of the damage that major hurricanes such as Wilma, Katrina, Jeanne, Ivan, Frances, Andrew, and many others have caused.

  • Sea-level rise and storm surge is threatening many of our populations centers, including Marco Island, where I live. Miami and Tampa are two of the most vulnerable major cities, along with Palm Coast and Cape Coral-Fort Myers, which rank among the fastest-growing areas in the country.
  • Our freshwater supplies are being threatened by saltwater intrusion, which will continue to get worse, as in the case of Hallandale Beach, where they have so far lost six of their eight drinking-water wells.
  • Agriculture will struggle with climate-related factors that include hotter temperatures, intensified drought, extreme rain events, flooding, sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. A projected 37,500 acres of prime agricultural land in Florida will be lost during this century.
  • Warmer waters as well as ocean acidification will continue to destroy our coral reefs, all of which are already rated as "threatened."
  • Wildfires will increase, and so will the cost of fighting them. The 1998 Florida fires cost more than $600 million.
  • Hotter days threaten human health, especially the health of those who are already vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, and the poor or homeless. Miami and Tampa "have already had increases in the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees, during which the number of deaths is above average."
  • The tourism industry will be hit hard, with estimated losses from the Everglades and the Florida Keys alone of "$9 billion by 2025 and $40 billion by the 2050s." Nobody can predict the effects that these combined changes will have on Florida jobs, only that the impacts will be devastating and long-term.
  • This is a sombre list. Add to it a precipitous drop in real-estate values as these impacts intensify and you have a nightmare scenario. We have already locked in some of the consequences of climate pollution, and we should be preparing for further impacts, but thankfully we can still avoid a great deal of harm by choosing the right path forward today.

    The carbon standards being proposed by the EPA are an important step in the right direction. Now it's up to the states to respond.

    Like Gov. Scott, I am not a scientist. That's why I listen to the testimony of scientists who know much more than I, and they agree that global warming is real and poses a historic threat to human civilization. As a Christian I see protection of God's creation as a spiritual responsibility and an expression of my faith. That's why I'm asking Gov. Scott and other leaders across our beautiful state to take advantage of the opportunity that these new carbon standards presents: an opportunity to transform and strengthen our economy, protect our natural heritage, safeguard our children's future, and once again make Florida the climate leader we can and should be.