Southeast Florida Prepares for a Warming World

Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact LogoAnother year is almost over and the southeast region of Florida seems to be another year wiser when it comes to planning for climate change.  The 4th annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit was held in Jupiter, Florida, December 6 – 7 and by all accounts the region’s local governments are showing wisdom in preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate change.

The purpose of the summit was to convene the four counties of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe to discuss their regional climate action plan.  The plan was released in draft form at last year’s regional summit (which I blogged about here) and since last year has gone through an extensive public comment period and been approved by Broward and Monroe Counties.  It will be on the agendas of the county councils of Palm Beach and Miami-Dade in 2013.

Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan Cover

The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan, finalized in 2012, lays out an extensive framework for how the region might best respond to the impacts of climate change.

The collaborative approach of these four counties shows foresight and is commendable.  Representing approximately 5.6 million residents and many diverse interests, the four counties found common ground in their shared vulnerability to climate change and realized the benefits of working together to move the whole region forward to address these risks.  The counties formalized their collaborative endeavor in 2010 by adopting the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, which is–in the words of the regional climate action plan–”the vision and framework for regional resilience. It respects the diversity of the region and the autonomy of the many governing bodies.”  The scale of the Compact’s work on responding to climate change is remarkable and is perhaps the greatest such effort in the entire country.

The recently finalized climate action plan is the latest product of  the Compact’s work.  It lays out an extensive framework for how the region might best respond to the impacts of climate change, including 106 recommended action items which fall into seven primary categories:  sustainable communities and transportation planning; water supply, management and infrastructure; natural systems; agriculture; energy and fuel; risk reduction and emergency management; and outreach and public policy.  A primary characteristic of this effort that sets it apart from many other municipal or county climate action plans is its emphasis on adaptation measures rather than mitigation efforts — how we prepare to live in a warmer world rather than just how we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

“[The] Regional Climate Action Plan [...] calls for concerted action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to regional and local impacts of a changing climate. The recommendations presented here aim to accomplish those goals while also serving to protect the assets of the region’s unique quality of life and economy, guiding future investments, and fostering livable, sustainable and resilient communities.” – excerpt from the plan.

The emphasis on adapting to climate impacts is not without good reason.  South Florida is firmly in the cross hairs of climate change and the effects felt there will be echoed in other parts of the nation in the coming years.  The region is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, ranked among the most vulnerable regions in the world to sea level rise.  Already, streets in some communities, like Miami Beach, are flooded during normal high-tide cycles without storm surge or extreme weather events.  Flooding problems will only be exacerbated in years to come with sea level rise due to global warming.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the four Southeast Florida counties issued a unified projection for sea level rise last year, which projects 3-7 inches of sea level rise by 2030, 9-24 inches by 2060, and 19.5-57 inches by 2100.  According to the Florida Atlantic University’s Southeast Florida’s Resilient Water Resources study, it would only take 3-9 inches of rise to disable 70% of the drainage system capacity of southeast Florida and according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development,  an 18-inch rise, expected by mid to late century, will likely result in  $3.5 trillion dollars of damage in the Miami area alone.

While Florida is on the front lines of dealing with climate impacts, it is not alone in the face of climate risks.  Problems due to sea level rise are also being felt in coastal communities up and down the American coasts and around the world.  Here in the Southeast, we have some of the most at-risk coastal cities in the nation–Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, and the list goes on.  Hurricane Sandy provided a sobering look at how rising seas combined with heavy storm surges can ravage coastal communities just about anywhere on the Atlantic coast. The picture isn’t pretty on the international front either where sea level rise will affect perhaps hundreds of millions of people in the years to come.   In fact, just this fall I had the opportunity to watch Sun Come Up, a film documenting the plight of some of the world’s first climate refugees being forced to move away from their island due to sea level rise, and a terrible reminder of the global implications of our dirty energy habits.

The work of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact is significant not just for what they are doing for the people within that region, but also for the model they are developing and establishing for other communities around the country and around the world to follow.  With so much at stake, it would be wise for coastal community leaders everywhere to take a good hard look at, and be inspired by, the work of the Compact.

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