By Cheryl Blackerby
The subject was climate change, and Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, admitted early on, “I know I’m preaching to the choir here in southeast Florida.”
Perciasepe was the featured speaker at the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit held Nov. 7 and 8 at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale.
The annual meeting was started in 2009 by Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties as a way to work together to adapt to a changing climate.
One of the group’s findings: Sea levels are projected to rise 3 to 7 inches from 2010 to 2030 in Key West, according to calculations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By 2060, Florida’s sea levels will rise 9 to 24 inches.
These and other calculations show the enormous risks, not only to people in Key West, but to the 5.6 million residents of these four counties.
The event, which sold out weeks in advance, attracted 350 elected officials, scientists, nonprofit and business leaders.
“Climate change is already affecting us,” Perciasepe said. “Southeast Florida is recognized as one of the most vulnerable places in the country.”
President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which he signed the week before the conference, has three objectives, Perciasepe said: “Mitigation including reducing greenhouse gasses; preparedness such as safeguarding electric grids, clean water and roads; and establishing the U.S. as a stronger leader in the international discussion.”
Many of the issues addressed in the president’s plan were the same as those in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, an action plan with 110 specific recommendations formalized by the four-county group after the first summit. The plan emphasizes the need to protect a vulnerable water supply and coastal infrastructure.
Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties embraced the plan. The Palm Beach County Commission was expected to endorse it during the summit, but didn’t.
“The Board of County Commissioners has discussed the compact publicly and supports it in full,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams. “I believe the staff recommendation was that we shop it around the county to elicit public support and greater awareness so there is community buy-in before we take official action.”
A town hall meeting during the summit featured U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton, and state Rep. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, among others, who discussed how climate change is affecting the local economy.
Republican representatives were invited to the town hall, but all declined to attend, citing busy schedules, said moderator Tom Hudson, a correspondent with WLRN-FM radio in Miami.
“With climate change comes more rainfall,” Murphy said. “This year we had 150 percent above average rainfall. When you have that much water going into the Everglades, especially Lake Okeechobee, it has to come out somewhere. It came out in my district and the water was labeled toxic. We are not funding infrastructure needed to contain this water.”
One of the questions was about the rising cost of flood insurance.
“The national flood insurance program was a fairly sustainable program until [Hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy and now it’s $27 billion in debt,” said Murphy. “FEMA has pushed a little hard and a little quickly and what’s happened is that we’ve seen some homes where the rates have gone up about 4,000 percent. That’s unsustainable. That is unrealistic.”
Frankel observed that “the practicality of this is if the cost of flood insurance keeps going up and you can’t get hurricane insurance, there are not going to be homeowners. People are not going to be even looking at 30-year mortgages.”
She reminded the audience of what happened in Florida when house sales bottomed out. “If people are not able to sell their homes and people don’t want to buy homes, you’ll see dramatic effects on our entire economy.”
Frankel warned that South Floridians need to start taking preventive action, including “steering growth away from flood zones, moving drinking wells inland, and adapting building codes.”
Unfortunately, Congress and the state legislature are doing little to address climate change, the lawmakers said.
“Once you get past Martin County,” Powell said, “it becomes difficult to talk about climate change because some people aren’t really seeing the effects we see. It takes an emergency for people to start acting on it.”