The razorbill, a seabird that usually travels no farther south than the Carolinas, was a common sight off the Boynton Inlet during the middle of December. Beach erosion and other disturbances brought on by Hurricane Sandy are thought to have prompted the razorbills to fly south.
Photo by Rick Schofield
By Cheryl Blackerby
Long before President Obama said in a September speech that climate change was not a hoax, South Florida mayors and other government leaders were talking to scientists and legislators about global warming.
In 2009, local government officials in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties formed the South Florida Climate Compact, a partnership they said was created “to tackle one of, if not the, most important issue facing our generation.”
One of their 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, sea levels will rise 9 to 24 inches. These and other calculations showed the enormous risks not only to people in Key West but to the 5.6 million residents in these four counties, many living at low elevations.
At the compact’s annual climate summit, Dec. 6 and 7 in Jupiter, officials shared new scientific evidence and anecdotal experiences from Hurricane Sandy, which underlined the need for planning.
“Sea level rise is happening. People who say climate change is not happening are burying their heads in the sand,” said Fred Beckmann, director of public works for the city of Miami Beach. He showed photos of flooded Miami Beach streets, which had never flooded, and drainage systems that were overwhelmed by the storm surge.
“We have to ask the hard questions now. What are we going to protect? What do we do for surge protection?” he said. “We need to act now. We need to add flexibility to the storm-water system, we need to look at future water storage, and we need to raise seawalls.”
The message from the summit’s featured speaker, Dr. Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, a nonprofit science journalism organization headquartered in Princeton, N.J., was sobering.
In July, two comprehensive climate science reports were released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she said. Using indicators such as the amount of greenhouse gases in the air and melting glacial ice, the reports demonstrated how global warming is already shifting the odds in favor of some extreme weather and climate events, such as the Texas drought and heat wave of 2011.
“We’re not talking about 50 years from now, but now. The new normal is warmer and wetter. These are tough issues,” said Cullen, author of the book The Weather of the Future. She is a lecturer at Princeton University; a senior research fellow at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania; and was the first on-air climate expert at the Weather Channel.
Hurricane Sandy has changed our ability to talk about this issue, she said, adding that polls show most New Yorkers believe climate change caused the hurricane.
“Extreme weather events have quadrupled. Experts predict more extreme weather, and more simultaneous events,” she said. “The kinds of extremes we see now are a pale shadow of what we will see in the future.”
The U.S. has had record high temperatures. Record highs should equal the lows, she said, but now we have twice as many record highs as record lows since 2000.
Cullen noted that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city will rebuild with climate change in mind. We can’t wait for predictions to come true, and react to disasters, she warned. Local governments have to plan for them.
The dikes in the Netherlands are an example of planning for epic flooding disasters. They fortified the country for a 1-in-10,000-year event, which most people would think is extreme, she said. But the alternative is one most residents don’t want to do — move people out of high-risk areas. Communities will have to do a lot of soul-searching in coming years to decide what to do, she told community leaders.
And while planning for the worst, they should be working to avert disaster by reducing greenhouse gases. Communities can take steps together, such as providing green public transportation, she said.
The Florida Keys will be affected first by climate change, she said, which Keys officials didn’t doubt.
“The sea level rise is quite recognizable in the Lower Keys,” said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent. “We’re having to elevate roads that used to be high and dry. We’ve been set back by the Bill O’Reillys of the world. This is very important. We can’t even build dikes to protect us.” The highest point in the Keys is 12 feet, with most people living below 4 feet, he said.
Matti Bower, mayor of Miami Beach, said her city is working on a master plan and is taking sea rise into account. Beckmann of Miami Beach said 90 percent of the seawalls are privately owned. “What happens when you tell people they have to raise their sea walls?”
“We’re concerned,” Cullen said, “about the economy and jobs, but we can care about this issue and still care about other things. And we can fix things that help right now and will help in the future.”