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A federal report released Tuesday shows much of South Florida could experience dramatic, damaging effects of climate change and rising sea levels within just a few decades.
The Third National Climate Assessment, compiled by more than 300 national experts over the last three years, says climate change threatens Florida's tourism industry, water supply and public health. Sea levels will rise between 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
Part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan, the report says Florida is extremely vulnerable. Floods may become more frequent, even in areas where overall precipitation is expected to decline.
Few states as vulnerable to climate change as Florida
"We're in climate change, it's already here," said Jim Beever with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. "It's been going on my whole life, even the life of my parents. This didn't just start happening in the 1980s. It started when people started removing trees from Africa and turning the area into deserts. All of that causes climate change."
Beever said Fort Myers residents can expect shifts in rainfall patterns, crop losses and flooding in the downtown district along the south bank of the Caloosahatchee River. Some cities and counties have been planning for climate change for years. Beever said people will be able to live in the ecologically altered Southwest Florida, but that Fort Myers may be a city of gondolas and front-porch fishing.
Vulnerability to Sea Level Rise(Photo: globalchange.gov)
"In 2100, we'll still be here," Beever said. "We'll be here in 2200 and 2300 and 2400, but it will look different. You're going to have higher water levels that we have today. Certainly, the barrier islands will change shape when they can."
Report: Global warming disrupting Americans' lives
Locally, sea level rise is expected to cause a myriad of problems: increased tropical storm strength and frequency, infrastructure failures and shifts in rainfall patterns and growing seasons, according to the federal report.
Beever said climate change has been evident in Southwest Florida for more than half a century.
"The saltmarshes have already moved. They've moved about the length of a football field since the 1950s," Beever said. "Habitats will migrate. Where habitat is blocked by sea walls, the habitat will be gone. There's going to be major road problems. The approaches to bridges will go underwater first. The Sanibel causeway is built to accommodate some sea level rise, but the approaches will be underwater."
Beever said Punta Gorda is one of the most prepared cities in Florida. Community leaders there began to plan for climate change and sea level rise nearly a decade ago. Heading advice from Beever and others, the city relocated the construction site for its new public works office — moving the location inland, which may save the city millions of dollars down the road.
"They're a progressive community," Beever said. "They want to build better, not just the same."
Climate change also has the attention of the National Park Service, which oversees Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve — about 2 million acres of South Florida wild lands.
Linda Friar, with Everglades National Park, said managers there implemented a climate change planning practice that encourages scientists and others working at the park to plan for a different Florida in the future. Any new investments in infrastructure must include a sea level risk assessment, she said.
"Ecologically, concerns over saltwater intrusion may impact water supply in the park," Friar said. "The brackish water is home to a variety of creatures, and that may move further inland. If it happens slowly, a resilient, healthy system can manage that change over time as they have for centuries. It's the sudden change that could be more challenging and potentially devastating."
The report wasn't news to everyone.
"The climate report is a synopsis of reports that have been out a while, and other than the U.S., those reports seem to be taken seriously," said Wayne Daltry, former planner for the state and Lee County. "The biggest issue facing us for short term isn't sea level rise, it is weather change/rainfall patterns that cause drought and flooding in ways our tailored crops cannot adapt to quickly enough."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, says climate-change deniers have successfully cast the phenomenon as a subject for debate as opposed to scientific fact. He says a political solution is elusive in a divided Congress and that drastic steps by the government aren't possible until the public is "agitated" enough to demand action.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami, said he too is worried about the impact of severe weather on his home state.
But he said hurricanes have been around for "hundreds of years" and isn't convinced severe weather is the result of man-made conditions, as the vast majority of^ @scientists conclude. He also warns that the Obama administration may try to use the new report to boost a political agenda that would "devastate" the American economy.
"Even if scientists concluded that, in fact, our modern way of living in the 21st century is the only cause of changes to our climate, I would ask what policy changes are they recommending that would actually reverse that, when the largest polluters in the world -- China, India and underdeveloped countries -- have no interest in making any changes whatsoever," he said Tuesday. "So why should we eviscerate our own economy if it would have no impact whatsoever on these things that they're raising a concern about?"
Some findings from the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment:
• Tourism: "Climate change impacts on tourism and recreation will vary significantly by region. For instance, some of Florida's top tourist attractions, including the Everglades and Florida Keys, are threatened by sea level rise, with estimated revenue losses of $9 billion by 2025 and $40 billion by the 2050s." (NCA, Ch. 14: Rural Communities)
• Health: "Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Tampa have already had increases in the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95ºF, during which the number of deaths is above average. Higher temperatures also contribute to the formation of harmful air pollutants and allergens. Ground-level ozone is projected to increase in the 19 largest urban areas of the Southeast, leading to an increase in deaths." (NCA, Ch. 17: Southeast)
• Ecosystems: "Coral reefs in the Southeast and Caribbean, as well as worldwide, are susceptible to climate change, especially warming waters and ocean acidification, whose impacts are exacerbated when coupled with other stressors, including disease, runoff, over-exploitation, and invasive species. (NCA, Ch. 17: Southeast)
Examples of Efforts Underway in Florida
• Mechanisms being used by local governments to prepare for climate change include: land-use planning; provisions to protect infrastructure and ecosystems; regulations related to the design and construction of buildings, road, and bridges; and preparation for emergency response and recovery.
• Investing in Clean Energy: Since President Obama took office, the U.S. increased solar-electricity generation by more than ten-fold and tripled electricity production from wind power. Since 2009, the Administration has supported tens of thousands of renewable energy projects throughout the country, including more than 1,378 in Florida, generating enough energy to power more than 17,000 homes.
• President Barack Obama established the toughest fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles in U.S. history. These standards will double the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks by 2025, saving the average driver more than $8,000 over the lifetime of a 2025 vehicle and cutting carbon pollution.
The News-Press Washington Correspondent Ledyard King contributed to this report.