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While Congress Dawdles, Florida Counties Show Leadership on Addressing Climate Change

"Think globally, act locally" is a slogan that aptly describes what I witnessed last week at the 4th Annual Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit. At the event, local government officials from four counties gathered to discuss how to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts.

Yep, you heard that correctly – government officials in the United States—in a “purple” state, no less—came together in a bipartisan manner to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. In fact, mayors, members of Congress, county commissioners, and officials in charge of water issues in the state discussed how to move forward with action plans in response to sea-level rise – a climate change impact which is not theoretical, but happening now.

Putting Aside Partisanship for Action

Unlike Congress, these public officials aren't debating the facts of climate change and its impacts or whether we should act. They see current effects and understand that in the face of streets flooding more regularly, drinking water supplies threatened by salinization, and models showing that some neighborhoods could become uninhabitable, what political party you support is irrelevant. Climate change impacts like sea level rise don't discriminate between Democrats and Republicans. As Congress continues to fail to address climate change at the national level, local officials from Florida’s Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties—representing a combined population of 5.6 million—established the four-county Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact and recently completed a 110-point regional action plan. They have developed mitigation and adaptation strategies through joint efforts, which can inform policy-making and government funding at the state and federal levels.

Other Communities and Lawmakers Can Learn from South Florida

Panelists at the summit discussed the tens of millions of dollars already spent on new wells to replace those that have had saltwater seep into them and the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for new drainage systems in Miami. Meanwhile, people having side conversations talked of the Florida Keys eventually becoming a reef and parts of the state’s valuable beachfront property no longer being inhabitable. The fact that Florida is built on porous limestone makes the adaptation challenges even more daunting, as sea water will seep under any barriers that could be constructed.

Significantly, South Florida’s officials understand that they must also address the causes of climate change. They’ve included mitigation strategies as part of the action plan, including transitioning to cleaner energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through adoption of forward-thinking policies, such as a renewable energy standard. A lot of work remains to implement the action plan, but there is no disagreement on the need to act now.

Will Federal Lawmakers Take a Page from South Florida’s Book?

The action plan by these local governments is a model for others to follow. However, we know that climate change is a global problem that will ultimately require national leadership. It’s admirable that local leaders in Southeast Florida are not waiting for that missing leadership before taking action, but it does raise real questions about Congress’s failure to act on climate change and its responsibility to protect American people and their property.

Two newly elected members of Congress spoke at the recent summit, providing some glimmers of hope at the federal level. Representative-elect Patrick Murphy (D-FL) said he would support climate change legislation and chastised politicians for "burying their heads in the sand." Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-FL) also committed to support federal action, saying "I will deal with it in a scientific way." She noted that climate change is "not a partisan issue," and "we cannot hide from it."

Perhaps as more people at the local level respond to climate change, national policymakers will wake up and take action to protect our citizens and valuable resources from dangerous impacts. While local action is desperately needed and should be applauded, we ultimately need national leaders to lead on climate change.

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