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Frontlines of Climate Change: Florida Leaders Take Action on Sea Level Rise

While leaders in Washington, D.C. grapple with a potential national economic crisis, in Florida, mayors and citizens are taking action—on climate change and sea-level rise, that is. Florida Atlantic University (FAU) will host its second annual Sea Level Rise Summit this week, bringing together national and international experts to discuss the impacts of sea-level rise and storm surge on local and national economies. The event will be followed a month later by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact’s fifth annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, which will review progress toward addressing climate change, connect regional and national leaders on the issue, and chart a path forward for Southeast Florida.

While these two events will discuss troubling climate impacts, the fact that Florida is hosting them represents encouraging progress when it comes to local climate action. As the U.S. state most vulnerable to sea-level rise, Florida’s citizens already feel the effects of costly floods, overflowing storm drains, and other damages being amplified by rising seas. Bringing together hundreds of the world’s leading experts on these issues can boost Florida’s ability to understand, mitigate, and adapt to the impacts of climate change—and hopefully, inspire additional action at the local, regional, and national scales.

Turning Information into Action

Local universities like FAU have helped Florida’s local governments better understand the threat of sea-level rise and identify appropriate adaptation measures. This week’s summit will offer a comprehensive dive into a range of climate change impacts like sea-level rise that threaten the state, nation, and the world. Leading experts from around the world will offer insight on best practices and state-of-the-art research concentrated on community planning.

Dr. Leonard Berry, director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies (CES) at FAU and an organizer of the summit, summarized what more and more decision makers are realizing: “[t]he problems we are facing in Florida will impact almost all facets of life, including how we maintain our beaches; how we insure and protect our homes and communities and the transportation links between them; how we revitalize our economy; and how we create a sustainable environment…[t]he time for preparation and planning is now.”

Florida Is at the Frontlines of Sea-Level Rise

Indeed, sea-level rise, storm surge, and recurrent flooding present imminent threats to Florida’s economy and communities. Florida’s Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties alone have an aggregate $4 billion in taxable property values that are vulnerable to just one foot of sea-level rise. That figure increases to more than $31 billion if seas rise by three feet. Almost 900 miles of roadway from Palm Beach to Miami-Dade would be impacted by a three-foot rise in sea-levels, while Monroe County alone is dealing with the threat of 65 and 71 percent of hospitals and emergency shelters that would be located below sea level with just one foot of sea-level rise. Speaking to the magnitude of the threats sea-level rise poses to these four counties, Dr. Jennifer Jurado, Director of Natural Resources, Planning and Management Division in Broward County, stated “[t]he overall issues are so much greater. I think we’re easily looking at hundreds of millions of dollars...That’s just for the next 20 to 30 years, to handle a moderate three-to-seven inch rise.”

But just as Florida’s counties are at the frontlines of climate change impacts, they’re also at the frontlines of local climate action. Leadership from Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties—representing a combined population of more than 5.6 million–established the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact in 2010, a first-of-its-kind agreement between bipartisan local governments to jointly develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies to address climate change. And Miami’s government dedicated $200 million to renovate the city’s storm water management system to better handle flooding and storm surge.

We Need Local and National Climate Action

While the impacts of climate change may be most visible to those living in southeast Florida, all Americans are already paying the price for manmade warming. Each American household has paid an average of almost $800 over the last two years due to disaster relief funding associated with damages from U.S. extreme weather events.

Local actors like FAU and the Compact are leading the way at raising awareness and developing strategies to address one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime. Local efforts like these are helping lay the blueprint for large-scale climate action. But if we are to comprehensively mitigate climate change and lessen the blow of its inevitable impacts, we need action at all levels of government—local, state, and national. It’s important that national leaders aid in the effort by both providing local adaptation assistance and enacting policies to significantly decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This action would both reduce the impacts we’re feeling today and prevent more disastrous effects in the future.

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