As 2016 steams toward a close that will likely mark it as the hottest on record, and fish swim in South Florida streets during king tides, climate scientists from the Sunshine State are desperate to get President-elect Donald Trump’s attention.
A group of university professors wrote a letter to the Trump campaign two weeks before Election Day, noting Florida’s vulnerability to rising seas and appealing to his business acumen — the impacts of climate change are a direct threat to Florida’s tourism-based economy, they said.
Trump’s own iconic Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach is threatened by encroaching waters. The current projection is for seas around South Florida to rise between 2.3 and 4.7 feet by 2100. If the worse-case scenario holds true, nearly half of Mar-a-Lago’s 20-acre site would be underwater in 84 years, with the brackish Intracoastal Waterway invading from the west.
The blush-colored mansion itself, built in 1927 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, doesn’t succumb until 6 feet of sea level rise occurs, according to a NOAA tool that visualizes sea-m-level rise.
“He’s a businessman and he makes money, and I think he can recognize the business impacts and opportunities here,” said David Hastings, a professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College in Tampa Bay. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in climate change to understand its importance in Florida, where we are ground zero for impacts. The sea level is rising.”
Hastings is one of 25 university researchers and professors who signed a simple, one-page letter requesting a sit-down with the future president to discuss the damaging effects of global warming on Florida’s beaches, coral reefs, drinking water, aging infrastructure and coastal communities.
It’s a tactic that worked with Gov. Rick Scott in 2014. Hastings and four other top climate scientists from the University of Miami and Florida State University requested, and were granted, a meeting with Scott hoping to impress upon him that human-induced climate change is real and a business threat.
“Zika, disappearing beaches, and dangerous weather can frighten away tourists that keep Florida’s economy churning,” the scientists wrote to Trump on Oct. 26.
The tone of the letter is dire, because Trump — billionaire businessman, reality-TV show host, and successful presidential politician — has mostly dismissed man’s contribution to climate change and mocked global warming on Twitter.
“I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change,” Trump told The Miami Herald in August. “There could be some impact, but I don’t believe it’s a devastating impact.”
His most infamous claim came in a 2012 Tweet where he said the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
The Washington Post reported in June that Trump later clarified on “Fox and Friends” that the Tweet was just a joke, meant to convey that China was reaping the business benefits of global warming by ignoring the concern and churning out cheaper goods.
“But there is little doubt that Trump still believes climate change is a hoax, as he has used the phrase in tweets and speeches,” The Washington Post wrote, pointing to a database of Trump tweets where he mentions global warming at least 90 times, sometimes in obvious teasing responses to bouts of frigid winter weather.
“Where the hell is global warming when you need it?” he tweeted during January 2015’s so-called “snomageddon.”
Still, Trump has threatened to cancel U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord, in which 200 countries agreed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), “scrap” President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and “end the war on coal.”
While emailed questions sent by The Palm Beach Post to Trump’s transition team went unanswered, the “energy independence” section on his website says: “America’s environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.”
It’s been suggested that well-known climate skeptic Myron Ebell could be tapped to lead an Environmental Protection Agency transition team for Trump.
“Trump’s aligned himself with a lot of people who aren’t very concerned about climate change, for whatever reason,” said Jeff Chanton, a Florida State University oceanography professor who helped pen the Trump letter and was one of the climate experts who met with Scott in 2014. “It seems to me that this just wasn’t a big campaign issue.”
Chanton said he is disappointed climate change wasn’t discussed more in the debates between Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.
The words “climate change” were only spoken three times during the televised exchanges, according to a review of debate transcripts, and one of the instances was when Trump denied that he said climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese.
Colin Polsky, director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies, said he hopes Trump’s actual climate change actions are more nuanced than the campaign rhetoric, and that he listens to what some of America’s largest corporations say about global warming.
Last week, 300 businesses — including General Mills, Hilton, IKEA North American Services, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Kellogg Company — issued a statement addressed to Trump and President Obama reaffirming their “deep commitment” to the Paris Climate Agreement.
In September 2015, six major banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, signed a statement acknowledging that greenhouse gases are contributing to global warming and asking for policies to mitigate climate-related risks.
“I’m keeping on with our work, but I just don’t know what tomorrow will bring with the new administration,” Polsky said. “In South Florida in particular, we are really facing these issues in real time.”
Every fall, the encroachment of sea water becomes more tangible to South Floridians as so-called “sunny day” flooding occurs with the king tides. While the majority of impacts are to roadways, some homeowners struggle with keeping the Intracoastal out of their living rooms.
“Last month it made it into the foyer, and we were bucketing out water,” said Iris Frohman, who lives on Marine Way in Delray Beach. “I have my upholstered dining room chairs up on my table and my furniture on railroad ties.”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measurements taken from a buoy off Lake Worth show sea levels rising at 3.36 millimeters per year, or 1.10 feet in 100 years. That’s similar to readings at Marathon Key that show a 3.34-millimeter increase per year, and Tampa, which is measuring an annual increase of 3.15 millimeters.
In October 2015, the Southeast Florida Regional Compact on Climate Change issued an updated report on sea-level rise estimates through the year 2100.
While South Florida measurements have been similar to global sea-level rise in the past, it is “anticipated to outpace the global average due to ongoing variations in the Florida Currents and Gulf Stream,” the report notes.
Between 2015 and 2060, South Florida seas could swell between 11 and 22 inches, based on estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
By 2100, they could rise from 28 inches to 57 inches — between 2.3 feet and 4.7 feet.
“It’s very possible that when (Trump) starts negotiating internationally, that he will recognize how important of an issue this is and will bend a little bit,” Hastings said. “That is a hopeful perspective, but it is possible and we want to give him room to do that.”
Even without national support, however, Hastings is buoyed by what is happening on local levels and believes that work will continue.
In 2010, a Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact was signed by representatives of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. The compact calls for the counties to work together on climate change issues, including advocating for state and federal policies to mitigate global warming.
“This is critical for Florida because we are the canary in the coal mine,” said Kenny Broad, a University of Miami professor in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who signed the Trump letter. “It’s not as if we’re going to stop working on climate change. We have to adapt. We have no option.”
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