It was a hopeful sign to see business leaders join a sold-out crowd of government, academic and community leaders at last week’s 9th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Summit.
It was hopeful because the challenge of climate change — no, let’s not call it that. Let’s call it sea level rise. Oh, wait, we can’t call it that, either? Flooding? Can we agree we’re seeing floods like never before? — is so political.
And generally speaking, the business community skews right. And Republican leaders are loathe to talk about climate, er, flooding, because the next question is, what are we going to do about it? And that gets at ending our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, which means new government regulations, which — and they’re right about this — can be costly for businesses. And with so many people thinking — wrongly so — that this is not a problem we will face in our lifetimes, it’s just easier to ignore the whole thing.
Remember, Republican Gov. Rick Scott refuses to acknowledge climate change, even after meeting with a group of climate scientists three years ago. Though he’s stopped saying “I’m not a scientist,” he won’t let state employees use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in official correspondence.
And in May, Republican President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, which is moving the world toward a goal of limiting the rise of global temperatures. Trump has called climate change a hoax and is pushing the use of more coal.
So with the nation more politically divided than ever, it was good to see South Florida business leaders back an agreement to help make the business case for recognizing and addressing a problem of global proportion.
For with greater involvement from the business community, there’s a better chance of attracting the financial and political muscle we need to prepare for rising waters.
And make no mistake, the water is rising.
The sea level in South Florida rose about 8 inches during the past century, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But here’s the scary part. It’s projected to rise 3 to 7 inches by 2030 — and 2 feet by 2060, and maybe more. All four South Florida counties — Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe — have baked that two-foot increase into plans for future development.
“Let’s look at what’s going on and stop worrying about the politics,” Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca, the only Republican on the nine-member commission, said during a panel discussion. “In June, there was a 15-inch rainfall at Sawgrass Mills mall. They had to shut the mall down. There was a $30-million impact from a rainfall.”
The Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce and the Broward Workshop are among the business groups lending their support to this regional collaborative, formed in 2009 to address the threat headed our way. So are the Beacon Council and Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. The first meeting attracted a few dozen people. This year’s meeting filled the Broward County Convention Center.
“We are really late to the dance,” Dan Lindblade, the chamber’s president and CEO, said at the summit. “I look at this as a legacy issue for us.”
Business leaders from a host of fields — including construction, real estate, hospitality and health care — agreed to back recommendations, not mandates, for building “economic resiliency.”
They also agreed to recruit more chambers of commerce, regional councils, economic forums and other business groups to endorse a “collaboration for regional economic resilience.”
Raising roads, improving drainage systems, changing development standards and lowering pollution emissions are among the measures called for in the four counties’ Regional Climate Action Plan.
The online, interactive plan lets business owners, residents and government officials get a customized to-do list of ways to prepare. Suggestions include raising the base elevation of buildings, preserving more open spaces to store water, and incorporating solar and other renewable energy into new construction.
“The development industry doesn’t complain about resilience requirements in construction standards,” said Debbie Orshefsky, a development lawyer with Holland & Knight, during a panel discussion. “New construction isn’t the problem. It’s everything else. The majority of (our community) was built in the ‘90s, if not in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s the roads around them, the sewage system, the drainage. That’s the issue we have to focus on.”
Let’s hope Orshefsky is right, that developers won’t fight new requirements to harden buildings, though experience tells us otherwise because of increased costs. Plus, as Fort Lauderdale well knows, new construction has added to the problem of over-loaded drainage and sewage pipes. Nevertheless, with more people headed our way who will need housing — and the forecast for a rising water table — she’s right about today’s roads, sewage and drainage systems needing attention.
Already, rising seas are lapping at our feet in South Florida. Periods of extreme high tides, called king tides, overwhelm seawalls and push ocean water onto streets, sidewalks and yards on days when there’s not a cloud in sky. And it’s going to get worse.
“The truth is harsh,” said James Donnelly, chairman of the Broward Workshop, a group of business CEOs. “But we have to be careful of how we communicate that truth. It’s going to have to be a well-managed, well-communicated message.”
Donnelly is right. We don’t want to scare everybody. But we do need to wake people up to prepare for the water headed our way.
And with the business community joining the call, we stand a better chance.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.