Ten years ago, officials in South Florida, lobbying for a federal climate bill in Washington, discovered they didn’t have enough clout as a county or a city. They realized they needed to speak as a region.
And so leaders of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties – Key West to Jupiter – quietly formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to work together on issues that cross city and county lines: hotter temperatures, stronger storms, sea-level rise.
One of the first things they did was work out a common set of numbers projecting how much sea-level rise to expect: 6 to 10 inches by 2030; 2 1/2 to 5 feet by 2100. They worked out a regional vulnerability assessment and the region’s first greenhouse-gas emission inventory.
They set, and later updated, a Regional Climate Action plan, setting goals for agriculture, transportation, water, energy and more. All four counties’ affixed it to their comprehensive plans. Thirty-five cities have signed on.
This ground-breaking collaboration among southeast Florida’s local governments is a bright spot in a dispiriting history of inaction against an ever-more alarming threat.
And in a state with the overwhelming majority of it residents living within 10 miles of its more than 1,300 miles of vulnerable coastline, our region’s compact needs to be repeated elsewhere — and quickly.
That means government and business leaders in Southwest Florida, Northeast Florida, the Tampa Bay area, the Florida Panhandle and Treasure Coast are on the clock.
Just a month ago, the United Nations released a brutal alarm: We have just 12 years to limit global warming to moderate levels. If we don’t slash carbon emissions, the world soon will be far worse in terms of famine, disease, economic tolls and refugee crises.
And just last week, scientists reported that the oceans have been soaking up far more excess heat in recent decades than scientists realized, suggesting that Earth could be set to warm even faster than predicted.
Our region’s Compact is a rare embrace of that reality.
Because of the Compact, our region is well-positioned to apply for federal dollars (especially for transportation projects that stretch across city and county lines), to secure valuable grants such as 100 Resilient Cities and, hopefully, demonstrate to insurers that we can effectively set goals to mitigate risks to property.
That’s huge. It means that average citizens who worry about where things are heading globally can act locally. It means that towns don’t have to waste time and effort competing against each other for money to bolster sea walls or protect fresh-water wells.
“We’re using common, science-informed planning projections to guide public policy; we’ve built quite a lot of resilient infrastructure and we’re actively learning from each other as we get ready to build more,” says Steve Adams, a leader of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, who has helped lead the compact.
“Most importantly, we’ve built and continue to build the relationships necessary to advance this region toward a more sustainable, resilient region for all. We’ve got a great deal more to do — this process is far from perfect — but we’re not starting from zero as we were 10 years ago.”
Indeed, now Tampa is doing the same thing. Leaders of seven counties and dozens of city governments signed agreements last month to form the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition. Small wonder: Tampa has been ranked as the U.S.’s most vulnerable metropolitan area to storm surge, with $175 billion in potential losses. Two other Gulf Coast cities — Fort Myers and Sarasota — also made a Top 8 list compiled by a firm that assesses catastrophic risk.
“It’s the local governments that are the grown-ups in the room,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who helped kick off the Tampa Bay coalition. She said her group was impressed with how the Southeast Florida compact members “worked together to get it done. With partners, you do more.”
There are signs that it won’t stop there. At the recent Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit in Miami Beach, government officials from Southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast also spoke with urgency about creating similar collaborative compacts in their regions to address sea-level rise, beach erosion and other climate-related issues.
It’s about time. Along Florida’s coastline, between $15 billion and $23 billion of property will likely be underwater by 2050, a number that grows to between $53 billion and $208 billion by the end of the century, according to 2015 report from the Risky Business Project.
South Floridians didn’t just sit back and wait for the state and federal governments to take action. We now have a decade’s head start in our race against time. And other coastal regions are rightly taking note.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.