Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
The Climate Clock, a project of artists, scientists and activists, is ticking down to six years — six years until, at present levels of CO2 emissions, the global rise in temperatures over pre-industrial levels reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This is the world’s deadline, the time remaining to stave off the most catastrophic effects of a hotter, less hospitable world, according to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The clock shows how little time is left for political decision-makers to take action.
Sadly for all of us, the trends are going in the wrong direction, as epitomized by the Trump administration’s four years of contempt toward climate action. The IPCC reported in 2019 that sea levels are rising at an ever-faster rate as ice and snow shrink and that oceans are getting more acidic and losing oxygen.
Florida stands to get hit especially hard. By 2040, sea levels around the coast are likely to rise 8 to 12 inches over today’s levels, according to the research group Resources for the Future. In less than 20 years, the state will be beset by frequent flooding endangering about 300,000 homes, 2,500 miles of roadways, 30 schools, and 4 hospitals. Extreme temperatures are likely to cause over 1,000 deaths each year from cardiovascular and blood-vessel diseases.
The Climate Clock countdown is based on the world’s current rate of consumption of fossil fuels. The good news is, we can put time back on the clock by curbing our outpouring of carbon emissions. The bad news, we have to put emissions on a sharp downward path quickly. It will take a huge effort to do this — from governments, industries, individuals — and we live in a political climate that amplifies discord and makes concerted effort seem impossible.
It is heartening that the incoming Biden administration understands the gravity of the stakes and is determined to take the climate challenge seriously. The president-elect has set a goal of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the public sector by 2035, on the way to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
To reach those goals, we’ll have to make dizzying increases in wind and solar power, battery-powered cars, homes heated by electricity rather than oil or gas. So says a new study from Princeton University, which concludes that reaching net-zero is doable, though staggeringly ambitious.
And though the changes would shake the U.S. economy, the initiatives would create more than half a million jobs, 150,000 in Florida alone, the Princeton study concludes. The cleaner air would, by 2050, save 52,000 premature Florida deaths.
Our state government must get on board. The time has come for Gov. Ron DeSantis to dust off the energy goals set by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008, later canceled by Crist’s successor Rick “Don’t Mention Climate Change” Scott.
Crist’s executive orders, far-seeing at the time, required Florida to slash greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 and mandated that utilities get 20% of their electricity from renewable fuels. State-owned buildings needed to be energy-efficient and Florida’s fleet needed to run on clean-burning fuel such as ethanol.
DeSantis, who enjoyed lofty approval ratings until his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic sent them sinking, could improve his popularity in an instant by signing orders similar to Crist’s, updated for this new, more urgent decade.
Granted, it’s difficult to imagine the conservative DeSantis taking such actions, but not impossible. Crist, remember, was a Republican himself when governor. DeSantis’ first major acts as governor included creating the positions of chief science officer, whose remit includes the study of sea-level rise, and chief resilience officer, “tasked with preparing Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of sea-level rise.”
But, unconscionably, DeSantis has allowed the resilience-officer job to stand empty for almost a year. Oh well, it looked good on paper.
Yet as U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, has found, climate change can be a non-partisan issue. Deutch is a co-founder of the bipartisan congressional Climate Solutions Caucus. Even Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Pensacola, the noted fan of President Trump, is a member.
Deutch advocates a carbon tax on fossil fuels. Making it more expensive to put greenhouse gases in the air is an excellent idea. The added tax will in many cases mean a profit for taxpayers; the money collected will go back to Americans in the form of rebate checks, which in many cases will be more than what an individual paid out at the pump.
Florida could — and should — institute its own version of a carbon tax, whether or not Congress manages to pass a federal law. For GOP legislators who have sworn never to increase taxes, the rebate offers a handy exception; they wouldn’t be making the government larger, merely creating a disincentive to filling up the tank with gas. Gas that is ever-more-rapidly ruining the planet.
The clock is ticking. It’s telling us to act.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.