By Rosemary O’Hara
Remember Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth? Gore was the canary in the coal mine for many of us. He showed us how carbon emissions are trapping heat in the atmosphere and changing our climate.
In one memorable scene, Gore walks along a life-size graphic that shows how the climate has changed over the eons, following the ebb and flow of naturally occurring atmospheric carbon. He then climbs aboard a scissor lift to dramatize the drastic rise in atmospheric carbon since the start of the industrial revolution, when we began burning fossil fuels once stored underground.
Since 2006, that trend line has done nothing but climb. Before the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon averaged 275 parts per million. Last week, it averaged 421 — the highest level since monitoring began. Experts say it needs to get back below 350 to avoid irreversible impacts, but we remain full speed down the wrong track.
In 2015, the world’s nations met in Paris with a goal of keeping global warming from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But last month, the World Meteorological Organization said we stand a 50 percent chance of hitting that mark in just five years.
If 3 degrees happens, the forecast is dire: blistering heat and drought, ferocious hurricanes and wildfires, devastating floods and sea level rise.
Low-lying Florida is especially vulnerable to sea-level rise. Consider that Miami is just 6.5 feet above sea level, on average, and the latest projection says the sea in South Florida will rise 11 inches by 2040.
So what’s the plan?
Some countries are meeting their Paris promises, but not the big boys.
Facing power shortages, China, the largest contributor of carbon emissions, is increasing its coal dependence and plans to build at least 18 coal plants abroad.
Facing similar outages, India, the third largest contributor, plans to reopen more than 100 coal mines.
And though President Biden said the United States, the second largest contributor, would dramatically cut carbon emissions, his ambitions face an increasingly narrow path.
In December, Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would have propelled us toward a clean energy future, died. In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could significantly restrict the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions. And a Republican takeover of one or both chambers in November’s midterm election could freeze movement for years, given the Republicans lack of appetite for climate action.
The good news is that the private sector is taking action. Efforts accelerated two years ago after the CEO of BlackRock — the world’s most powerful investor — said it would consider climate change in determining a company’s long-term prospects. Within weeks, Microsoft announced a plan to be carbon-negative by 2030. Delta Air Lines announced it would be carbon-neutral in 10 years. Even Duke Energy says it will achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Some Florida CEOs are also speaking up. They worry what will happen if lenders are no longer willing to make 30-year mortgages or the property insurance market disappears.
Did you hear the Tampa Bay Rays are no longer pursuing a waterfront ballpark? President Brian Auld recently said: “Sites that once appeared to be great places to build a ballpark are now expected to be under water.” At St. Pete’s Al Lang Field, he said, “we get floods that are like a foot deep in the locker room every year now.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis never mentions “climate change,” but he and the Republican-led Legislature have woken to the threats of sea level rise. They’ve ordered an inventory of the state’s flooding vulnerabilities, authorized a statewide resilience plan and created the Resilient Florida Grant Program to help local communities harden at-risk critical infrastructure.
They also set aside $1 billion of the $10 billion that Florida received in federal American Rescue Act dollars to raise roads and seawalls, build higher dunes and deeper swales, and improve stormwater and wastewater systems.
But Tallahassee is focused on just one side of the coin: trying to adapt to the water to come. They refuse to address the underlying cause: carbon emissions. Climate activist Susan Glickman compares it to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on towels for an overflowing sink — and never turning off the faucet.
State lawmakers continue to refuse to create goals for a clean-energy future. That means Duke, TECO and Florida Power & Light are under no obligation to reduce carbon emissions. So unless you install solar panels, that means you, too, must continue to rely on fossil fuels to power your daily activities.
Some people hope that technological advances will one day be able to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, but that’s a risky gamble. The global consensus is that emissions must be reduced today to keep the problem from getting worse.
To make that happen, big change is needed quickly. It starts with reducing Florida’s dependence on fossil fuels — now.
If Florida were to start tackling the cause of climate change, the rest of nation would follow. And if the U.S. did, so would the world.
Rosemary O’Hara is editor of The Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate. She previously was editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.