Protecting Florida From the Rising Tide of Climate Change

A study released last week by the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, a group of nationally and internationally recognized environmental organizations of which NRDC is a member, outlines the ways in which Florida’s ecosystem, and its residents, are already feeling the adverse effects of climate change.

In reading it, I was reminded me of how we should talk about climate change as immediate, rather than distant. I work to protect the earth for future generations – for my children and grandchildren – but increasingly for my generation as well.  The effects are happening sooner, and accelerating faster, than we ever thought. And it’s affecting us in ways that threaten the vitality our environment, our economy, and our culture.

Sure, we have air conditioning to deal with heat waves and strong roofs to handle storms. And sure, it can be hard to notice the changes to our average global temperature since our daily weather changes so much. But for some people – like the residents of Florida – the changes are far more visible, and far more present.

With its extensive coastline, low-lying, flood-prone areas, and high coastal population density, Florida is especially prone to the effects of climate change. Since the 1960s, Florida has heated up by about two degrees Fahrenheit. Over the coming decades, average temperatures will continue to increase between three and ten degrees.

But we know that global warming doesn’t only bring warmer weather. It also means more severe storms, rising levels and ocean acidification. Together, these threaten the coral reefs, fish, marine animals and marsh-lands that draw millions of tourists and tens of billions of dollars to Florida every year, not to mention the 17 million of the state’s 18 million residents who live near the coast.

Consider some of the studies predictions:

  • Rising sea levels will erode beaches, degrade fresh water supplies, and make coastal property more vulnerable to storm surges.
  • Higher ocean temperatures will harm fisheries, intensify marine diseases, and alter the range and populations of species.
  • While higher ocean temperatures will also contribute to coral bleaching, while increased ocean acidity will impede coral’s ability to grow healthfully.

Together, these climatic changes are beginning to alter Florida’s landscape – and not for the better. The longer we wait, the more expensive, and the more difficult, it will be to fix the problem.

That’s why Florida should act quickly to address the problem. The state is in a unique position to set a national and even international example by addressing climate change before the worst changes occur.

The first step, of course, is to reduce global warming pollution, first through energy efficiency, which NRDC is working to improve in Florida (more on that later). But beyond that, the report makes a number of specific recommendations, including these suggestions:

  • Restoring coastal and marine ecosystems so they can better cope with the stress of climate change and ocean acidification.
  • Discouraging development in vulnerable areas to prepare for rising sea levels, as well as restoring and protecting natural buffers.
  • Preparing for extreme weather events by protecting and restoring shoreline vegetation and wetlands, upgrading stormwater management (by using natural systems, not just more concrete, which I’ll talk about later), and increasing water-use efficiency through conservation and recycling treated wastewater for irrigation and industrial use.

We know about the problem. We know that Florida is already feeling the impacts of climate change. And we have identified solutions.  This means both the science and our experience compel action. We simply can’t afford to wait.