Florida Scientists Warn Global Warming Spells Trouble for State Economy; Key Industries, Coastal Cities, Seniors Will Face Costly New Risks

TAMPA (October 23, 2001) - Experts from Florida's top universities today warned that the state's economy could suffer as environmental changes caused by global warming begin to affect coastal properties and the tourism, agriculture and retirement industries. The threats are outlined in two reports released at a press conference held by the Florida Climate Alliance, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The reports are available on-line at www.floridaclimatealliance.net.

Expected changes include rising ocean levels, hotter temperatures, and increased variability in the weather -- meaning both droughts and heavy rains would become more frequent. These effects could radically alter Florida's landscape, as well as its economy. And they could be very expensive, especially for coastal communities such as Miami and Tampa/St. Petersburg.

Changes caused by global warming could jeopardize the state's number one status as a tourist and retirement destination. Agribusinesses such as citrus and tomato growers also could face higher costs and lower productivity. Most important, people living in Florida communities would face greater health threats from air pollution and heat stress.

"These two reports provide a sobering picture of what Florida will look like in the near future," said Dr. Daniel Lashof, Science Director of the NRDC Climate Center. "We need to address these problems, and we need to start today." Congress is currently considering the Clean Power Act, which would clean up carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, and 10 county commissions in Florida have petitioned Gov. Bush to develop a state global warming action plan.

Rising Tide

The most drastic effects of global warming in Florida are likely to occur along the coastlines -- where 95 percent of the state's 16 million people live. Scientists say ocean levels are expected to rise anywhere from 8 inches to 2 feet or more over the next 50 to 100 years due to melting polar ice caps and thermal expansion of warming waters.

That spells trouble for places like Miami Beach, Ft. Walton Beach, and Clearwater Beach. The same goes for low-lying barrier islands and the Florida Keys. Together, Florida's 800 miles of beaches are the number one attraction behind a $47 billion tourist industry. Miami Beach alone brings in $2 billion in revenue. And coastal cities would face costly measures to avoid inundation.

The scientists say the most dramatic change could come amid the low-lying mangroves of the southwest coast, where shorelines could retreat by 10 miles or more. That means advancing salt water would overwhelm the multibillion-dollar effort now underway to restore the Everglades. And higher sea levels mean more flooding during hurricanes, especially in low-lying areas in cities like Key West, St. Petersburg, Cocoa Beach, Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale.

Florida's Seniors Feel the Heat

Maximum summer temperatures could increase three to seven degrees Fahrenheit, boosting the July heat index -- the combined effect of heat plus humidity -- by 10 to 25 degrees. Hotter weather will fall most heavily on Florida's 3 million senior citizens, because older bodies have a harder time coping with heat. And those on fixed incomes will have to grapple with higher air conditioning bills -- or risk doing without.

Such changes could make Florida a less attractive place to retire. That could hurt business and tax revenues alike. Seniors currently generate $70 billion of economic activity in the state each year.

Threats to Drinking Water, Agriculture

Experts say salt water is already creeping into the aquifers that provide 95 percent of Florida's fresh water. Rising tides will exacerbate the problem, causing troubles that have cropped up in St. Petersburg, Southwest Florida and West Palm Beach to spread. Already, the city of Tampa is turning to costly desalinization for its drinking water.

As global warming changes the cycles of droughts and storms, local officials can expect to see problems with their storm water, sewage and septic systems that may not be equipped to handle increased water volumes. That could lead to more overflows, and discharges of contaminated water like recent events in Brevard County's Indian River Lagoon and in Florida Bay.

Florida agriculture could also experience financial pain, according to the scientists. For example, the $1.6 billion citrus industry concentrated in central and south Florida initially may see increased productivity. That's because the same carbon dioxide responsible for global warming also acts as a fertilizer. But eventually the reports say higher temperatures and changes in soil moisture will start cutting into production.

Opportunities for Action

The Florida Climate Alliance is urging Gov. Jeb Bush to develop a state global warming action plan like the one his brother created in Texas. The commissions of 11 Florida counties -- including Pinellas, Miami Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Monroe, Alachua, Martin, Volusia and Seminole -- have passed resolutions calling for such a measure.

It is equally important to start cutting the pollution that causes global warming. The main culprit is carbon dioxide -- CO2 -- released by power plants and autos. Congress is considering the Clean Power Act, which would cut power plant CO2 emissions 25 percent. Florida Senator Bob Graham is on the Senate Environment Committee, which will hold a hearing on the bill later this month.

A small but growing number of major companies are already taking action of their own. "Look no farther than the Fortune 500," said Dr. Joseph Siry, Director of the Florida Climate Alliance. "IBM, Nike, Johnson & Johnson, Shell, Kodak and Dupont have all decided that it's time to cut their global warming pollution."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

Feeling the Heat in Florida: Global Warming on the Local Level

Summary: Global Warming Threatens Florida

Photo Essay: How Global Warming Will Affect Floridians

Map: A Snapshot of Global Warming's Threat to Florida