A little over a week ago, the federal National Climate Assessment released its third draft report on the effects of global warming, sea level rises, intensifying extreme weather events such as hurricanes and storm surges. The nearly 1,200-page assessment, prepared by a 60-member advisory committee and some 240 authors (including several Florida scientists), is part of a federal initiative designed to “show what is actually happening and what it means for peoples’ lives, livelihoods, and future,” and to give policy makers at every level of government, including local governments, more precise knowledge of what they should be preparing for.
The assessment released in January is the first since 2009, and the most dire of the three, as “evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last National Climate Assessment report,” its authors write. “Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed.”
And deep inside the report, on page 559, Palm Coast is one of four Florida cities singled out as being most “vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.” (Palm Coast is not literally on the coast, as its name implies, but its extensive network of canals exposes some of its oldest neighborhoods to storm surges.)
The Southeast is the region of the country most vulnerable to cataclysmic weather events, the report states, experiencing more billion-dollar events than any other region in the country. Florida is one of eight states that has experienced between 25 and 32 such events since 1980. Seven other states have experienced between 33 and 42 such events.
“These reports are helpful in the planning process, they’re helpful with awareness with the public with something that’s not happening right now but that has the potential to occur,” says Troy Harper, Flagler County’s emergency operations director. One of the values of the report, besides providing a roadmap to policy makers, is the way it ties seemingly disparate events together, with climate as a common thread, Harper said: the region’s wild fires, for example, are part of the same puzzle, as are dryer spells (and drought-like conditions that persisted until last year), or severe storms. Wildfires aside, Harper notes that Flagler County has been in a lull for a few years: no hurricane has struck the Florida Peninsula since 2005 (after the four hurricanes that struck it in 2004). But that only means that the region is one year closer to another major event, Harper says.
The National Climate Assessment draft report doesn’t make direct policy recommendations. Rather, it provides the latest available information to make such policies possible. The report, in draft form, is now open for public comment, and will be through April 14.
Local governments, including Flagler Beach’s, don’t directly address development issues with global warming in mind. But Their policies do reflect an indirect connection. Flagler Beach, for example, has been plagued with beach-erosion issues. Flagler County’s government and Flagler Beach are awaiting the results of a Corps of Engineers study on dredging and renourishment of some of the county’s beaches. Separately, Flagler Beach has contracted with a controversial beach-management engineer to study the possibility of installing an alternative system to control erosion.
The Department of Transportation usually imposes its own solutions to erosion that have less to do with saving beaches and more to do with saving State Road A1A. That has so far entailed planting sea walls or rock revetments that have not preserved the beaches. Palm Coast attempted top address its potential future water shortages by investing millions of dollars in a desalination project. To be viable, the project needed numerous investors in the form of other local governments. The project fell apart when the city could not hold together the coalition it built, as government after government found the venture too expensive and, for now, not needed.
But there is no comprehensive initiative locally to frame long-term policy collectively, when it comes to climate change. That’s what the federal advisory panel seeks to spur.
The federal assessment’s findings are unequivocal. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the assessment concludes. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between.” The report was released immediately after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2012 was the warmest year on record (and its second-most extreme).
President Obama addressed the matter, which he’d left mostly dormant in his first term, during his second inaugural address on Monday: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
The wording parallels that of the federal assessment, which, in its Southeast segment, adds to an already troubling picture for the Florida Peninsula. Leonard Berry, the director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies and co-director of Florida Atlantic University’s Climate Change Initiative, is among the authors of the assessment. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last April, Berry revealed that Florida has already recorded a 5 to 8 inches of sea level rise in the past 50 years, intensifying existing water management issues. “Future projections suggest 3-7 inches of additional rise by 2030 and 9-24 inches by 2060,” Berry said.
“The porous limestone underlying much of Florida resembles Swiss cheese and makes the state particularly vulnerable to sea level rise,” he said. “Due to this geological structure, building barriers to prevent sea level rise is often impractical and financially prohibitive.”
There are 4,315 square miles of vulnerable areas that include agricultural land, developed land, forests, mangroves, marsh and tidal flats, other swamp and forested wetlands, sandy beaches, scrub and grasslands in the state, and billions of dollars of residential real estate (with hundreds of schools, hospitals and hotels) and two nuclear reactors and hundreds of hazardous material sites that could be impacted by the changes, Berry said.
He outlines four priorities for policy makers:
1. Further identify areas and communities at special risk using the State of Florida Adaptation Action Area legislation. Efforts should be made to align Federal legislation with these critical state level policies.
2. There is an urgent need to incorporate sea level rise projections into all infrastructure and water
management plans. Increased motoring activities are needed, including additional National Water Level Program Networks (NWLON), important in understanding and tracking changes in sea level rise for the state. Establishment of a state-wide saltwater intrusion monitoring network is also recommended.
3. Identify future energy needs, including the cost of adaptation, for the coming decades, and moving towards traditional and alternative energy forms to meet these needs.
4. Use past responses to extreme events to create more sustainable community systems. Florida emergency management is already successfully working towards such initiatives.
The National Climate Assessment had concluded that as far as Florida and the Southeast are concerned, three issues should be on the forefront of policymakers’ and public awareness:
Sea level rise poses widespread and continuing threats to both natural and built environments, as well as the regional economy.
Rising temperatures and the associated increase in frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events will affect public health, natural and built environments, energy, agriculture, and forestry.
Decreased water availability, exacerbated by population growth and land-use change, will continue to increase competition for water and impact the region’s economy and unique ecosystems.