Disinterest in Global Warming in Florida

There are many places on earth where the effects of global warming and climate change could be economically, socially, and environmentally catastrophic, depending on the severity of such things as rising sea levels, drought, and the increased frequency of extreme weather events.

Florida is one of those places. Its population of close to 19 million makes it the fourth most populous state in the U.S. It’s the state with the lowest elevation on average, with much of the land in south and central Florida along the highly developed coastal areas and inland barely above sea level. Much about global warming and its effects remains inconclusive and needs more study, hopefully with the support of concerned people and governments around the world. But the basic point, that it is happening, and that to some significant extent will have big impact on the world’s natural environment and human life as we know it, should be indisputable by now.
But it’s not, even here in Florida where I’ve been for the past week, visiting my sister and her family, enjoying their wonderful hospitality and everything that makes Florida a favorite winter destination for Canadian “snowbirds” looking for a refuge from our still relatively hard winters. I haven’t missed our cold, grey late November one little bit.

But one thing Florida appears to have in common with Ontario, and Canada for that matter, is an apparent general public disinterest in Global warming and the effects it might have on our separate and shared natural environments in the years to come. The impact may not be that great on the present generation, but our children and their children may live to see the consequences of modern humanity’s largely careless attitude toward the environment since the start of the industrial revolution a little more than two centuries ago. They will also see the consequences and pay the price in more ways than one of public apathy government inaction in the face of an unfolding crisis that demanded action.

It probably doesn’t do any good for true believers like me and red flag-waving scientists to get all carried away and hysterical about it. That sort of thing probably does more harm than good. More often than not people just tune you out; they don’t want to hear it. They roll their eyes. They shake their heads. And after all, it’s human nature. Most of us just want to get on with our lives in an atmosphere of relative comfort and security.

And in that respect, lots of Floridians already have enough to worry about, like finding or keeping a job and making ends meet in an economy still struggling to claw its way out of recession.

For whatever reason, it was hard to find any mention in the daily news down here that many people are worried about global warming and climate change, or that a crucial world conference on the topic was about to begin in Durban, South Africa.

Meanwhile, just a few days earlier the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued yet another report warning of potential catastrophe if governments don’t start taking the issue much more seriously. As usual the IPCC warned the world is reaching a point of no return in its efforts, whatever they may be, to stop global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

I have to admit I winced and shook my head a little when I found one on-line news story with a Florida angle. The Public News Service article quoted Dr. Harold Wanless, a professor and chair of the Geological Science department at the University of Miami, and a co-author of the IPCC report. “He warns that by the end of this century, regions of south Florida will be uninhabitable,” the article said.

“There is a consensus that Miami-Dade County will be abandoned, basically, by the end of the century. Mumbai will be abandoned – 15 million people, Atlantic City – you name it. With a four or five-foot rise in sea level, most of the deltas of the world will be abandoned,” Prof Wanless said, according to the article.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office did not respond to requests for a comment on the IPCC report and its possible relevance to the climate-change fate of the state, it added, noting Scott said last year that as far as he’s concerned global warming and climate change is “unproven.”

The professor’s warnings about a four or five-foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century may be a little on the high side. The last I heard scientists studying the melting of the ice caps thought sea levels could rise as little as one meter (about three feet) or as much as three meters by the end of the century. But they admitted more study is needed to understand the process and how long it could take.

I saw some news articles, in the Orlando Sentinal, for example, that started me wondering if the effects of climate change are already being felt down here. But the Sentinal article didn’t mention that possible connection when it reported on a recent series of secret meetings being held by local government and water authority officials in central Florida to discuss concerns that too much water is being pumped out of the Florida Aquifer. It’s especially worrisome because Florida has experienced four years of drought. That can’t necessarily be a global-warming problem, but I can’t help but wonder.

I went for a tour of Florida’s biggest winery, northeast of Orlando, where the woman conducting the tour said production was way down this year because of a lack of rainfall. While other people went on to the wine-tasting part of the tour I hung back and asked her if the winery’s wells were going dry and the water table falling. The short answer was yes. That doesn’t bode well for the future of that particular industry, and the future of that part of Florida in many other socio-economic respects.

Several universities in Florida got together earlier this year to form a State University System (SUS) Climate Change Task Force. It is taking a year to gather all the available scientific information, hold workshops, and, of course, write a report at the end of it suggesting what the state and various agencies could and should be doing to work better together to deal with the problem; that’s to whatever extent it is thought to be affecting Florida, now or in the future.

Good luck with that, Florida.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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