Englewood's Freedom Pavilion (copy)

The Freedom Pavilion at the end of Englewood’s West Dearborn Street was flooded by the rain and waters of Lemon Bay in 2020. Increased flooding is part of the expected consequence of climate change, which local experts say is undeniable.

At the first Southwest Florida Climate Change Summit held virtually Thursday, experts shared harsh facts — and what they’re doing about it.

The event was sponsored by the Punta Gorda-based Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Program.

What are people thinking?

Surveys show 55% of Floridians believe climate change is real and caused by humans, said Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, regional director of Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida. That was not necessarily good news in a state that is only a few feet above sea level. Add to that sea level is expected to rise here about 1.5 feet by 2100, according to Joanne Muller, professor of paleoclimatology at Florida Gulf Coast University.

About 28% of Floridians do not believe climate change is happening at all. About 34% believe it’s happening but not caused by humans, Puszkin-Chevlin said.

What are politicians thinking?

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, gave a taped opening address, listing the environmental legislation he had helped enable including Everglades restoration and acts to restore Florida’s coral reefs. Rubio said he believes climate-related legislation will rise above the current partisan divides.

A nonpolitician Washingtonian, Elizabeth Gore of the Environmental Defense Fund, was energized by the election of a progressive president, Joe Biden.

“This has been a breath of fresh air for us,” she said.

She predicted climate legislation will not be a cakewalk due to narrow margins between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

“It’s the moderates on both sides who wield enormous power and have acted as a check on the wish list of progressives,” she said, signaling good news to some, bad news to others.

Time to talk about it

Mental health experts say to make conversation about climate change easier, focus on solutions that you can do on a personal level, like Meatless Mondays, or checking out electric cars.

Experience matters

People tend to become believers when it happens to them, said Puszkin-Chevlin. In Southwest Florida, two-thirds of people now believe algae problems are getting worse due to climate change. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, 67% of Floridians said they became more concerned about climate change.

What are experts doing?

State regulators touted a new tool about to go live called Sea Level Impact Project Study or SLIP. This is a new regulation requiring analysis be done prior to any publicly-funded construction projects in coastal zones. But it is not required of private development nor accessible to them.

The public will be able to view the website and check out the flooding projections for particular areas. Also, the results of the tool are only recommendations, and the builders don’t have to run the model until 30 days before the start of construction.

This is a policy developed under former Gov. Rick Scott.

Climate data about Florida is tricky and in short supply, so some experts in Southwest Florida are trying to improve on that.

In the Tampa area, where drinking water has long been in peril, experts are trying to improve the climate change prediction models. To do that, they are using temperature and water data from the past and running their various models to see how well they would have predicted the past, said Wendy Graham, professor of agriculture and environmental engineering at the University of Florida.

Then, they are fixing those prediction models to work better at predicting the future.

Using better models, they now believe that Tampa will NOT be able to provide sufficient water and meet environmental standards by 2045 even if there is no climate change, she said. So they are recommending that the region start preparing to increase its reuse of processed waste water and decrease its use of underground water.

CHNEP has used other models to show how sea level rise will affect plants and animals on the coastline. In general, they predict that salt water will be moving inland, taking over fresh water marshes. At first, mangroves will move inland as well with the salt water, because they tolerate salt, said CHNEP’s Nicole Iadevaia.

But then the mangrove will meet up with development.

Without land set aside for preservation, Iadevaia said, mangroves could be squeezed out and storm water will have nowhere to go. To act now, start setting aside land, she said.

For those who can take it, some bad news

On a global level, ice in Antarctica is melting faster than they thought, said Muller. She also said increasing temperature means that hurricanes and storms will be more frequent, more intense, and they may move more slowly, dumping more rain in one region. This was the case for the recent Hurricane Dorian over the Bahamas, which moved 1 mph with 185 mph sustained winds.

If you don’t believe climate change is caused by people, Muller, who studies ancient climates, has this to say.

“We should be actually cooling at the moment, but we are warming. You cannot recreate the warming we’ve seen over the past 100 years” using human factors, she said.

Scientists see on satellites cooling in the stratosphere as a result of greenhouse gases, and they see new carbon rings in trees, she said. “There’s absolutely no way that the temperature rise we’re seeing is natural.

“We should be going into an ice age, maybe slowly.”


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