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Once a major issue in Florida, climate change concerns few in Tallahassee

Four hundred scientists gathered in Copenhagen this month to talk about the warming temperatures in the arctic. Their conclusion: The arctic's glaciers are melting faster than anyone expected due to man-made climate change.

As a result, the world's sea level will rise faster than previously projected, rising at least 2 feet 11 inches and perhaps as high as 5 feet 3 inches by 2100, they said.

In low-lying Florida, where 95 percent of the population lives within 35 miles of its 1,200 miles of coastline, a swelling of the tides could cause serious problems. So what is Florida's Department of Environmental Protection doing about dealing with climate change?

"DEP is not pursuing any programs or projects regarding climate change," an agency spokeswoman said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times last week.

"That's a crying shame," said former Gov. Charlie Crist.

It shows how fast popular causes can come and go in Florida politics — even ones that are put into state law. Yet even when causes lose favor in Tallahassee, that's not necessarily the end of them.

Four years ago, the newly elected Crist told legislators that global warming is "one of the most important issues that we will face this century." Crist pledged to "bring together the brightest minds" and "place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases."

Crist's climate-change crusade got him national attention, with a write-up in Time magazine and an interview on the CBS Early Show. He shared a stage with singer Sheryl Crow and met with Robert Redford. California's then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called him "another great action hero."

Crist's enthusiasm led to more than just meetings. At his urging, the Public Service Commission rejected a plan for a coal-fired power plant near the Everglades because of its greenhouse gas emissions, and other utilities that had been planning coal-fired plants changed course. That may be Crist's biggest climate change legacy, said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

With little opposition, the Legislature passed a bill called the Florida Climate Protection Act calling for DEP to set up a program to cut back greenhouse gases, such as with a cap-and-trade system. The act also created a Florida Energy and Climate Commission to recommend other steps for the state to take.

But Crist's ardor for battling global warming cooled considerably as the economy collapsed and he mounted a bid for the U.S. Senate. Crist's successor, Gov. Rick Scott, doesn't think climate change is real, even though it's accepted as fact by everyone from NASA to the Army to the Vatican.

"I've not been convinced that there's any man-made climate change," Scott said last week. "Nothing's convinced me that there is."

Now Tallahassee has lost its passion for combating climate change. Some lawmakers attempted last month to repeal the Florida Climate Protection Act, arguing it was no longer needed. They did pass another bill abolishing the Florida Energy and Climate Commission and handing its duties to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, suggesting they see the future in ethanol and biofuels, not solar, wind or other alternate fuels.

The shift came as a surprise to commission chairman Jim Murley.

"It's possible they just don't like commissions," joked Murley, a former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, who said he did not know if Scott will sign the bill into law.

In its two-year lifespan, the climate commission did very little about climate change, Murley said. Instead, thanks to an influx of $175 million in federal stimulus funds, it turned into an ATM for energy-efficiency projects, which he said is a good legacy if this is the end.

But some of the commission's grants went to two groups in Florida who still care about climate change: local government agencies and universities. As Tallahassee has turned its back on the subject, those groups have become more active than ever.

After all, they have seen the results of rising sea level — roughly 9 inches in the past 75 years, with an acceleration in the rate of rise in the past decade, according to a report from Florida Atlantic University. On Big Pine Key, for instance, what used to be a pine forest has turned into a tidal marsh.

Last fall, Florida State and the University of Florida started a joint Florida Climate Institute, the main focus being the impact of climate change on agriculture. And four South Florida counties have agreed to work together on how to deal with a rising sea level that will inundate the state's barrier islands and coastal wetlands and taint the underground supply of freshwater.

There are big issues to be settled, said Peter Harlem, a research ecologist with Florida International University who has been studying rising sea levels since the 1980s — for instance, what to do about saving Florida Power & Light's nuclear plant at Turkey Point from being swamped. Dealing with those issues would be easier if the governor and Legislature were involved again, he said.

"While they're playing politics," Harlem said, "the water's still coming up."

Times staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Once a major issue in Florida, climate change concerns few in Tallahassee 05/15/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 15, 2011 8:49pm]
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