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Gov. Scott's beachfront home vulnerable to changing climate

This month, a new report written by a group of scientists said that climate change was not only real, but it was already affecting people in the United States, particularly in Florida, where 75 percent of all residents live near the coast.

Three of those Florida coastal residents are among the state's most prominent Republicans — Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Shouldn't they be worried?

The day after the Third National Climate Change Assessment report came out, the New York Times said Scott would not respond to its questions about what Florida is doing about sea level rise. When a Palm Beach television station asked him about it, Scott said the state's emergency management division would handle any flooding problems — period.

Three years ago, Scott made his position plainer. "I've not been convinced that there's any man-made climate change," he said in a 2011 interview.

Scott has a vested interest in how Florida fares amid the rising seas. He owns a $9.2 million mansion in Naples that sits right on the beach, a foot above sea level and about 200 feet from the water. He and his wife, Ann, bought the house for $11.5 million in 2003 when they moved to Florida from Connecticut.

"He's definitely in one of the most vulnerable positions," said Jim Beever of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

When a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked Scott last week whether he thinks sea level rise is a threat to his house, he replied, "No. I'm not a scientist but I can tell you what, we're going to make sure we continue to make the right investments in the state to take care of our environment. We love living here."

Despite Scott's denial, Beever said, the sea is creeping up on him already. Along that stretch of the Collier County coastline, he said, it has been rising at the rate of about 8 to 9 inches over the past century.

Because Florida is so flat, even a few inches of increase means water pushes a long way inland. For instance, 60 miles north of Naples, the mangroves lining the shores of Charlotte Harbor have retreated the length of a football field from where they were 50 years ago, Beever said.

The rising sea will lead to greater beach erosion and other problems, Beever said, but what poses the most immediate threat to Scott's home is not the slow creep of higher waves. It's the increasing reach of the storm surge that accompanies tropical storms and hurricanes.

On Scott's beach, he said, the water will sweep in from two directions: pushing in from the Gulf of Mexico but also swirling up the road in front of the house because "the road is lower than the house. The road will flood before the water reaches the foundations of the houses."

Beever said the storm surge threat to Scott's mansion illustrates one of his favorite sayings: "Belief in climate change is optional, but participation is mandatory."

Two other prominent Floridians who didn't return the New York Times' calls about the climate change report were Rubio and Bush, both said to be contemplating runs for the presidency.

Rubio subsequently told ABC News, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." He told the Miami Herald last week he believes the climate could be changing but has doubts about whether humans are causing it.

Bush has kept mum. The last time he said anything about climate change was in 2011, when he told Fox News that "global warming may be real" but "it is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately man-made."

Both Rubio and Bush live in Miami, identified in the climate report as being one spot in America that's particularly vulnerable to a rising sea. A coalition of South Florida governments studying climate change has settled on 2 feet as the likely rate of sea level rise by 2050.

But neither man has a place on the beach like Scott. Bush lives 2 miles from the water in Coral Gables, and Rubio is 4 miles inland, in West Miami. Bush's place is 17 feet above sea level while Rubio's is 12.

That doesn't mean they can avoid the consequences of climate change, said Harold Wanless, who chairs the geological sciences department at the University of Miami. The sea level will affect "our gravity-fed sewage lines, our roads and our electrical connectivity," Wanless said.

The streets in Miami Beach, which has an average elevation of 4.4 feet and some 7 miles of beaches, are already flooding more often from high tides rather than from heavy rains. Rubio should not count on those flooding woes being confined to the coast, said David Enfield, a climate scientist with the University of Miami.

On the western side of Miami where he lives, the water table is close to the surface and pressure from a rising ocean will push that even higher, causing frequent floods in those inland areas.

"If I were he, I'd be worried," Enfield said.

The worst thing, said Jim Murley of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, will be the loss of water to drink. Miami-Dade County residents get their water from the Biscayne Aquifer. The rising Atlantic will push saltwater into the aquifer and make those drinking wells unusable, he said, forcing local leaders to hunt for more expensive sources.

One Florida official who does not deny the existence of climate change is Sen. Bill Nelson. Last month Nelson, a Democrat, convened a special Senate hearing on climate change in Miami Beach, which he described as "ground zero" for impacts from human alterations to the Earth's climate.

While he was born in Miami, Nelson is a longtime resident of Orlando, in a house that's 17 feet above sea level and about 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Sea level rise is unlikely to affect his property any time soon. Instead, according to the climate report, he has to worry about increased wildfires, less rain, longer summers and a longer allergy season.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

Gov. Scott's beachfront home vulnerable to changing climate 05/16/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 6:22pm]

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