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On climate change, Florida's been warned (w/video)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

In just seven words, Jane Long summed up three days of intense discussion last week about energy and climate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a retired Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher, she turned to look at me after I told her I was from the Tampa Bay area. And without hesitation, yet with a smile, she issued me an apocalyptic warning:

"Oh, you're going to be under water."

I was one of more than two dozen journalists — about half picked for a three-day series of workshops, the others for a nine-month fellowship — in the MIT Knight Science Journalism program.

We gathered from across the globe: England, Spain, China, India, North and South America.

And though the program focused on global climate change, Florida emerged as a central figure in the discussions as 12 speakers shared their expertise about the growing troubles with global warming.

The program opened with a talk about sea level rise, which by the end of the century could leave parts of the Sunshine State under water.

Among the areas in the danger zone: Tampa Bay.

Long and others offered solutions to curb global warming, but with wave after wave of research, optimism about achieving those remedies seemed to erode with the tales of rising waters raking the sands away from our shores.

The levels of carbon dioxide gases that energy use has emitted into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era are saturating our world.

And those emissions, like a burner heating a pot on the stove, are raising the Earth's average temperature. The added carbon is setting the planet on a course that will require dramatic changes in fuel consumption, energy production and electricity use as well as, if not most critically, shifts in political ideology.

"Even if we stop tomorrow with all emissions the warming will continue for thousands of years," said Long, who along with other scientists wants not only to curb the growing volume of emissions but also to reduce current levels. "We're failing completely on the global scale."

Failure, as the scientists see it, means that when my 14-year-old daughter some day has children, they will live to see nothing but water where communities in and around Miami once stood. And even now, major storm surges could turn properties in South Florida neighborhoods and even Tampa into tiny, private islands.

South Florida canals fail several times a month, and in two cases, $70 million was spent on new pumps to drain flood waters, Leonard Berry, a professor of geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, said in the first address to the MIT journalists. It was a costly undertaking "at great energy expense, at great global warming expense."

"Climate change in Florida for us is not a future problem," Berry said. "It's a current problem."

With pictures from June 2012 floods of affluent South Florida neighborhoods, Berry showed that sea level rise already has caused harm. Pricey mansions looked like castles surrounded by moats.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects sea level rise of 1 to 2 feet affecting Florida by 2050, Berry said. By 2100, sea level is projected to rise as much as 4 to more than 6 feet.

"Tampa Bay has major problems at 3 feet," Berry noted.

The reason, he said, is that with sinkholes, Tampa Bay has two problems instead of just the one in the southernmost parts of the peninsula.

"The land is sinking, the sea level is rising," Berry said. "The combination is double what we have."

Eventually, centuries or even thousands of years from now, the scientists warned, water will cover the entire eastern seaboard of the United States, submerging all of Florida, Delaware and New Jersey as well as chunks of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts.

But it's not just sea level rise on the coasts. It's drought and more intense wildfires in places such as Colorado.

"We're going to lose our forest," A. Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, told the gathering. "We're not going to have forests in Colorado 50 years from now."

• • •

If it sounds alarmist, Denning makes it clear that the problem is that serious. He says it's simple, serious and solvable.

It's simple to understand, he says. Energy use continues to drive global warming.

"Population growth is not driving this problem," Denning said "Population growth will increase by 30 percent in this century, but energy use will increase by more than 300 percent."

Fossil fuels, which are used to provide the vast majority of our energy, produce carbon dioxide, which traps and emits heat — and that, in turn, warms up the climate. And if too little heat is displaced from Earth's atmosphere, the climate will keep getting warmer.

Susan Solomon, who is credited with pioneering the theory about the hole in ozone layer above Antarctica, pointedly spoke of what the scientists often referred to as the bathtub.

There are 40 billion tons a year of carbon being added to Earth's atmosphere but only several million tons per year getting removed. And the biggest problem is the bathtub already is brimming.

That's a lot of carbon staying around to heat up the Earth. And it won't go away in a hurry.

"Some carbon we've put into the atmosphere," Solomon said, "will be there more than 1,000 years."

• • •

As serious as all of this has become, Denning, the professor of atmospheric science, remains optimistic the problem can get solved.

Some see a carbon tax as part of the equation.

The New York Times recently reported that a couple dozen of the nation's largest corporations, including five oil companies, are making plans for a future that might include a tax on carbon.

Robert N. Stavins, the Albert Pratt professor of business and government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said he's "skeptical" about any carbon tax in the near future. "Carbon pricing is what I will call a hot-button political issue," Stavins said during his speech to the group of journalists. So in political circles, Stavins said, a carbon tax isn't likely to get the needed support to pass.

Setting a cap on the level of carbon emissions and allowing companies to use another firm's unused carbon levels (cap and trade) has the same effects — in principle — as a carbon tax, but is more politically feasible in most parts of the world.

But that falls short of accomplishing what will help reverse global warming. For starters, the scientists pointed to the need to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050 as an important step.

That means a greater reliance on renewable energy and nuclear power, rather than fossil fuels. Here in Florida neither is happening.

And while it will take global action to remedy the effects of global warming, Florida isn't helping with its ever-increasing reliance on natural gas at some 60 to 70 percent.

Natural gas itself is not just a Florida story. Fracking, which has fostered the discovery of more than a 100-year supply of natural gas, made the fuel a national focus.

While it helped reduce carbon emissions compared to coal, it doesn't do enough when scientists such as Long, of the Environmental Defense Fund, say we need to get to "zero" — and fast.

That will be difficult with the lure of natural gas as a fuel source that is abundant and cheap.

The price of natural gas, economists who participated in the MIT discussions said, will remain at $6 or less per thousand cubic feet through 2020 and about $10 through 2060, based on current projections.

That makes it hard for other electricity generation sources to compete.

Meanwhile, when it comes to energy policy, critics characterize Florida as a rudderless ship sailing around in a whole new world.

Rather than carrying the banner of carbon reduction and playing the role model for the world, the Sunshine State continues to drop in rank among states in solar installation, recently from 12th to 18th.

And Florida botched its nuclear options.

First Duke Energy permanently shut down the 860-megawatt Crystal River nuclear plant in February after a failed upgrade at the facility.

The utility attempted a do-it-yourself replacement of old steam generators and cracked the 42-inch-thick concrete reactor containment building. An attempt to repair the crack and bring the plant back online led to more cracks.

Then in August, after about $1.5 billion in spending on the proposed Levy County nuclear plant, Duke canceled that project after it was determined that the facility was no longer economically feasible at its latest price tag of $24.7 billion. But customers still will pay for $1.5 billion in spending under a state law passed in 2006.

Florida Power & Light added 500 megawatts of power to its St. Lucie and Turkey Point nuclear plants. And the utility wants to build two more reactors at Turkey Point, though the site is among those projected to be under water by the end of the century.

Other options include rooftop solar on homes and businesses, and transmission lines that would tap utility-scale solar plants in the most ideal locations in Arizona for broader distribution. Rooftop solar on homes and businesses appears to be a workable solution in Florida, but Tallahassee, like many other governments in the southeastern United States, refuses to take any actions that might cost the utilities their profits.

Yet a global response to crisis has proven effective. For instance, in 1987, 197 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to end use of chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which break down into chlorine and hurt the ozone layer.

That action is at least in part credited for what NASA projects will be a full restoration of holes in the ozone layer by 2070.

Denning says swift action can help fix the global warming problem, too, if government leaders will act.

"It's not that we're lacking the engineering," Denning said. "It's not that we're lacking the money. I think the problem is a political problem and can be fixed with politics."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

On climate change, Florida's been warned (w/video) 12/20/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 21, 2013 6:24pm]
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