Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Tampa Bay among top 10 regions most threatened by climate change, Sierra Club chapter says

The head of Tampa Bay's Sierra Club chapter warned the Hillsborough County Commission that building more roads will only make global warming's consequences worse for the entire region.

Chapter chairman Kent Bailey told commissioners in a Feb. 22 letter that the Sierra Club would not be supporting the proposed half-cent transportation sales tax referendum known as Go Hillsborough.

He argued that adding more roads and more cars to an already congested system will make matters only worse by increasing carbon pollution.

"Our community is one of the 10 most threatened by the sea level rise in the world," Bailey told commissioners in the letter.

There's no doubt the oceans are rising, and Tampa Bay will feel the effects. But is the region among the most endangered in the world? Let's just say that we found the bay area has a lot to lose.

There are a bunch of ways to measure how climate change will affect the world's cities. People will be displaced, economies will be ruined or there may be not enough water (or too much). These are all issues Tampa Bay faces, so buckle up.

When we asked Bailey how he came up with his ranking, he said he was referring to potential property losses, mostly in terms of real estate.

"We can move our people. But our fixed assets are a different story," he said.

He pointed to a 2008 paper from the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The study focused on the effects of climate extremes on port cities — particularly storm surge.

Coastal flooding is different than sea level rise, but experts told us Bailey is using a fair benchmark for comparison. Vulnerability to storm surge and sea level rise often are conflated in discussions on climate change, they said.

"They are related, but not exactly the same," said Ben Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central. In general, sea level rise can make a big impact on flooding, and will assuredly make storm surges and flooding worse in the future.

David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College, said storm surges are especially dangerous in Tampa and St. Petersburg because of the relatively shallow offshore shelf in the Gulf of Mexico. Higher sea levels will make surges even more dangerous.

But back to the OECD study: Economists examined 136 port cities and found that Tampa and St. Petersburg together were among the 10 regions with the most property at risk to wind damage and coastal flooding from storm surge.

"The top 10 cities in terms of assets exposed are Miami, Greater New York, New Orleans, Osaka-Kobe, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Nagoya, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Virginia Beach," the paper read.

Many of the same economists revisited the rankings in a 2013 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Tampa-St. Petersburg came in as the seventh-most at risk of flooding. In a catastrophic, once-in-100-years flood, losses to the region could be $49.6 billion.

University of South Florida oceanography professor Gary Mitchum noted real estate losses are only part of the story. As the oceans rise permanently, the region's tourism-based economy will suffer extensively. Many people who can afford to simply move away probably will, but low-wage workers dependent on disappearing service industry jobs will be stuck.

If we examined this another way — say, how many people will be permanently displaced by the eventual coastal floods that won't recede — other places will have it much worse than Tampa Bay. Cities in China and southeast Asian countries, like Bangladesh and Vietnam, will be much more affected under that lens.

Bailey's point hinges on a credible study, and it's striking that Tampa Bay is already in great danger when it comes to potential property loss compared to the rest of the world. But Bailey should have been more specific that he was referring to property damage, as other worldwide measures of climate change consequences would not rank the bay area so high.

The statement is accurate, but needs clarification. We rate the statement Mostly True.

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