Hillsborough County Commission chair Stacy White says he's comfortable addressing the threat from rising sea levels but doesn't want to discuss climate change. That's like planning a moon launch and ignoring gravity. It's time to get serious and for local officials in this low-lying, coastal region to play a significant role in a debate that involves the health, security, livelihoods, property and essential infrastructure for millions in the Tampa Bay area.
White's comments came as the commission discussed a recent Washington Post report that said the Tampa Bay area had "barely begun" to assess the threat from sea-level rise, despite a finding by experts that the region was "the must vulnerable" in the United States to flooding and hurricane-related damage. County Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat who ran on an environmental platform, wants the commission to address the problem more forcefully. White told Kemp she might have a "real ally" on the issue — so long as it does not address climate change. "If this turns into a debate on global warming, you're likely to lose me," White said. "I really think our federal officials should be looking at that."
The Republican's parsing — agreeing to discuss the impact of climate change (such as sea-level rise) but not the cause — is nothing new. He said virtually the same thing in 2015 when the county considered for the first time accounting for climate in the long-term growth plans for local governments. It was a cop-out then and apparently nothing has changed for a commissioner still skeptical of the science: "I do question to what extent, if at all, it (climate change) is man-made."
The science is established. NASA and other agencies have determined the changes have been driven largely by human-made carbon emissions, noting that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurred since 2001. And for nearly a decade before the Post story, Tampa Bay has been ranked first or in the top tier of metropolitan areas most vulnerable to storm surge and rising sea levels. As a study for Hillsborough County noted in 2014, coastal water levels in the bay area rose about an inch each decade since the 1950s, and they are expected to rise even faster through the rest of this century.
Still, area governments are taking a hodgepodge approach to the problem. St. Petersburg has hired a sustainability manager and also plans to hire a resiliency czar. In Tampa, the city disperses that responsibility across its public works department. Both Hillsborough and Pinellas have looked to make their public infrastructure more sustainable to climate impacts, but Pinellas seems further along in tying its long-range capital needs with changes in the environment.
Hillsborough and Pinellas are two of the six largest counties in the third-largest state, and they have an obligation to lead on an issue that is both a local and a national priority. The debate on the science is settled; what's left to resolve is a smart approach for pooling the region's resources to protect the Tampa Bay area. This leadership won't come from Gov. Rick Scott or President Donald Trump, but it's not acceptable for local government to pass the buck, either. Any search for solutions begins with an open dialogue that is realistic, clear-eyed and science-based.