Gov. Rick Scott gets credit for listening this week to climate scientists from Eckerd College, Florida State University and elsewhere describe the ways humans are affecting climate change, the impact of global warming on the state and how government can respond. That is more than other skeptics have done, and the Florida Cabinet and the Legislature could use an expert tutorial as well. Now the governor should take the next step and develop a comprehensive approach to addressing an issue that will dramatically affect Florida's future.
Scott, who initially steered the scientists toward his aides after they requested to meet with him, had the political sense to sit with them with the media watching Tuesday after Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned likely Democratic nominee, made it a campaign issue. He said little during or after the 30-minute meeting, but now that he has been fully briefed he cannot keep responding to questions about climate change by repeating, "I'm not a scientist.''
College students aren't scientists, either, and these experts have no trouble explaining to them how global warming occurs or the overwhelming evidence that humans are contributing to it. The scientists can recount how the climate has fluctuated, melting polar ice caps and raising sea levels. They can detail how humans have had an impact since the Industrial Revolution by burning fossil fuels and dramatically increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And they can make clear how more carbon dioxide has led to higher temperatures, rising seas and more flooding.
The scientists also told Scott that Florida, as a low-lying peninsula, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They explained how sea levels could rise by 2 feet and cover shorelines, including most of the state's barrier islands. (Imagine the impact on Tampa Bay and the state if the beaches disappeared at some point this century.) They detailed the impact that is already being felt, from street flooding at high tide to saltwater encroaching into drinking water supplies. Yet while Florida is among the coastal states most at risk from the effects of climate change, it has no viable energy policy, and efforts to address the practical impacts are spotty and at the local government level.
The governor told reporters earlier Tuesday that he was interested in hearing solutions from the scientists and that he learned in private business about the importance of solving problems. With legislators facing eight-year term limits and politicians running perpetual political campaigns, it is difficult to get anyone in Tallahassee to focus on a future beyond the next election. But there are concrete steps the next governor and the Legislature could take to start addressing climate change:
• Phase out coal-fired electric plants.
• Provide viable options to increase the use of renewable fuels such as solar energy.
• Increase incentives to promote energy efficiency.
• Develop a comprehensive drinking water policy that recognizes the dangers of saltwater intrusion.
• Work with local governments to lessen the immediate impacts such as street flooding at high tide, and prepare for the future with smarter land use plans that steer development away from the most vulnerable areas.
Scott has heard from the scientists, and he doesn't have to pretend to be one to address climate change. The next governor and the Legislature should meet this challenge with real solutions rather than denying it exists and leaving future generations to pay for their neglect.