When officials from 24 cities and counties met in St. Petersburg on Oct. 8 to form a regional coalition dedicated to addressingclimate change and sea level rise, there was one Tampa Bay county government missing.
Pasco did not join the pact with Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee counties — but not because the Pasco County Commission voted against it.
Commissioner Jack Mariano is Pasco’s representative on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the organization that began forming the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition earlier this year. But Mariano, a Republican, declined to even pass along the coalition resolution to his commission colleagues for discussion because he said he does not believe in two words central to the document: climate change.
Despite globally embraced evidence that Earth is warming, and that the primary cause is human activity, Mariano said he rejects that science.
“If the earth is getting warmer, it’s a natural cycle of it,” Mariano said, contradicting findings of top federal scientists in the National Climate Assessment report that said natural cycles cannot account for the extent of warming during the past century and that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is to blame. “I think the overwhelming change of the climate, humans have a minuscule amount of effect.”
Any commissioner can bring a topic up for discussion at a public meeting. But Pasco County spokeswoman Tambrey Laine said staff recommended only Mariano present the Resiliency Coalition resolution, which he has had since June, because he serves on the Regional Planning Council and has the background information.
Laine said county staff is working with the Regional Planning Council on an alternate resolution for Pasco to consider that does not include the words "climate change" but still represents the Coalition's mission of resiliency.
Regardless of Mariano’s view on climate change, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, also a Republican, said the decision on whether to join to the Coalition, or whether to remove “climate change” from the resolution, should have been a decision made by the body.
“We commissioners are appointed to boards and we represent the county, we don’t represent ourselves,” Starkey said. “It’s important for commissioners to bring back to the commission the hot topics that are being discussed on those boards. I believe it’s a commission decision, not a commissioner decision."
Commissioners Ron Oakley and Mike Wells could not be reached. Commissioner Mike Moore declined to comment.
The Regional Planning Council’s work on the Resiliency Coalition began in January and was modeled on the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, formed in 2010 by Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties with 35 local governments.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, one of the Coalition’s main architects, said the governments will collaborate on best practices for raising sea walls, addressing flooding, revising building codes and other ways to mitigate and respond to sea level rise and climate change.
An insurance industry group has ranked the Tampa Bay region as the most vulnerable metropolitan area in the United States to storm surge, and a 2014 federal report labeled the Tampa Bay area as one of three areas in Florida particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
NASA reported 2017 as the second warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. Warming temperatures are shown to cause saltwater to expand and ice sheets to melt, resulting in rising sea levels. Scientists who wrote the National Climate Assessment report, approved by the White House in 2017, stated there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything but man's burning of fossil fuels and destruction of natural vegetation is the cause.
"We are positioned on the global stage to address this," Long said. "I'm worried about what kind of environment, what kind of quality of life, we are leaving behind for our little ones."
But the Resiliency Coalition agreed to not to take a position on what is causing climate change "to avoid the political debate" and focus fully on resiliency, said Regional Planning Council executive director Sean Sullivan.
In signing the three-page resolution, governments agreed to "coordinate climate adaptation and mitigation activities across county lines,” promote responses to economic disruption caused by sea level rise and to identify vulnerabilities to climate change.
They agreed to make “science based decisions” and acknowledge the Tampa Bay region is “vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.”
The planning council developed models based on a worst-case scenario data that Tampa Bay could experience 2.95 feet of sea level rise by 2060. In that case, the area could lose $241 million in residential property and $2.5 billion in tourism spending with the loss of beaches, hotels and restaurants.
Mariano said he believes in working collaboratively to prepare for disasters but doubts the planning council's sea level rise projections, which were based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
“I question how accurate the numbers are that we were being shown,” Mariano said. “Do I think we should prepare? Absolutely.”
Sullivan said he is confident he and Pasco staff can draft an alternate resolution that does not include the words "climate change" for Mariano to present to the commission. Sullivan, who said he believes science indicating human activity is driving climate change, said the end goal is preparedness, no matter what path it takes to get there.
"Fundamentally, I don't think it changes the intent," Sullivan said. "The focus is primarily on resiliency and how we get there. There may be some regions that feel differently than others, and that's okay."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.