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On climate change, Florida needs less political bickering and more math

Climate change comes with lots of challenges. One of them will be figuring out how cities and counties will pay for projects to combat sea level rise. (Times 2005)
Published May 3

Some consequences of climate change remain foggy.

How high will seas rise? How many years from now? How much more powerful — and destructive — will hurricanes get?

The uncertainty complicates the planning that goes into government projects. No one wants to build a $100 million bridge to see flooding render it useless a couple decades later.

Same goes for mitigation efforts. Many Florida cities and counties will consider better stormwater systems or massive pumping facilities. Others might think about relocating people from vulnerable areas.

Climate change has muddled the math, no matter the project.

"We all need to get better at understanding the numbers," said Catherine "C.J." Reynolds, director of resiliency and engagement at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

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She made the comment during a break in an all-day workshop hosted by the council that focused on financing climate resilience and mitigation. The attendees, many from city and county governments around central Florida, heard about ways to pay for renewable energy projects, how to reduce insurance risks and how to attract more private investment. A main theme: Get comfortable with uncertainty. The alternative is paralysis, which doesn't help.

Many of you have already made similar calculations. Homeowners who live close to the water may have considered how many years they have before sea-level rise impacts home prices. Others have already moved to higher ground. Some have dipped into savings to harden roofs or spent even more to raise homes above the floodplain.

They might not have created a sophisticated spreadsheet or run a Monte Carlo simulation to determine how much to spend or the optimum time to act. But they didn't like the probabilities and took action to protect their investment, even if it cost them in the short run.

More often, government officials are doing the same. Building a road, for instance, requires a look at where sea levels will be in 50 years. Is it worth spending more money to raise it by a few feet? The answer will differ depending on the individual project. It won't be one size fits all.

Same goes for relocating important assets currently in harm's way. Officials have to figure out how likely flooding or another weather event will knock them out of service. Impact matters, too. Minor street flooding is annoying. A disabled sewage plant can be catastrophic. What's the economic loss for a region that can no longer flush its toilets?

Keynote speaker and Harvard Business School senior lecturer John Macomber told the group that they will have to get used to making decisions using probabilities. Is the chance of a weather event destroying a sewage plant in any given year 2 percent or 4 percent? The answer could mean the difference between doing little or spending billions to relocate the facility.

Macomber emphasized that the attendees will need to think like banks and insurance companies, which are constantly assessing risk. Probabilities are by definition uncertain, but successful businesses use them all the time to inform their decision-making.

Focusing on risk and probabilities also helps move the conversation away from the debate about the existence of climate change and what's contributing to it. Some of the climate doubters will gravitate toward the concept of needing to assess risks in uncertain times, he said.

"This is a tool you can use with a lot of people to avoid taking the bait on an endless science argument," he said.

Amen to that.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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