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  1. Business

Impact of climate change on Florida economy could be huge

Published May 8, 2014

Yes, climate change is about the environment. But it's also about the economy.

Extensive media coverage of the 829-page federal climate change report released this week largely chronicles the threats already experienced: rising seas, hotter summers and dwindling water assets.

Little attention was paid to how those threats could damage our vulnerable economy, especially to Tampa Bay and Florida. The impact might be severe and land sooner than we might think.

The scientific report, the "National Climate Assessment," points out how Floridians with jobs ranging from coastal planners and insurance agents to home builders and tourism executives already are dealing with the early effects of climate change.

South of the Tampa Bay region in Charlotte County, transportation officials are looking beyond typical "smart growth" plans that concentrate growth in urban centers. They also embrace "resilient growth" plans to steer development away from areas vulnerable to rising seas.

Record-setting state tourism also could fall prey.

"Some of Florida's top tourist attractions, including the Everglades and Florida Keys, are threatened by sea level rise," the report states. It estimates tourism losses of $9 billion by 2025 and $40 billion by the 2050s.

Here's something we already see: Homes in lower-lying areas are becoming economic pariahs. As flooding increases, tougher construction rules keep raising home prices. Already volatile flood insurance costs will spur migration away from coastlines in the coming decades.

Even if only half of these forecasts occur, we might be in a world of economic hurt.

What to do?

We could adopt "hard" approaches and build pricey seawalls and levees.

We could pursue "soft" methods by elevating more structures or using natural barriers such as wetlands. Or, the report says, we could retreat from the vulnerable parts of the state.

Florida and Tampa Bay also face the threat of saltwater intrusion that can pollute sources of drinking water. That could prompt more reser­voirs and even more desalination plants such as the $158 mil­lion Apollo Beach unit that took seven years to function.

The National Climate Assessment estimates that more than $1 trillion of the nation's property and structures are "at risk of inundation" if sea levels rise 2 more feet.

"Roughly half of the vulnerable property value is located in Florida," the report warns, with Tampa Bay among places most likely to get soaked.

By 2100, if seas rise 4 feet, look for a cumulative cost of $325 billion to the U.S. economy in responding to widespread flooding, the report says. Florida's portion of that bill? Try $130 billion.

How is Florida's leadership dealing with this? Too many take the approach they take on many of the state's complex matters: They deny the problem exists. Or they're happy to let the next generation sweat the details.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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