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Read the four winning entries in the 2020 Tribune scholars essay contest

The authors are from Alonso, Wharton, Berkeley Prep and Freedom high schools. Each receives a scholarship of $1,300.

In April, a panel of three judges working remotely with Google Drive and Zoom reviewed nearly 200 essays from Hillsborough high school seniors to select four winners.

The annual R.F. “Red” Pittman Tribune Scholars contest, named for a former publisher of the Tampa Tribune, is open to the top 3 percent by grade point average of seniors from the county’s public and private high schools. Students from more than 30 high schools took part.

The winners, listed below, each receive a scholarship of $1,300.

The judges this year were Stephen Lambert, English professor and quality enhancement plan director at Hillsborough Community College; Emily Griffiths Jones, assistant professor of English at the University of South Florida; and Yuly Restrepo, assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa.

To read all the climate change essays and student profiles, arranged by school, click here to visit the special Tribune Scholars page.

Lauren Gajewski, Alonso

Gajewski plans to attend the University of Florida to pursue a career in the wildlife management field as a conservation veterinarian or wildlife biologist.

With 3.5 million Floridians at risk of coastal flooding and an estimated 1.1 million more to be at risk by 2050 due to rising sea levels, protective measures must be taken to ensure the preservation of our communities. If governments continue to react mildly to climate change threats, these risks will only escalate.

Related: Class of 2020 writes essays of hope: ‘Our coastlines do not have to disappear’

Because armoring shores can lead to further erosion by altering balanced habitats, communities should focus on retreating from coastlines and implementing policies which conserve natural shoreline defenses - such as dunes, seagrass, mangroves, and reefs - that have been exhausted by human activity. The government should encourage wealthy shoreline property owners to donate land to a collective conservancy by enticing them with tax breaks for their environmental contributions. More funds should be allocated toward ensuring newly acquired land remains under government control to regulate its use for conservation. Exercising powers of eminent domain shouldn’t be ruled out to protect flood-prone areas, either. While this interference may result in public backlash, it’s a necessary measure to guarantee enough land is restored to protect the greater good.

Florida’s natural coastal defenses have sheltered us for hundreds of years. We must be willing to weather some economic disturbance to allow for their renewal while promoting non-disruptive ecotourism to mitigate losses from private shutdowns. If the extremity of our action rivals the severity of the risks posed by climate change, Florida communities will come out stronger in the end.

Albert Grass, Wharton

Grass has been admitted to the University of Florida and has waitlist offers from Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Hamilton College. He plans to study political science with a minor in either international development and humanitarian assistance or teaching English as a second language.

The coastlines are vital to the Floridian identity and economy; but as we face a future with a changing climate, we should armor our shores and retreat where necessary. 14% of American shores are already fortified. However, the majority are “hard” fortifications such as seawalls and bulkheads that erode the shoreline and create habitat loss. Floridians should opt for green alternatives, “soft” fortifications, such as water absorbing salt marshes and oyster reefs that are specialized for each region and effectively fortify the coastline while providing sustainable habitats. While some persist that hard fortifications are the smarter investment, soft fortifications grow to the environment and become stronger over the years, all while being $50/linear foot cheaper to maintain. The Florida government is projected to spend $76 billion on seawalls by 2040, but if Floridians prioritize soft fortifications, the government can save money, protect its citizens, and help the environment.

With 77% of Floridians living in coastal areas, retreat may be inevitable. Section 203 of the Stafford Act authorizes the use of federal funds under the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program (PDM). PDM should be used by local governments to acquire flood-prone land before disaster strikes. This land can then be turned into space for “soft” fortifications to mitigate further retreat.

Our coastlines do not have to disappear. While some loss is inevitable, I look forward to a future where my grandchildren can run down the beach because we were preemptive today.

Edward Kuperman, Berkeley Prep

Kuperman plans to attend Yale University.

According to the 2020 RFF analysis reported in the Tampa Bay Times, sea levels along the Florida coast will likely rise twelve inches by 2040. By the time I have children, the ocean will have crept up an entire foot—or half the height of a toddler learning to walk. Growing up with my grandparents on Davis Island, I remember joyfully dancing in the rain as streets flooded, filling our driveway with small crabs and the occasional minnow. Yet now these memories are blemished; future generations may live in constant fear of seeing their livelihoods wiped away by the next super-flood.

We know inconclusively that climate change will exact a toll on every Floridian—a price for the denial of our collective profligacy. Unfortunately, these changes are locked in and the conversation must shift to mitigation to shield the next generation from the prior’s mistakes. Global warming isn’t localized—it will require a federal response that starts with changing the structure of FEMA and flood insurance to minimize loss of life and “sunk” infrastructure costs.

Because our understanding is constantly evolving with further research, it is only responsible to overreact now. The government must offer property buy-outs up to the median home price, paid for by a revenue-neutral climate tax—while the wealthy should continue paying their fair share, we must also incentivize the development of green technology and industry. Climate change shouldn’t destroy our homes, economy, or freedoms—but it will unless we act quickly and aggressively against it.

Taravat Tarahomi, Freedom

Tarahomi plans to major in microbiology and cell sciences at the University of Florida.

Florida has a uniquely vulnerable coastline due to its low elevation and limestone foundation. These conditions complicate traditional flood mitigation efforts. Ambitious defense projects such as floodgates and hard flooding infrastructure are only temporary bandaids meant to protect vulnerable communities today. The only solution that will “get our head out from under the water” is to armor our coastlines with sustainable defense strategies.

Mangroves and marsh grass integration are examples of living shorelines that actually build back sealines by absorbing wave energy and allowing sediment buildup. Mangroves and marsh grass are salt-tolerant, stabilize the coastline, and reduce erosion. While the solution seems overly simple, these practices are an effective and inexpensive defense agast invading sea levels. Hard infrastructure and shoreline retreating should be recognized as a last resort since they only push off an impending shoreline crisis.

Rather than buying out property owners in flood-prone areas, the government would find more success by concentrating its efforts on more proactive/sustainable protection methods that don’t just postpone the issue at hand.

When considering the party responsible for funding Florida’s coastline protection strategies, many factors come into play. Florida has the most mainland coastal territory coming at 1,350 miles yet it possesses one of the lowest tax bases in the nation. When examining the national average of state and local tax rates to Florida’s, Florida has a -22.8% difference from the state average - the budget is simply not in place using state taxes. Federal grants should spearhead the funding process to give Florida a fighting chance at defending their coastlines.