CLEARWATER — There’s only so much the five humans on the Clearwater City Council can do to stop or slow the threat of global climate change.
But local governments can prepare their communities for the consequences of rising seas, warming temperatures and intensifying storms. There are candidates in all three council races who have offered visions for building a resilient city along the endangered coast of Florida.
At the other end of the spectrum are candidates Bob Cundiff and Bud Elias, who do not believe human activity drives climate change despite the overwhelming evidence linking fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Cundiff is running for a second term on Seat 3 of the council, and Elias is one of his three opponents.
“The planet has been warming for centuries and centuries,” Cundiff said. “I think we’re in the cooling part of it right now.”
“I’m not willing to say ‘Oh my goodness the sky is falling,’” Elias said. “I think it is cyclical.”
The professionals who plan for climate change say it touches nearly every municipal issue: development, health, safety and zoning. In Clearwater’s weak mayor system, where five council members govern by simple majority, one council member’s initiative — or intransigence — can have a profound effect.
In Florida, a model for local climate planning is Miami-Dade County. In five years, the Office of Resilience has gone from four to 13 employees as it ensures county capital projects account for sea level rise and increased storm surge. It is also about to begin offering voluntary buyouts to homeowners in vulnerable areas.
Miami-Dade wouldn’t be spending millions to address climate change, said chief resiliency officer Jim Murley, without the political will of elected officials.
“They make the decisions,” Murley said.
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The Southeast Regional Climate Compact was created by Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties in 2010 to help the region adapt to, and mitigate the effects of, climate change.
In the bay area, more than two dozen city and county governments banded together to form the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition to do the same — but not until 2018.
“The Tampa Bay region is still in the ‘imagining a response’ kind of phase,” said Maya Burke, science policy coordinator for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which is dedicated to preserving the health of the Tampa Bay and its ecosystems.
Burke also sits on the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, which last year released updated sea level rise projections for the region. The bay area likely faces 1.9 to 8.5 feet of rising seas by the year 2100. (The estimates are significantly higher than the 2015 projections, and vary widely because humanity’s future use of fossil fuels is hard to predict.)
A rise of just 3 feet would threaten large swathes of Clearwater Beach — the city’s No. 1 economic engine. Yet massive developments continue to rise along its sugar sand shores.
Clearwater has made some progress. In 2011, the city released its “Greenprint” initiative to outline broad environmental goals. To alleviate flooding, several parks double as stormwater retention areas. And last year the city hired its first sustainability coordinator, Sheridan Boyle.
But compared to other local governments, Clearwater lags in important ways. Pinellas County evaluates the risks posed by climate change for its most important capital projects. Clearwater does not.
St. Petersburg, Largo, Safety Harbor and Dunedin have set a goal of relying on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Clearwater has not. Boyle said the city could reach the more modest energy goals set by Greenprint — but that’s in large part because energy sources have gotten more efficient.
“We’ve decreased our energy use, which is great,” she said. “But it’s also a product of the time.”
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Retired attorney Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer is running for council Seat 1, officially known as the mayor’s seat, and has made ecosystem protection the focus of her campaign.
When her first and last names appear on the ballot, the words “Sea Turtle” will appear sandwiched in between. She wants to raise money to buy land to convert to greenspace by imposing an impact fee on new development. She also wants Clearwater’s government to be completely reliant on renewable energy.
Two of her rivals, former council members Frank Hibbard and Bill Jonson, were on the City Council when it adopted the Greenprint plan in 2011. Hibbard notes that it was during his tenure that the city began converting its utility vehicles to be powered by natural gas.
That was during Jonson’s tenure too. But a decade later, he said it may be time for the city to re-evaluate that step.
"I think it was the right decision at the time," Jonson said of the natural gas conversion. "Is it the right decision now to change to electric vehicles? I think you could argue maybe we should be using electric vehicles."
All four mayoral candidates, including small business owner Morton Myers, say they accept the scientific consensus that human activity causes climate change.
Kathleen Beckman, a retired teacher running to unseat Cundiff in Seat 3, has proposed a detailed climate strategy. She wants the city to set measurable renewable energy goals and carbon emission reduction goals over the next 30 years. She also wants to create a green fund that takes savings from using renewable energy and reinvests the money into future projects.
In Seat 2, where five candidates are running, Mike Mannino has earned the endorsement of the Sierra Club. He wants the city to upgrade building codes, zoning, stormwater and wastewater systems so they can withstand intensifying storms and rising seas.
The Sierra Club also endorsed Beckman for Seat 3 and and Drayer for mayor.
Lina Teixeira, another candidate for Seat 2 who says climate change is an “immediate problem,” has proposed expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations in the city.
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Elias and Cundiff, the climate skeptics, say they are largely happy with the city’s existing environmental efforts.
At a candidate forum on Wednesday, Elias did not propose any further climate related policy. He said the city is “doing a pretty good job of sustainability” with its natural gas vehicles and its mass switch to more efficient LED, or light-emitting diode, light bulbs.
Cundiff has said he would support Boyle as she updates the Greenprint plan, but that he would not push the city any faster than it’s already moving on climate issues.
Attorney Bruce Rector, who is running for Seat 2, says he’s traveled the world as president of Junior Chamber International and seen the smog in China and polluted waters in India produced by humans. He also acknowledges the climate is warming. But Rector does not believe it is productive to debate why.
He still believes the city should be proactive. He wants to factor rising seas into infrastructure planning, for example.
“Whether man is causing it or not” is not a question for a member of City Council member, Rector said, adding:
“It doesn’t matter why. There’s pretty good evidence it’s changing, so what are we going to do about it?”
2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS
City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:
MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.
EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.
ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.