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Climate change impacts being assessed by Florida Department of Health

Vicki Boguszewski received a $10,000 grant from the Florida Department of Health.
Vicki Boguszewski received a $10,000 grant from the Florida Department of Health.
Published Jan. 18, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott has never said that he believes climate change is really happening, despite meeting with scientists who did their best to persuade him. His Department of Environmental Protection has no specific program devoted to combating the problem. And although a group met in St. Petersburg last year to propose some possible climate change solutions for Scott, they have gotten no response from Tallahassee.

But one agency, the Florida Department of Health, is taking action on climate change. It's handing out $10,000 grants to people and organizations exploring the health impacts of a warming world.

One grant recipient, Vicki Boguszewski of Key West, said she wasn't surprised to find that agency pursuing a climate change agenda, despite the lack of interest or direction from the governor's office.

"There are very intelligent people working for the people of Florida in the DOH," she said.

The department's grants are part of a program called Building Resilience Against Climate Effects, or BRACE. The money — $234,000 so far — comes from an identically named program at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that's funding projects in 14 other states.

So far the Florida grants have gone to Manatee and Sarasota county health departments, as well as to Boguszewski, who is health services director for a nonprofit in Monroe County.

The goals of the program include developing a state hazard and health response plan, incorporating the science regarding climate change into routine public health surveys, and increasing public awareness of what an altered climate will do to everyone.

However, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health was careful to avoid using the term "climate change" in explaining its goals. Instead, she said it's focused on "health effects related to weather events."

The latest news regarding climate change seems particularly dire. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA announced Friday that 2014's global temperatures show it was the warmest year on record, dating back 135 years to when records first began being kept in 1880.

Florida's geography — extremely flat and surrounded on three sides by water — makes the state vulnerable to sea level rise. Increasing acid levels in the oceans hurt the state's coral reefs, and most Floridians would say the state is already hot enough.

But there are plenty of other potential health effects from climate change, too, according to the Department of Health: "allergies, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, foodborne illness, heat-related illness and death, injury, mental health disorders, stress-related disorders, stroke," and diseases spread by mosquitoes, to name a few.

In fact, a recent survey of doctors across the U.S. who belong to the American Thoracic Society found that the majority said their patients were already experiencing medical conditions associated with climate change, such as increased asthma attacks and allergic reactions.

Yet Scott has not embraced the cause, saying in 2010, "I've not been convinced that there's any man-made climate change . . . Nothing's convinced me that there is." In 2014, while running for re-election, he answered all questions about climate change by saying, "I'm not a scientist."

In August, a coalition of scientists from Florida universities met with Scott to try to convince him that climate change is both real and a serious problem for the state. It did not go well.

"There was, in fact, no acknowledgment of the issue, nor was there any reflection of the seriousness of the issue,'' Eckerd College professor David Hastings said after the meeting. "I'm concerned he might not do anything."

Scott did ask the scientists for solutions, so in October, Hastings and other concerned scientists, students, activists, and business entrepreneurs gathered at Eckerd to brainstorm a list of solutions that they then sent to Scott. He has not responded, according to Hastings and Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, who helped organize the meeting.

The news that the Department of Health is pursuing research on the problem is a sign that some government agencies are acknowledging what seems obvious, she said.

"Even if the administration wants to ignore reality," Glickman said, "the world is still moving forward."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.