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St. Petersburg, Tampa mayors join pledge to support Paris Agreement; Clearwater not so much

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. JIM DAMASKE | Times
Published Jun. 4, 2017

In the days after President Donald Trump announced the United States will withdraw from a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions and combat effects of climate change, more than 180 mayors across the country pledged to honor the Paris Agreement without him.

But the reaction varied from the mayors of Tampa Bay's three largest cities, where studies show the threat of rising sea levels stand to uniquely impact the environment and economy.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Friday joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda's effort to "adopt, honor and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement."

Sitting it out is Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who called the pledge more of a symbolic move to criticize Trump and not required to advocate for environmental policy in his city.

"If you're going to criticize another elected official, then we ought to look at ourselves first and what we are doing in our communities to reduce our own greenhouse emissions, to be good stewards of the environment," Cretekos said. "I want to lead by example, not lead by criticism."

Cretekos said Clearwater is already a green pioneer, being the first city in the region to open a natural gas station to power garbage trucks and other city vehicles, the first in the state to launch a groundwater replenishment facility and was the first in Pinellas County to replace its street lights with energy-saving LED bulbs.

"Even though I'm not going where others may be on signing this letter, that doesn't mean I support the president's decision," Cretekos said. "I'm just not comfortable in criticizing other elected officials."

Tampa Bay has been identified as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to feel the effects of climate change in terms of rising sea levels and property loss along the region's 700 miles of shoreline.

An analysis from the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission released this year predicted rising seas could swell Tampa Bay 5 to 19 inches over the next 25 years, sending water lapping to the edges of Tampa.

South Florida has given an early glimpse into the effects of climate change in the state, with an increase in tidal flooding, saltwater breaches in the drinking water and sea levels roughly 4 inches higher now than in 1992, according to Bloomberg.

"We're sort of in a bull's-eye for potential effects from sea level rise from climate change," said Holly Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. "That alone is a good reason to be aware of actions that can help address both getting ready for the effects of climate change and also, as the Paris Agreement does, really starting to recognize what the potential impacts of what greenhouse gasses and CO2 levels are doing."

Kriseman said the mayors' pledge is both a symbolic way to commit to addressing effects of climate change in the region and a practical step to lead policy.

In 2015, Kriseman launched an office of sustainability dedicated to monitoring energy use, alternative sources, waterfront planning and other measures. In November, the city dedicated $800,000 to developing a plan to address rising sea levels, protect against strengthening hurricanes and retrofit city buildings with solar panels.

"As mayors we lead by example, and I think it sends a message to our community but also to the administration in Washington that those of us who are nearest to the people believe this is the right position for our country to take," Kriseman said. "And we plan on doing what we can to initiate the policies that match the accord. Certainly we'd like to see our federal government doing the same."

In his announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Thursday, Trump said the accord was a threat to the American economy and jobs. When the United States joined the deal with 194 other countries at its ratification in 2016, it had pledged to cut greenhouse emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, said the issue forces policy, politics and science to converge.

Beyond the projective data, Tampa Bay residents just have to look around to see the immediate effects of a warming climate, he said.

The palm trees Hastings swims by on his trips to Fort De Soto are dying because of saltwater intrusion. He said the wastewater treatment plants that become overwhelmed during intensified storms are testaments of climate change.

He said politicians who direct policy toward addressing climate change are signalling to business leaders and the economic sector that "they get it." With an entire industry of renewable energy to tap, he said neither the environment nor the economy can afford to be ignored.

"This is science, and our individual opinions don't really matter in the long run," Hastings said. "It's what actually happens that matters, and it's the science that matters."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.