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  1. Florida Politics

Pinellas candidates differ on global warming, sea level rise

County Road 95 in Palm Harbor was impassable after Tropical Storm Debby in 2012. A new study says high tides around the gulf have been getting higher and could make a hurricane at high tide more devastating.
Published Jan. 27, 2014

Nearly surrounded by water, the people of Pinellas County received one more reason last week to worry about hurricanes: A newly released study shows that over the decades, high tides have been getting higher at cities around the Gulf of Mexico.

Which means a hurricane hitting at high tide could be even more devastating.

The Tampa Bay Times caught up with three Pinellas County candidates for Congress to ask what, if anything, they would do to respond. The Times also asked the candidates broader questions about climate change and rising sea levels.

Democrat Alex Sink said "the overwhelming scientific evidence" points to global warming and rising sea levels. She said the federal government must address the issue by educating the public, by promoting alternative energy and by other means.

Republican David Jolly said Earth's climate changes over time, and people have had an impact. But he added, "I don't think the impact that humans have had on our climate is so dramatic that it requires a significant shift in federal policy."

Libertarian Lucas Overby said in an emailed statement "it is possible we have affected the global climate as a species, but I am skeptical that we have radically altered the course of our planet." Therefore, he said the federal government should "proceed cautiously" with any response.

The study compared tidal measurements collected between 1900 and 2011 at 13 locations around the gulf, from Key West to Port Isabel, Texas, including St. Petersburg.

It shows high tides have been getting higher and low tides lower, attributed at least partly to global climate change. This has "almost doubled the risk of hurricane-induced flooding associated with sea level rise since the 1990s for the eastern and northeastern Gulf of Mexico coastlines," according to the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The study and its warning about hurricane-induced flooding comes at a time when many Pinellas residents are perhaps more worried about flood insurance rates than about the flooding itself. Flood insurance rates went up as a result of changes to the National Flood Insurance Program that were designed to make it solvent.

Considering the hurricane flooding danger may have grown, doesn't that suggest flood insurance rates should be somewhat higher?

No candidate took that tack.

Sink, 65, a former banking executive, Florida chief financial officer and 2010 Democratic nominee for governor, pointed to her previously announced plan, which she said would protect the program. It involves stopping the recent spike in rates, completing federal studies on flood maps and costs to consumers, and promoting ways of preventing flood damage.

Jolly, 41, a former congressional aide who has worked in Washington as a lobbyist, lawyer and consultant, pointed to his plan. It calls for pooling the risk of multiple natural disasters into one program that would cover tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and others.

Overby, 27, a commercial diver, said Congress should improve the flood insurance program by placing a "huge focus on allowing private insurance options."

On broader climate change matters, Sink called for tax credits for renewable energy production, and pushed for wind power, "nonfood biofuels" and solar power. "Florida is, unfortunately, a clear example of a state that has ample resources to facilitate its leadership in clean power production and yet it has never sufficiently tapped these natural, sustainable energy sources," she said in an emailed statement.

Jolly also believes in incentives designed to help businesses develop clean energy solutions. He added that while the climate may have changed over the century-long period examined in the study, "I don't believe it changes in such a fashion that it requires what we've seen out of Washington, which is this reactionary global warming public policy." He said he is concerned about any policies that risk "crippling jobs and the economy and industry."

Both Jolly and Sink said Pinellas County's environment and economy are closely tied together, and both need support.

Asked about global warming and sea level rise in general, Overby said "there are competing numbers and theories on this that have led me to a place of neither belief nor disbelief." He said he would not "dedicate resources we don't have" to the issue.

The candidates are all running in Congressional District 13, which extends from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out. The election is March 11.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@tampabay.com. On Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

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