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Washington fiddles while Tampa Bay responds to climate change | Editorial

The United States must respond at both the local and national levels. A United Nations report reaffirms the need to act faster.
Recent sunny day flooding in Shore Acres, a St. Petersburg neighborhood vulnerable to rising sea levels.
Recent sunny day flooding in Shore Acres, a St. Petersburg neighborhood vulnerable to rising sea levels.
Published Dec. 1, 2019

The fact-finding mission to the Netherlands by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s top aide reflects the efforts local governments are making to address climate change in their own back yards. Reversing global emissions before the breaking point will take American leadership and global cooperation, but state and local governments -- and private businesses -- are playing a key role in preparing for the impact of climate change. While the Trump administration may remain in denial, residents and corporations in low-lying coastal Florida know too well the threat that rising seas, more extreme weather and other climate-related impacts pose. That’s why any successful mitigation calls for action at home while the nation and world deal with the global issues.

Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, spent four days in the Netherlands in November, part of an outreach program by the Dutch government to share its experience with several southern U.S. communities. Bennett recognized the vital role that natural defenses like sand and mangroves play, the folly of relying only on dams and other hard barriers, and the importance of prioritizing risks and acting at the local level.

His visit came as a new United Nations report, issued Tuesday, found that countries have failed to curb their greenhouse gas emissions as promised in recent years, “meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required.” The two biggest polluters, China and the United States, increased their emissions in 2018. Over the past decade, researchers found, global emissions have grown by 1.5 percent every year. The annual assessment, called the Emissions Gap Report, declared that "the summary findings are bleak,” noting that there is “no sign” that emissions will peak “in the next few years.” It singled out the world’s 20 richest nations, which account for more than three-fourths of all emissions, for a mixed record in moving away from fossil fuels, calling on the United States and others to lead by example since “they largely determine global emission trends.”

America is hardly poised to set the right example, given the Trump administration’s indifference to climate change and the administration’s formal notification earlier this month that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Still, the report noted “a number of encouraging developments,” such as a growing political focus on climate - especially among young and active voters - technological breakthroughs and the involvement of hundreds of private companies, financial institutions and local governments that are working to reduce their carbon footprints.

Bennett’s overseas visit is only the latest initiative in Tampa Bay to confront climate change at the local level. Across the region, local governments are hiring new resiliency officers to devise strategies for hardening critical public infrastructure threatened by rising seas and more extreme weather. Solar co-ops have sprung up, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are looking to expand mass transit in their urban cores. Last week, Hillsborough’s transit agency announced it won a $4.3 million federal grant to replace some of its diesel-fueled buses with newer ones powered by compressed natural gas, reducing harmful emissions by hundreds of tons per year. And in January. the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council will host "The Resilience Leadership Summit.''

The local efforts are vitally important to protecting property and lives, in maintaining essential public works and in keeping climate change alive as a political issue. Now if only the Trump administration and Congress would be as engaged and urgent.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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