Tampa Bay comes together on climate change | Editorial
A first-ever regional summit brings shared goals and a promising message from the state resilience officer.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

The effects of a warming climate are acutely perilous for the Tampa Bay area, which is why local leaders need to confront hard choices and work together as rising seas and other impacts threaten property and prosperity across the region. That was the message Tuesday at the opening of a commendable two-day regional summit exploring how Tampa Bay can better protect its people, economy and environment from the accelerating risks of a more inhospitable climate. The discussion is an excellent start in joining forces to meet a challenge that no single community can tackle on its own.

More than 300 local elected officials, government staffers, academics and business leaders gathered for the first-ever Resilience Leadership Summit, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, in what was the largest brainstorming exercise so far on developing a local climate strategy. Though any concrete regional plans are months if not years away, the size and scope of the event was encouraging. It reflects the deep concern of residents across a region where by 2100 sea levels could be 8½ feet higher than at the turn of this century.

The state’s new chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, got the session off on the right note with her call for science to be at the forefront of these discussions. She urged government and business to work together and for regional leaders to cooperate, and she vowed to be an advocate for Florida communities in Tallahassee and Washington. Her positive message and sense of urgency was perfect for an audience only now grappling to find a relevant role in combating a global problem.

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While local governments across the region have taken varying degrees of baby steps, Tuesday’s session made clear that area officials are clear-eyed about the difficult decisions they face in managing their communities, in paying for climate-related impacts and in growing the metropolitan area in a warming age. How can local governments protect schools, police and fire stations and other critical infrastructure in low-lying areas? Should taxpayers buy out homes and businesses in flood-prone zones? What land-use changes are needed to steer development to higher ground?

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos spoke of the need to improve mass transit, both to reduce the area’s carbon emissions and the reliance on congested roads. Local officials also warned about the threat that rising seas and flooding posed to entire neighborhoods across the region, which already suffers from a chronic lack of affordable housing. Recent reports have identified the Tampa Bay region as one of the coastal metropolitan areas most vulnerable to climate change, with billions in real estate and property tax revenue at risk.

It clearly will be some time before local officials address the thorniest questions, from whether to retreat from coastal areas and forcing new development patterns to deciding who pays for building more sustainable communities. But the message Tuesday - unity of effort, inaction is not an option - is encouraging. So was the thoughtfulness the mayors and other local leaders brought to the discussion. State lawmakers should be helpful where they can and stay out of the way where they are not needed. This is an admirable, orderly effort worthy of public support.

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.