When big climate reports emerge from august bodies like the federal government or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), researchers often use distant years like 2100 to describe the coming impacts of higher temperatures, rising seas, and the like. But climate change is affecting Florida today, and its impacts will become unmistakable over just the next couple of decades.
In a new analysis released today by Resources for the Future, we draw from recent peer-reviewed research to understand how climate change is likely to affect Floridians over the next 20 years. The results are stark.
Sea levels at different points along the coast will likely rise by 8 to 12 inches above today’s levels by 2040. As a result, coastal flooding will become more frequent. For example, severe “100-year-floods” will soon hit St. Petersburg once every few years rather than once a century. Statewide, such flooding endangers about 300,000 homes, 2,500 miles of roadways, 30 schools, and 4 hospitals.
Climate change will also increase mortality risk across the state. By 2040, higher temperatures are projected to cause more than 1,000 deaths each year due to higher risks of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. These diseases are exacerbated by extreme temperatures.
Our findings also show that hurricanes will become more severe, saltwater intrusion will degrade water quality, disease carriers like mosquitoes will spread, and Florida’s iconic citrus industry will be affected by changing temperatures that in turn, alter the risks of citrus greening disease.
Are these negative impacts inevitable? Crucially, the answer is no.
With smart public policy, we can change our climate trajectory and reduce the greatest risks. Along with describing how climate change will affect Florida if emissions continue to rise, we also analyze how public policies can reduce those emissions and, in turn, reduce the impacts on Floridians just two decades from now.
We assess eight recently proposed federal bills that would price carbon dioxide emissions, increasing the costs of fossil fuel use and stimulating a switch to cleaner energy sources. The result would be lower emissions and, coupled with cooperation from international partners, reduced risks of sea level rise, mortality, and other impacts that we describe above.
Carbon pricing policies charge emitters for the carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. The extra cost increases the price of fossil fuels, which raises the price of energy goods like gasoline, but encourages innovation to drive down the price of clean energy. Carbon pricing also encourages shifts toward cleaner supply chains, because it can end up raising the price of consumer goods like groceries and clothing if those goods rely on fossil fuels for manufacturing and transport.
Opponents of carbon pricing often cite higher energy prices to justify inaction, focusing on the disproportionate burden that would fall on low-income households, who spend a higher proportion of their income on energy than the wealthy. These are reasonable concerns, but there are at least two reasons why, in our view, these objections miss the mark.
First, carbon pricing policies will raise billions of dollars in new government revenue. Under four of the eight bills we examine, a large share of these revenues would be returned to households via dividend payments. Our analysis shows that these dividends would more than offset the increase in energy prices for low- and moderate-income Florida households, leaving them better off. Other bills dedicate a large share of revenues to infrastructure, which can provide benefits to all households through improvements to public transit systems or highways.
Second, increased energy costs resulting from carbon pricing would be a small price to pay to avoid the worst risks of climate change. The stark impacts that we describe in our report extend only to the year 2040. Without meaningful public policies to reduce emissions, things will get much worse in the decades that follow.
Addressing climate change has up-front costs. But failing to address climate change? Those costs are likely to be much greater and long-lasting.
The writers are researchers with Resources for the Future, a non-profit research institution in Washington, D.C., focused on energy and the environment.