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Guest Column
To keep Florida’s economy viable, the state should set an upper limit to sea-level rise | Column
Florida is in the crosshairs of climate disruption and that gives it a powerful platform to promote efforts to cut carbon emissions
This flooding came in the aftermath of hurricane Ian in Central Florida in late September.
This flooding came in the aftermath of hurricane Ian in Central Florida in late September. [ RICARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Dec. 9, 2022

Did you know that Florida has already experienced one foot of sea level rise since the 1970s, and another foot is expected by mid-century? Floridians see it happening: sunny day flooding, beach erosion and record-setting storm surge that wipes out communities from more powerful, slower moving hurricanes.

Rafe Pomerance
Rafe Pomerance [ Provided ]

Many Florida leaders have been focused on building higher seawalls and raising roads, but unless concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are stabilized at the lowest levels possible, sea level will continue to rise, reducing effectiveness of resilience measures being taken today.

We need to keep Florida above water.

I’ve been involved in climate advocacy for more than 40 years. In 2018, a special issue of New York Times Magazine called “Losing Earth” recounted the early days which included my role in helping sound the alarm that resulted in the first well-publicized congressional hearings on climate change.

I’ve participated in developing many policy options. Now I’m working on sharing an idea that has the potential to reframe the climate issue: setting an upper limit on sea-level rise in the Florida.

Just like the U.N. Conference of the Parties set an upper limit to the amount of warming our planet can withstand with the Paris Climate Accord — 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius — Florida needs to set an upper limit on the amount of sea-level rise that it can withstand and still have a viable economy. An upper limit on sea-level rise makes it clear to populations what’s at stake if we fail to act.

I’m looking forward to addressing the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit in Fort Lauderdale this week where I will ask city, county and state officials to acknowledge there is an upper limit to the amount of sea-level rise that is tolerable in Florida, and encourage them to create policy aiming towards a clean energy future.

Florida’s economy is the 15th largest in the world as of 2021, and its global reach as a popular tourist destination that is in the crosshairs of climate disruption gives it a powerful platform.

In 2019, before the coronavirus lockdowns, Florida’s tourism industry contributed $96.5 billion dollars to the state’s economy and supported more than 1.6 million jobs, according to Visit Florida. With that kind of money on the line, it only makes sense for leaders to protect Florida from sea-level rise.

Beyond two feet of sea-level rise becomes exponentially more expensive to manage. Higher taxes and insurance costs will be necessary to endure more flood disruptions, sewage system overflows, and sea water infiltration of drinking water. Other major risk factors include increased flooding and property loss, reduced tax base, immobilized traffic, eroded shorelines, and salt water intrusion harming estuary ecosystems and wildlife.

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Technologies are available to reduce and ultimately eliminate the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving Florida’s sea-level rise. We need state leaders to declare an upper limit of 2 feet, and then implement widespread renewable energy, especially from solar panels and wind, and advance vehicle electrification through new infrastructure and tax breaks on electric vehicles. The federal Inflation Reduction Act provides huge financial incentives for Florida to transition to a clean energy economy.

Florida should be taking a national and global leadership position on setting an upper limit on sea-level rise. The state is a low-lying peninsula that depends on the action of not only other states, but other countries. Florida can galvanize action to protect its future as a safe and economically sound place to live.

We can keep Florida above water by setting an upper limit of 2 feet of sea-level rise, before it is too late.

Rafe Pomerance is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state and has been a climate advocate for more than 40 years. He is an adviser to the Upper Limit Project of ReThink Energy Florida. This column is part of the Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.