1. Opinion

Column: What I will tell the governor on climate

Published Aug. 7, 2014

I am one of the 10 scientists who recently requested a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott to discuss climate change.

I had already met with former Gov. Charlie Crist last month and have given him a 30-minute briefing. He paid attention and asked excellent questions. A similar meeting is scheduled with Gov. Scott the middle of this month.

We scientists want to meet with our leaders is so we can impress upon them the urgency of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. It is my belief that if they understood what scientists have deduced about the Earth's climate they would be as concerned about carbon dioxide emissions as we are.

Our goal is to motivate our leaders through education so that they will work with scientists, engineers and business people to find solutions. The first step in tackling this problem is to get our leaders to acknowledge it.

As a faculty member, I have the opportunity to describe to young people how the Earth's climate system has varied over the past 800,000 years, a key record to understand the present and the future. I've described this record to church groups, government agencies and my graduate and undergraduate students.

But honestly, until now, it has been hard to get the attention of those who call the shots and determine public policy. These men and women have been educated, but most likely not in the sciences, and what science they may have learned is dated.

My goal is to explain to our leaders that scientists now have a clear picture of how the Earth's climate has fluctuated alongside a clearly related pattern in sea level change. Over the last 800,000 years, a period called the Pleistocene, we see a long-standing pattern in ice sheet growth and decline across glacial (cold) and interglacial (warmer) periods. These changes have been consistently accompanied by changes in temperature, carbon dioxide and sea level.

Throughout the Pleistocene, carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per million (ppm) in warm periods and 180 ppm during cold times. Over this period, carbon dioxide amount and temperature have always followed each other directly. And during each of these climatic shifts, we know that sea level followed the same pattern, rising and falling by 300 feet.

I want to impress upon our leaders the impact that human activity has had on our planet's climate and sea level. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, human burning of fossil fuels has raised the carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere on a massive scale, to more than 400 ppm. This level is higher than it has been for more than 1 million years.

Since the Pleistocene record shows us that there is a direct relationship between temperature and carbon dioxide, it is clear this human-caused change in the atmosphere is inducing warmer temperatures and higher seas. And if business continues as usual, by 2100 the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be over 700 ppm. What will earth be like for our children then?

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I want to our leaders to understand that this issue is particularly important for our low-lying state. Scientists have determined that the rate of sea level rise is already 50 percent greater in the early 21st century than it was in the 20th century. Florida is a very flat. If sea level rises 2 feet, that rise will translate into tens to hundreds of feet of shoreline retreat.

The intrusion of saltwater into our aquifers and our streets will intensify. I want our leaders to understand that Florida is ground zero for climate change, including the best of what our state has to offer (sorry Orlando!) — our barrier islands, our harbors, our prime real estate, our hotels, our marinas, our beaches. These places are at risk.

Insurance companies already know this. In Florida, we can't get name-brand homeowner's policies anymore. I'd never heard of my home insurance company before I had to buy a policy from them because my old company left the state.

So what are the solutions? This much is clear: We have to reduce our carbon emissions. In the Sunshine State, solar energy seems an obvious solution. If Germany can get a large portion of its energy from solar, can't we?

But the absolute best solution, the one that would really get things done, the one that I advocate, is for our leaders, Republicans, Democrats and independents to talk regularly with scientists.

I want them to understand the carbon dioxide problem, to be concerned about it, and to work to find alternative sources of energy. If incentives are provided, people will take care of the problem. We have to start this process. We can't wait for India, China or folks from Kansas to solve this crisis. Let's get to work.

Jeffrey Chanton is the John Winchester Professor of Oceanography and a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


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