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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida's climate challenge

A cyclist and vehicles negotiate flooded streets during a rainstorm in Miami Beach. As the primary author of a scientific study said: “It’s not the tide. It’s not the wind. It’s us.” Rising sea levels pose a threat far beyond the coast.
A cyclist and vehicles negotiate flooded streets during a rainstorm in Miami Beach. As the primary author of a scientific study said: “It’s not the tide. It’s not the wind. It’s us.” Rising sea levels pose a threat far beyond the coast.
Published Feb. 23, 2016

The facts could not be clearer: Tidal flooding along the nation's coast is worsening, largely due to mankind's burning of fossil fuels, which is causing the oceans to rise at the fastest rate since the founding of ancient Rome. New scientific studies released this week underscore what residents of Miami Beach, the Florida Keys and the eastern seaboard already know. Greenhouse gases are threatening our coasts, homes, businesses and way of life. And as tens of millions deal with rising temperatures, the stakes only rise for political leaders and the public to address the changes in a meaningful way.

The studies released this week echo a chorus of recent findings that paint the consequences of climate change in alarming and immediate terms. Scientists found that sea levels are likely rising faster than at any point in 28 centuries, and pointed to man-made warming as the likely cause of a sharp acceleration in sea levels in the past century. As the primary author of one of the two studies said: "It's not the tide. It's not the wind. It's us."

It's also upon us. One study released this week calculated that three-fourths of the tidal flood days along the East Coast would not be occurring were it not for rising seas caused by man-made emissions. The co-author of the lead study released this week, published by the National Academy of Sciences, made the point that because warming is expected to continue, the jump in sea levels is only expected to accelerate — think feet, not inches, by century's end. This dire situation is getting worse. And those closest to it see no end in sight.

The research is coalescing around the grimmest of news. Last year was the hottest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed last month. Fifteen of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.

As global temperatures have risen about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century, scientists are discovering how sensitive the ocean is to even tiny fluctuations in temperature. As sea levels rise for any combination of reasons, the warming from man-induced emissions takes an especially heavy toll, as seen in increasingly worse flooding in the coastal states.

A report accompanying the sea level findings this week sought to tie the knot between emissions, warming, sea level rise and U.S. coastal flooding. It found, for example, that natural flooding in Mayport, near Jacksonville, in the 1950s and '60s gave gradual way to human-induced flooding, with researchers blaming 44 of the 45 flood days since 2005 on human causes.

The message is clear: Humans caused this mess and now need to fix it. Rising sea levels pose a risk far beyond the coast, as salty seawater threatens the drinking water supplies for millions, just as rising temperatures from a warming climate threaten public health, the food chain and global stability.

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That's why the simplest solution — a tax on carbon — needs to be on the table. It's why state lawmakers need to quit toying with fracking and look for ways instead to reduce Florida's need for fossil fuels. It's why Florida's congressional delegation needs to be an environmental leader; no place is threatened by rising seas more than this low-lying state, and the third-largest state should carry some clout. And it's why the world community needs to commit to meet the climate change targets agreed to in December in Paris. If a rich nation like the United States can't keep stormwater from bubbling up on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, what hope is there?

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