Major environmental summit urges focus on challenge of climate change in Southwest Florida

A major regional climate conference brought together a diverse collection of people and their ideas to work together to find a sustainable way of life in the future despite some differing beliefs how to get from here to there.

Dozens of community members from environmental nonprofits, academia, community groups, and local, state, and federal governments attended the day-long Southwest Florida Climate and Community Summit in Naples on Tuesday.

The hope was the gathering would muster a community-wide consensus for developing a strategy to deal with undeniable warming temperatures and more extreme weather events that are now evident, and not just in Southwest Florida where monster storms like Hurricane Ian in September were proven to unleash more energy

“This is timely in that climate change, that was spoken of as a future event, is now clearly bearing down upon us,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director at Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership. “This information is critical to raise awareness and understanding of what we need to do to adapt mitigate, and lessen the impacts of sea level rise and other climate factors in our region.”

Hecker oversees a watershed that spreads through Southwest Florida and covers Dona & Roberts bays to the north and Estero Bay and Pine Island Sound including the Caloosahatchee River basin to the south. Hecker’s coastal and wetland partnership is part of the EPA’s National Estuary Program.

“We convene our partners throughout the year to tackle regional problems that affect our natural resources and quality of life, which of course includes climate change,” she told the more than 250 people at the summit. “Just this last week we had our management committee meet with 13 federal agencies to discuss hurricane and resiliency needs, as well as a researcher from the national laboratory who analyzed the hurricane (Ian) and found it that it dropped 17% more precipitation due to climate change factors.”

The existence of global warming, also known as climate change, was far from widely accepted up through the 1980s.

That began to change in 1990, when The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report with strong evidence that human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, were contributing to global warming.

“This is timely in that climate change, that was spoken of as a future event, is now clearly bearing down upon us. This information is critical to raise awareness and understanding of what we need to do to adapt mitigate, and lessen the impacts of sea level rise and other climate factors in our region.”

– Jennifer Hecker, executive director at Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership

Today the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the earth’s climate is warming and that human activity, particularly the extraction and burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, is a major contributor. The controversy now surrounds on which actions should be taken to address it, as well as the potential economic and social impacts.

In other words: The debate has shifted from “is it happening” to “what can, we do about it, and when?”

The partisan nature of the debate was laid bare in July when Growing Climate Solutions, part of a grassroots coalition of Southwest Florida’s environmental stalwarts involved in this week’s summit, published the results of a regional survey of attitudes about global warming.

The survey found most residents believe climate change is real, is happening now, and the impacts will be felt by future generations.

The survey also discovered early-on that the partisan rip in Southwest Florida has extended firmly held beliefs on which societal crisis to tackle first: a warming planet or the cooling U.S. economy.

California-based Lake Research performed the study and noted partisan issues present “significant challenges” for groups like Growing Climate Solutions and the rest of those at the summit.

“People who identify as Republicans are increasingly harder to engage with and persuade on issues of climate,” Lake research wrote in a note included with the survey. “Meanwhile, people who identify as Democrats continue to express significant concerns around climate change and support for solutions.”

California’s Lake Research Partner’s polled 400 adults in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties in April 2022.

When the residents polled in April were asked what might prompt people and companies to use more climate-friendly things to slow global warming, their answers nearly matched those given to similar questions by folks at this week’s summit: incentives or deterrents.

Corporate tax credits if they expand clean energy usage, fines if they don’t. Personal tax credits for buyers of electric or hybrid vehicles, and regulations or laws with teeth requiring more resource-efficient vehicles and buildings. Local government leadership to get it done coupled with the federal dollars to pay for it.

President Joseph Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is touted as the largest investment for resilience of physical and natural systems in American history. Since it became law in late 2021, billions have gone out to states including $275 million to Florida mentioned at the summit destined to protect the state’s drinking water supplies and help with restoring the Everglades.

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Steve Davis, chief scientist for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, spoke at the SWFL Climate and Community Summit in Naples Tuesday on concerns about damage that has been done to the central and southwestern regions of the Everglades by decades of government rules that allowed huge agriculture operations to drain the land and ruin the deep, rich peat in the greater Lake Okeechobee region.

Steve Davis, chief scientist for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation that supports and monitors the federal government’s spending and ecosystem’s restoration efforts – in one case to return to a functioning, flowing, deep-enough, River of Grass.

One of his worries is the damage that has been done to the central and southwestern regions of the Everglades by decades of government rules that allowed huge agriculture operations to drain the land and ruin the deep, rich peat in the greater Lake Okeechobee region. To not stop that would be to expose even more of the massive amount of greenhouse gas carbon that has been trapped for eons like at the bottom of a full sink.

“Being a flat, low lying landscape here in South Florida, the last thing we want to do is lose elevation,” Davis said. “What that also means is that we’re emitting carbon back out to the atmosphere. And over the history of drainage of this ecosystem, we’ve lost almost a gigaton of carbon. That’s a billion metric tons. That’s more than the mass of every single human being on the planet twice over.

“So not only are we seeing the consequences of draining this ecosystem, but we’re actually contributing to the climate change problem that we’re experiencing” he said to the summit members. “And that is what we’re in here, obviously, to talk about.”

The scientists said during the summit everybody was given an opportunity to discuss, strategize, and vote on the actions and priorities needed for Southwest Florida to fortify, protect, and sustain the region’s way of life as changes to climate become more and more obvious.

The next step is a set of meaty recommendation that the SWFL Climate & Community Initiative is now compiling in a report that will outline myriad steps in building the region’s climate resilience.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

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