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South Florida

Satellite photo of Florida coast. (Photo via Creative Commons)

Four Florida counties – Monroe, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward – have joined together to fight climate change at the local level.

These southern counties are at odds with the state’s upper management. With a governor that hasn’t “been convinced” climate change is happening and one senator that believes climate reform will do nothing but “destroy our economy,” the onus has fallen to the municipal administrators that deal with it every day. As Rhonda Haag, Sustainability Program Manager for Monroe County, puts it, “We’re here where the rubber hits the road. We’re the canary in the coal mine. We see it. We see it in the extreme high tides when we have water on the road…”

Harold R. Wanless, Chairman of the Geological Sciences Department at the University of Miami, would agree. “We’re going to get four or five or six feet of water, or more, by the end of the century,” he told the New York Times last year. “You have to wake up to the reality of what’s coming.”

The White House is one of several authorities that has woken up to that reality. Earlier this month when it released its National Climate Assessment, Florida was singled out as one of the highest risk areas in the country. About 75 percent of South Florida’s residents live on the coast, 2.4 million of which live within four feet of the tide line. By 2100, that tide line is expected to shift dramatically.

To defend themselves against this imminent shift, county and city planners from Monroe, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. Together, with Florida Atlantic University and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, these authorities are developing ways to improve and protect their existing infrastructure. Their regional action plan allowed them to rebuild State Road A1A after four blocks of it were washed away by Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012. The new coastal highway has been improved with higher tides and more extreme weather in mind.

The Compact marks a significant step forward in climate change policy and highlights the dichotomy between state and federal ideology. One of the compact’s co-founders, Steve Adams, has shared his disappointment with the latter:

“What I think people are missing is the story of the compact and what people are actually doing. Particularly at a moment when we’re all watching Congress with great dismay — we feel like we’re ungovernable at the federal level — we’re seeing this moment a group of local state and federal agency staff able to work together in a remarkably powerful way. The partisan differences in South Florida just don’t much matter.”

“You can’t argue with the ocean,” says Chris Bergh, a native to Key West and the Director of the Coastal and Marine Resilience program at the Nature Conservancy. “When the tide is high, the ocean comes right up to our shores, and it comes in farther than it ever used to.”

Bergh echoes President Obama, who earlier this month stated that climate change is an undeniable fact. Bergh is currently working with a coastal resilience group to utilize natural barriers such as mangroves, dunes and oyster reefs to protect against storm surges.“We’re no longer arguing about whether or not we have a problem,” he says. “We recognize the fact that the problem is here and is in fact starting to accelerate, and we’re in a stage of identifying what we need to do about it.”

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