A version of this appeared as a special to the Gainesville Sun on 23 September 2018.
Lake Okeechobee showing algae bloom from space July 2016. NASA Earth Observatory.
Ecological collapse in Florida is not hypothetical. It is happening now in south Florida where population pressure and the interests of agriculture have resulted in the annual recurrence of the biggest pollution catastrophe in the history of our state. It is happening now in our springs, streams, and lakes where nitrates have disrupted the normal ecological processes that kept these bodies of water crystalline. It is happening now as political and financial interests continue to delay and derail our ability to respond to ongoing climate and ecosystem disruptions.
Over recent years, extreme weather has become the fifth horseman of the Anthropocene, that epoch that some scientists have labeled the period of human domination of Earth. All weather now occurs in a human altered climate – a climate increasingly loaded with heat and water vapor. Heat and drought have driven and amplified fires throughout the world, especially in the North American West.
This is not speculation or a momentary anomaly, but instead signals the escalation of climate extremes. On any meaningful human timescale, the climate of the 20th century is gone forever. Surrounded on three sides by the buffering effect of the oceans, daily weather in Florida has arguably changed slowly compared to conditions elsewhere in the US, Canada, and Europe. In many ways, we have been lucky, but events of this summer should convince us that our luck has run out.
Increasing sea and land temperatures, sea level rise, salt water incursion of freshwater sources, and specific features of hurricanes are the general manifestations of climate change in Florida. These elements amplify the predominant factors disrupting our environment in the near term: unrestrained development and poor management of our resources, especially freshwater. Pollution has caused damaging transformation of our lakes and spring-fed streams. A trip down the Santa Fe River is no longer the joy that it once was before nitrate pollution and reduced flows crippled the ecosystem processes of the river.
Climate warming expands the consequences of pollution and destructive land use. Although ostensibly a natural phenomenon, the massive red tide that has afflicted the Gulf Coast of Florida is amplified by warm waters, nutrient runoff from all sources from the land, and deposition of nitrogen from the atmosphere. Accelerating sea level rise is having major impacts on coastal economies and will dramatically alter the distribution of population throughout the state.
Reactionary politics has made it difficult for us to agree on the causes of the problems. Science has been denigrated and dismissed by many conservatives, while liberals often preach doom. Expert knowledge is frequently dismissed as tainted by politics when facts reveal conditions that are unacceptable to our elected leaders. Certainly, some version of doom is likely if we continue to ignore what science is telling us.
Despite its dedicated civil servants and scientists, the State of Florida has not adequately responded to our unfolding environmental crises. The climate agenda outlined by the Crist administration was swept aside by the politics of denial and the financial imperatives of fossil fuel and big ag interests. Similarly, our federal government is shackled to a political mandate that makes aggressive support for climate mitigation and adaptation a nonstarter.
In the absence of outside leadership, the community is the front line of adaptation to environmental change. For Alachua County, healthy and diverse landscapes, clean water, and clean air are irreplaceable assets. Food security cannot be taken for granted. Without agreement on the nature of the threats to these essential resources, we become powerless to act.
The most important thing to realize about Florida’s ecological crises is that there are no quick fixes. What will Florida be like when we hit 2˚C global average rise in land temperatures? When will coastal property values plummet? What will be the fate of the Floridan Aquifer as our population continues to explode and sea level rise accelerates? Addressing these issues requires a multi-generational plan for positive change.
Proactive adaptation is far less expensive and disruptive than reactive adaptation. The County and City Commissions should make a much greater investment in planning. Alachua County needs a plan that includes scenarios over a timeline that extends at least through 2050, with more general contingency planning extending to the end of the century. Expertise and money must be brought to the table to craft a strategic plan that includes environmental remediation and community building. Although important, business interests should not dominate decision making, but instead be one voice among the many concerned about our future. Food and water security are paramount.
We have much work to do, yet we mostly continue with business as usual as if we are still living in the 1960s. We have made few identifiable attempts at proactive adaptation, and most of our attempts at planning, although well intended, have not adequately focused on the major challenges ahead. Ultimately, our real wealth and wellbeing resides with our community – the people and living systems that make up the daily engagements our lives.
Wendell Berry eloquently expresses this reality —
“If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared….”