Updated 29 June 2019. A version of this appeared as a special to the Gainesville Sun on 23 September 2018.
Lake Okeechobee algae bloom caused by phosphate pollution. Taken from space July 2016. NASA Earth Observatory.
Ecological collapse in Florida is not hypothetical. It has been growing worse each year 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 the Southeastern US. It is happening now in our springs, streams, and lakes where pollutants 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, the epoch that 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. Although extreme weather has always been part of the human experience, recently these events often have features that directly linked to climate change. Hurricanes intensify much faster and bring more precipitation than they used to. Heat and drought have driven and amplified fires throughout the world, especially in the North American West.
Such events are not momentary anomalies, but instead signal 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 past year should convince us that our luck has run out.
At present on average the weather is as good at it will ever be in your lifetime. It will only get worse and even if we were stop all emissions tomorrow, it will continue to get worse because of the approximately 30-year time lag in the response of the Earth System to a change in radiant forcing of the atmosphere.
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, namely 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 near High Springs, Florida, no longer inspires the awe that it did 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 in the coming decades. The best science tells us that we should plan for over 6 ft by 2100. This will hugely amplify hurricane storm surge and we can expect many more multi-billion-dollar storms.
Reactionary politics has made it difficult for us to agree on the causes of environmental problems. Science has been denigrated and dismissed by many conservatives, while liberals sometimes justifiably preach doom. Fox News and the fossil fuel funded misinformation campaign of the last 30 years have drilled into the collective conservative reality that climate change is either not real or not that much of a problem. Expert knowledge is frequently dismissed as tainted by politics when facts reveal conditions that are unacceptable to our elected conservative leaders. Certainly, some version of catastrophic disruption of civilization 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 these accelerating 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. The new Florida administration elected in 2016 has declared the environment to be a top priority, but its approach is to throw money and construction at the problems. Contractors will make out like bandits. The scientific reality is that we must change how we manage agriculture and sewage before any real improvement can occur.
In the absence of outside leadership, the community is the front line of adaptation to environmental change. Healthy and diverse landscapes, clean water, and clean air are irreplaceable assets. Food security cannot be taken for granted in even the most developed nations. Extreme crop failures and the declining nutritional content of cereal grains grown in higher heat and carbon dioxide will make acquiring a healthy diet even more challenging than in a world dominated by Coke and Burger King. 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 salt water incursion accelerates? Addressing these issues requires a multi-generation plan for positive change. Although state and federal leadership are necessary and sorely missing, it is essential that communities engage in scenario analysis and develop plans for these impacts.
Proactive adaptation is far less expensive and disruptive than reactive adaptation. County and City Commissions across Florida should make a much greater investment in planning. Each 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 alternative strategic plans that give priority to environmental remediation and maintaining human infrastructure. Although important, business interests must not dominate decision making, but instead be one voice among the many concerned about our future. Food and water security are paramount.
It is clear that some communities, especially those on the coast, are responding to these threats. We have much work to do, yet we mostly continue with business as usual as if we are still living in the 1960s. Recently state lawmakers and the governor approved a massive expansion of toll roads down the western side of the state, while mandating legal sanctions that make managing development harder for cities and counties. Most communities, especially those inland, have made few identifiable attempts at proactive adaptation. Most attempts at planning, although well intended, have not adequately focused on the major challenges ahead. Ultimately, our real wealth and wellbeing resides with our communities – 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….”