Paradise Paved

When granddaughter, Sunnie, visited last month, she was reading a book for an Intro to Environmental Science class, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. “There is a chapter in the book about Florida,” she said.

Its author, Elizabeth Rush, is a college professor who explores how humans accommodate changes forced upon them by powers beyond their control, such as the rising sea levels. We learn of lost habitats, lost homes, families sundered, anxiety and stress. The human toll of climate change.

Every year passing, we experience or read about record-breaking hurricanes leaving the impression that climate change is not far in the future or imagined. Mickler Beach, a few miles from my home, has changed dramatically in less than five years. The sea has pushed the sand further up, eroding the shore, leaving a massive amount of shells to walk on instead of smooth sand. Mansions with a view of the Atlantic have lost much of their privacy. Sand has been trucked in for a cosmetic reprieve. It will last until the next storm reworks it. “When do we cross this point that the homes along the coast are no longer valuable because they’re really losing their marketability?” asks Cary Glickstein, when he was the mayor of Delray Beach in South Florida. “We are certainly not there yet. We are not even close to it.”

According to Rush, in 1890, six thousand people lived in the damp lowlands of South Florida. By the 1920s, you could buy wetlands, swamps, marshes, cypress domes and bogs, and other similar areas by mail and turn it into your personal paradise. “People want to live here,” says Craig Fugate, a Floridian who worked for two Republican governors before heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Obama. (NYTimes)

South Florida’s population has grown to six million and Seminole Camps are a memory and strip malls a reality. (Florida Memory) Rush writes that “Southwest Florida has lost nearly half of its wetland, turned over to developers. Then when a storm pounds pavements, rooftops, and roads, there is no place for the water to go.”

When the Clean Water Act (1972) became law Elizabeth Rush explains, America’s wetlands were to be protected from destruction. That didn’t happen. Swamps and marshes continued to be destroyed. In 1989, then-President George H. W. Bush promised this would end, and there would be “no [more] net loss” of wetlands. At a 2005 news conference, Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior (2001 to 2006), announced the goal had been met, no net loss between 1998 and 2004. Reporters questioned her. “Weren’t most of those wetland “gains” not really wetlands? Weren’t they just retention ponds, ornamental fountains, and golf water hazards?” Norton’s elastic definition of wetland was a stretch too far. A New York Times article, “Fewer Marshes + More Man-Made Ponds = Increased Wetlands.” (Paving Paradis, Florida’s vanishing wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss)

The concept’s popularity, “no net loss,” continued and presidents of both parties that followed made it their policy as well. They soon learned that promises are easier to make than keep. No president was able to stop thousands of acres of swamps from becoming golf courses, highways, new suburbs, big-box stores and more that continues to this day.

Dr. Harold Wanless, chair of geology at the University of Miami, “What’s happening now is that every aspect of our environment in South Florida, and elsewhere, is starting to change significantly, because of rising sea levels.” What caused it? Melting of the ice caps. Greenhouse gases trap heat and make it possible to live on Earth. That’s a good thing. But scientists worry that various activities of 7.4 billion humans are adding too much of these gases, trapping it in with no windows to let it escape out of our atmosphere. “Only 7% of the heat being trapped by greenhouse gas is stored in the atmosphere.” You may have guessed it, the other 93% resides in the now expanding warmer oceans leading to melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio (in 2016) said the connection between rising sea levels and human activity was tenuous. In 2018, he said, “I’m not going to ‘destroy our economy’ over rising sea levels threat.” (Washington Examiner) In an interview with Jake Tapper (2018) when asked if he believed human activity contributed he said that scientists say it does. (CNN video) He’s correct. Almost all (95%) climate researchers agree that humans are causing global warming. (Skeptical Science)

Even so, skeptics say NO or maybe humans are a little bit responsible. (Skeptical Science) Five-year-olds believe in Santa. Six-year-olds think the tooth fairy is real. These false beliefs will not jeopardize our way of life. We can call them cute or sweet. But when we take a position of great consequence, shouldn’t we do our research to make sure we speak from solid footing? We wouldn’t purposely spread a harmful virus. When our “in-the-know” is thin, we can simply say, I just don’t know.

Climate models concur that global temperatures will continue to increase in response to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. But they don’t agree on how much or how quickly the sea levels will rise. Elizabeth Rush writes, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects roughly two feet of rising by century’s end. The United Nations predicts three feet. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates an upper limit of six and a half feet.” Of the six million people who live in South Florida, half of the people live less than six and a half feet above. The rate of sea level rise, according to Dr. Wanless, “is currently doubling every seven years, and if it were to continue in this manner, Ponzi school style, we would have 205 feet of sea level rise by 2095.” But more likely, he continues, “while I don’t think we are going to get that much water by the end of the century, I do think we have to take seriously the possibility that we could have something like 15 feet by them.” (Science Magazine)

Climate change reporting is dominated around rising sea levels. Now Florida’s medical community is sounding a health alarm. With hotter days and extended summers, the allergy season is longer, there are more mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and air quality (when heat and humidity make it harder to breathe) is increasingly affecting the 60% of Miami’s residents who live paycheck to paycheck. (NPR)

As stated earlier, paving over land has an environmental impact like flooding. In 1997, 14.5 inches fell on the city of Fort Collins in Colorado, causing a flash flood with water flowing over creek banks into surrounding communities. It was the city’s worst natural disaster. A hydro-meteorological study revealed that the Horsetooth reservoir, which rose 20 inches in response to the flood, produced a significant flood reduction benefit. Paving over wetlands is like showering or bathing in a tub without a drain. Fort Collins now requires that all new buildings be no more than ten minutes from green spaces (parks, etc). (Colorado State University)

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