Florida's Climate Crisis EXPERTS REACT TO DIRE United Nations REPORT
By Stephenie Livingston
Violent storms, rising seas and dangerous heatwaves are some of Florida’s symptoms of a global climate crisis, one that will worsen without immediate action to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and stabilize our climate, says a recent United Nations report.
In August, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists endorsed by the world's governments, published a major review of recent climate change science. The UN calls the bleak report "a code red for humanity," as it warns of unprecedented climate projections and catastrophic weather events. We can avoid these scary—to say the least—projections by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the report’s scientists say. But their overall message is urgency: we’re running out of time to turn this crisis around.
Here, experts react to the UN’s report and tell us what it means for Florida.
Christine Angelini is an assistant professor in environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida. She is an ecologist with expertise in wetland, reef and dune systems. Her research focuses on advancing mechanistic understanding of how species interactions moderate ecosystem resilience to climate change and influence contaminant integration into food webs.
"These major shifts are pervasive and fundamentally changing what these natural systems look like and, often, are eroding the benefits that people can derive from them."
“Much of my research focuses on coastal ecosystems—dunes, salt marshes, oyster reefs and mangrove forests—and how these systems are responding to local human pressures, such as industrial contaminant spills and overfishing, as well as climate change. In my 15 years working in these systems, I have already witnessed the direct impacts of climate change on these ecosystems. I have studied in real-time how intensifying droughts are destabilizing coastal food webs by triggering vegetation die-off, how intensifying storms are eroding our coastal dunes, and the key services that they provide to people and habitat they provide to wildlife, and how sea level rise is causing the fracturing of our coastal wetlands. These major shifts are pervasive and fundamentally changing what these natural systems look like and, often, are eroding the benefits that people can derive from them.
I consider our whole ensemble of coastal systems to be highly stressed, although there is mounting evidence that local actions to reduce human-related stressors can make a big difference in helping these systems be resilient to climate change. So, when I see the projections made in the IPCC report, it makes me wonder if, where, and how these systems will find refuge from the stressors imposed by climate change and how we may act now to protect these refuges and support the lifespan of these systems.
In the case of Florida, the projections of significant annual increases in the number of particularly hot days and major reductions in summer rainfall suggest that we may see increasing numbers of organism mortality events due to heat stress (and hypoxia and other temperature-related stresses) and witness relatively faster intrusion of saltwater as we will not have sufficient freshwater to balance rising sea levels. This second effect is poised to drive coastal systems inland at the expense of our freshwater and brackish system, which also hold biodiversity and economic value. As a low-lying peninsula with over 8,000 miles of coastline, such changes will be pervasive and impactful for our entire state.”
Photo (left) shows sea oats growing on a coastal dune in Florida. Canva image
Susan Clayton is a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster. She studies the psychology of climate change and people’s social and emotional responses to changes in the natural environment. Her research has emphasized climate anxiety, people’s sense of possibly debilitating worry about impacts of climate change.
"A lot of climate anxiety is probably because people don’t feel that governments are doing enough to respond to the problem.”
“Floridians are already confronted by the effects of a changing climate, which is having an impact on their home environment and in some cases will require radical transformations or even moving. Threats to one’s home have a significant emotional impact because home is not just the place where you store your belongings, it has implications for self-concept and identity—that people may define themselves, for example, as residents of Miami or the Florida Keys—and for a very basic sense of security. If you can’t feel safe in your home, where can you feel safe?
A mental health infrastructure that recognizes that climate change can affect mental health, sometimes even in the absence of obvious direct impacts, should provide more options for people to seek resources to help them cope. This is particularly important for people who have experienced a weather-related disaster, but these are not the only people whose mental health is at risk.
Help doesn’t have to come exclusively from mental health professionals. Even being associated with some sort of community group can help. People need tools to help them feel more in control of the situation, and one of those tools is accurate information. Do they know what effects they can expect from climate change, in the short term and the long term? Another important source of resilience is a feeling of hope, which can come from knowing that people in charge are aware of the problems, monitoring them and making plans to address them. A lot of climate anxiety is probably because people don’t feel that governments are doing enough to respond to the problem.”
Allison Wing is an assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science (EOAS) at Florida State University. She studies atmospheric dynamics and climate, with specific interests in tropical cyclones, and her research interests include extreme weather events.
"…these assessments paint a picture of a future in which tropical cyclones will be even more hazardous than they are today.”
“With regards to tropical cyclones, the IPCC report reflects the growing evidence of observed changes in tropical cyclones and their attribution to human-caused warming and increased confidence in future changes. There is high confidence that human-caused warming increases extreme rainfall associated with tropical cyclones, and that the peak wind speeds of the strongest tropical cyclones are projected to increase with increasing warming. In combination with the virtual certainty that global mean sea level will continue to rise, increasing the risk of flooding from tropical cyclone storm surge, these assessments paint a picture of a future in which tropical cyclones will be even more hazardous than they are today.”
Image (left) shows Hurricane Dennis in the Florida Keys in 2005. Canva image
Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at the University of Miami. His research interests include enhancing climate change resilience in coastal communities by merging engineering knowledge with ecological restoration.
"All around the globe, we know we’re going to have different symptoms of the problem."
The key takeaways from the IPCC report are that climate change is here, humans contribute and there’s an urgency to act, says Rhode-Barbarigos.
“All around the globe, we know we’re going to have different symptoms of the problem. For us (in Florida) it’s going to be sea level rise, which is accelerating, and stronger storms. For other places, it might be dry weather and fires—it’s all linked in the end. For me as an engineer, I think we need to find nature-based solutions and work with other disciplines to find sustainable solutions.”
Rhode-Barbarigos is involved in research projects where engineered protective structures integrate natural coastal ecosystems, like mangroves and coral reefs, to mitigate the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. He’s currently involved in a research project that investigates whether coral reef restoration can enhance the resilience and climate readiness of South Florida’s most vulnerable and valuable shoreline by reducing wave energy.
“There are things we do well, it’s just that we need to put the action toward (solutions that) make sense ecologically, especially with the urgency in this report,” he says, emphasizing that hard decisions will have to be made about how we develop and live in Florida’s coastal cities.
Image (right) shows the Miami cityscape skyline at sunrise on a cloudy morning. Canva image
Images from Canva & Climate Central. Cover photo: B137, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons