Climate change and rising sea levels are real and now, a South Florida panel of experts told a U.S. Senate committee hearing held Monday in West Palm Beach.
“While there are some who continue to deny that climate change is real, South Florida offers proof that it is real and it’s an issue we’re going to have to confront in the decades ahead,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, who chaired the nearly two-hour hearing in city hall.
Nelson introduced the hearing by noting that, with 1,200 miles of coastline, and three-quarters of its residents living near its coasts, Florida is more vulnerable than any other state in the continental U.S. to rising sea levels already causing increasingly frequent flooding. During much of the hearing, a video played showing scenes of flood waters rushing through Miami Beach in 2015.
“We’re doing this because we sit at Ground Zero for the impacts of climate change in the United States,” he said.
The panelists called for federal help in girding southeastern Florida from the rising seas and extreme weather that have already impacted the region. They called for strengthening building codes and decreasing communities’ carbon footprints.
Nelson urged against policies of the Florida and federal governments that prohibit government employees from even using the phrase “climate change.” He said such rules interfere with efforts to address the problems.
The panelists who addressed the committee were:
- Ben Kirtman, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and director of the Center for Computational Science, Climate and Environmental Hazards at the University of Miami.
- Leonard Berry, emeritus professor of geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, and vice president of government programs at Coastal Risk Consulting, LLC.
- Carl Hedde, senior vice president and head of risk accumulation and Munich Reinsurance Co. of America.
- Jennifer Jurado, chief resiliency officer and director of environmental planning and community resilience for Broward County.
The panel did not include anyone who denies that human activity is contributing to climate change and sea-level rises. Nelson said the committee had held other hearings in which four out of five panelists were climate change deniers.
Kirtman testified that “multiple lines of evidence” point to carbon dioxide and methane produced by human activity causing an increase in global temperatures. “That’s a fact,” he said.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million for thousands of years, have risen to 405 parts per million in the past 200 years, and temperatures and sea levels have risen noticeably particularly since the 1950s, he said.
“Something’s out of balance,” he said. “Multiple lines of evidence are all pointing to the same thing,” he added. “We have every reason to believe current trends we’re seeing are going to continue. There is no credible science whatsoever that the trends we’re seeing today are going to reverse themselves.”
Berry added that additional data gathered during the past five years have shown that flooding and other impacts of climate change are worsening.
“We know a lot more and we’re a lot more scared,” he said. “King tides have convinced us the problem is not in the future, it’s now.”
More than 200 people packed the city commission chambers for the session, which began shortly after 1:30 p.m., with Nelson accompanied on the dais by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and Palm Beach County Mayor Paulette Burdick.
The panelists described the extent to which the impacts climate change have intensified, with Miami Beach faced with tens of millions of dollars of infrastructure changes to raise roads and pump out floodwater, and saltwater intrusion contaminating wells used by Broward County cities, while high tides surge into storm water outflows and flood streets in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.
They urged federal help with infrastructure to help raise seawalls and buttress roads and shorelines. Nelson mentioned that he twice approached Vice President Pence about passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill and was encouraged. “But the devil’s in the details,” Nelson said, adding that the money likely would only come through tax reform, another heavy lift.
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