Climate Change in Florida: Research and Realities

Climate change is happening.

This point is no longer a subject of scientific debate in any real way. How we deal with climate change is the question that remains. Some warming is already cooked into the books and our slow response to shift to renewable energy promises more to come. Adaptation to climate change has become a necessity. Social scientists have much to contribute to the examination of climate change and how we address the emergent crisis that is unfolding before us. Over the past few years, several faculty members in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, including Emeritus Professor Robert Deyle, Assistant Professor Tisha Holmes, and I, along with student researchers and our Planners-in-Residence, have been focused on the question of how we can plan and prepare for the changes to come and enhance community resilience, particularly in Florida’s highly vulnerable coastal areas.

In a recent book published by the Florida Climate Institute , I helped summarize the research we’ve completed related to climate change adaptation in Florida, specifically focusing on the human dimensions of climate change adaptation. Our work intersects with numerous other scholars and public officials throughout the state as 90 researchers were brought together to produce a 600+ page volume, Florida’s Climate: Changes, Variations and Impacts. The Department of Urban and Regional Planning research to date has examined how local communities are developing plans, programs, and policies in response to accelerating sea level rise that is rapidly eating away at Florida’s fragile coastline. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly 50% of all US residents who will be impacted by sea level rise this century live in our state. Some coastal communities are experimenting with planning tools to address sea level rise head on, investing in infrastructure upgrades, elevating structures and public facilities, expanding park lands in coastal zones, and establishing new flood elevation standards for new development projects. Many communities are building a stronger information base for effective decision making by running simulations, building sea level rise elevation models, and seeking ways to predict where flooding is likely to impact roads and bridges, police and fire stations, and residential and commercial development over longer planning time horizons. See our reports developed through the Florida Planning and Development Lab for more information.

All of this work is taking place in an environment where state and federal level commitments and investments have waned. Local governments have answered the challenge, but not all municipalities are equally equipped to handle the threat due to lack of staff capacity and funding in many cases. One of the emergent strategies is to address these capacity and information needs through regional partnerships and coalitions. The Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact has served as a model. Regional Planning Councils have played a role where they have the expertise and capacity to do so. In the Tampa Bay region and greater Jacksonville area, new coalitions are forming to share resources, expertise, data, and ideas as communities are tackling the threat of climate change by working together. The One Bay Resilient Communities program of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and the Climate Science Advisory Panel in the Tampa region are examples of such efforts. Professor Holmes and I are undertaking research to determine what the value added of these regional efforts might be and what new challenges and barriers remain to inhibit local climate change adaptation efforts.

Climate change impacts are multi-scalar—that is, the causes of the changes are international in scope while the direct impacts such as more intense storms, accelerating sea level rise, more frequent and prolonged droughts, and extreme heat events tend to be felt at a local or regional level. Without serious international commitments to address the mitigation imperative, communities and regions throughout the world will continue to face increasingly extreme weather events. Even with such commitments, changes are coming and cannot be stopped. Florida communities are stepping up and the promise of regional coalitions is high. However, support from the state, through policy changes and investments in sea level rise and hazard planning that accounts for climate change, would greatly enhance local response capacities, especially in communities that otherwise might lack the resources to make investments on their own. That was one of the purposes of the book we contributed to and the reports and peer reviewed articles we’ve published on this topic; to use the best available science, both physical and social sciences, to inform policy makers about the changes in Florida’s climate and give them the information they need to do something about it.

William Butler is an associate professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning. 



The featured image is from the Florida Climate Institute.


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