What Global Warming Means for Florida
From record high temperatures and droughts to mild winters, many Floridians have noticed that our weather has seemed a bit weird lately. Unfortunately, scientists in Florida and across the U.S. warn that if we keep polluting the way we are now, global warming will bring even more weird and extreme weather, along with more dangerous smog pollution and even the extinction of some plants and animals. The good news is that we know how to make big cuts in the carbon pollution fueling the problem—and Florida is already headed in the right direction in some areas. Below is a rundown of the problem, why it matters for Florida, and what you can do to help.
What Global Warming Means for Florida
The problem: Carbon pollution is fueling global warming
The science of global warming starts with the burning of fossil fuels, specifically in vehicles fueled by Big Oil and at coal-fired power plants owned by utilities like Progress Energy, which released more carbon dioxide in 2010 than any other Florida utility. Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, with four coal-fired units came in a close second. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. This carbon pollution collects in the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. That causes the earth’s temperature to rise, which triggers a variety of mostly negative results for Florida and the planet.
And temperatures are definitely rising. Already, March 2012 was the hottest March on record for the continental U.S., 2010 tied for the hottest year, and the decade of 2001-2010 was the hottest 10-year period on record. The evidence that humans are warming the globe is only strengthening; in the words of a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small…This is the case for the conclusion that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
The results: Extreme weather, air pollution and more
As the planet warms, experts warn that Florida will likely experience a variety of negative consequences:
• Extreme storms & hurricanes: Higher temperatures lead to more major rainstorms for two reasons. First, warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation, so more water in our lakes and oceans becomes airborne. Second, warmer air can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, the atmosphere will have more moisture to work with and so heavy downpours and more intense hurricanes are more likely—as is more of the flooding that often results from these storms. Already, the number of extreme precipitation events increased 24 percent over the continental U.S. between 1948 and 2006, and at least 14 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage hit the U.S. in 2011 alone, many of which involved devastating floods. Check out this interactive map to see which weather-related disasters have hit Florida in recent years.
• Smog pollution: Ozone “smog” pollution is the pollution that hangs over our cities on many of the hottest summer days. Since heat is a key ingredient in the formation of smog (pollution from cars, trucks and power plants is the other), which triggers asthma attacks and a variety of other respiratory problems, scientists predict that we’ll see even more smog in a warming world. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that higher levels of ground-level ozone due to rising temperatures in 2020 could lead to 2.8 million more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, leading to 900,000 additional missed days of school. That’s bad news for all of us, but especially the 1.1 million adults and almost 328,000 kids in Florida who suffer from asthma.
• Heat waves: Just as we can expect average temperatures to rise in a warming world, we can also expect to see more intense and longer-lasting heat waves in Florida and across the country. These heat waves can threaten the health and well-being of even healthy individuals, as happened in 2011 when at least six high school football players and one coach died during or shortly after practices held in southern states during a period of extreme summer heat.
• Drought: Even though we’re likely to see more precipitation fall when it does rain, it’s also the case that a warming world will likely result in longer dry spells in between rainfalls for some parts of the country. Combined with high temperatures, these dry spells can lead to drought. During the second half of the 20th century, drought became more common in parts of the northern Rockies, the Southwest and the Southeast, and less common in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast. Droughts can wreak havoc in many ways, from lower crop yields for farmers to the threat of dangerous wildfires.
• Loss of plant & animal species: While you’ve probably heard about the very real threat that global warming poses to the survival of polar bears and other arctic species, other species closer to home could also be threatened in a warming world. For instance, sea level rise and more extreme storms both contribute to the loss of vital nesting habitat for endangered leatherback sea turtles. Higher sea temperatures also have already begun to devastate many of the 6,000 coral reefs off Florida’s Keys – the third largest coral reef system in the world.
• Sea level rise: As warming temperatures cause a thermal expansion of sea water as well as the melting of glaciers and ice caps, sea level rises. Sea level has risen by nearly 8 inches since 1870, with the rate of sea level rise increasing in recent years. One recent study projects that by 2100 the rise could reach between 2.5 and 6 feet. This rise in sea level not only threatens to inundate the many low-lying communities and thousands of acres of land along our coasts and tidally influenced rivers, but also increase the punch packed by hurricanes and other coastal storms. In Florida, sea level rise also threatens to contaminate the underground freshwater aquifer that Floridians in the Southeast, from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys, rely on for drinking water.
The solution: Cut carbon pollution, promote clean energy
Thankfully, we know what we have to do to slow and stop global warming. To give ourselves the best chance of protecting future generations from the worst consequences of global warming, scientists have said the U.S. and other developed countries need to cut our carbon emissions so that by 2020 we’re emitting 25-40 percent less carbon into the air than we were in 1990.
That’s a steep goal, but in Florida and across the country, we’re already starting to move in the right direction. We know we can reduce emissions of the carbon pollution by cutting down on energy waste through energy efficiency measures, and developing cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. We can make our buildings much more energy efficient so that they’re demanding less energy from coal-fired power plants. We can make our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, and expand public transportation systems so that more people can get where they’re going without using their cars at all. Here in Florida, residential and commercial building codes include energy efficiency requirements that have had a real impact on decreasing electricity and natural gas consumption from power plants, which are Florida’s largest contributors to greenhouse gases.
Together, all of these things add up. A recent Environment Florida Research & Policy Center report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, found that by adopting a suite of clean energy policies at the local, state and federal levels, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels)—representing a significant down payment toward the pollution reductions called for by scientists.
What you can do
There are many things Floridians can do in our everyday lives to help reduce our carbon footprint:
A home energy audit is a great place to start, as the auditor will walk through your home with you and point out the ways in which you can cut energy waste.
When it is time for new light bulbs, replace incandescent bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), which not only use less energy but can also reduce your lighting costs by up to 75 percent. When shopping for larger appliances and electronics, look for the EnergyStar label to help you choose the most efficient models.
Simple maintenance: Keep radiators and refrigerator coils clean and free of dust, keep the lint trap clean in your dryer, and clean or replace the filters in your furnace, water heather, and/or air conditioner to help all of these products use less energy.
Go solar: Many Florida homeowners are discovering the benefits of installing solar panels on their roofs. Get in touch with a local solar energy installer to find out if solar could work for you.
Drive less or carpool: Explore the public transportation options available near you, or consider carpooling with a coworker or friends. Even if you use these options only once or twice a week, every avoided car trip means less carbon pollution.
Eat local, and eat less meat: Producing a pound of meat creates far more carbon pollution than producing a pound of vegetables, and the transport of food creates carbon pollution as well. So consider ditching the burger at McDonald’s for a hearty salad from the farmer’s market.
Speak up: Letting your friends and family—and your elected officials—know that you care about this issue and are working to do your part to solve it will help convince more people to get involved and achieve even bigger cuts in pollution.
What state leaders can do
State leaders can help make Florida a leader in tackling global warming by building on several success stories we already have in place:
Solar Energy: Our leaders can start by making a strong commitment to solar energy. By providing Sunshine State residents and businesses better access to this unlimited pollution-free energy source, we could get 10 percent of our state’s energy from the sun. Many municipal utilities, like Gainesville and others, are beginning to lead the way with innovative programs that support solar energy. Municipal utilities generate about 25 percent of Florida’s electricity, and so getting more of them to commit to installing more solar power would make a big difference and set an example for what can be achieved throughout Florida. In 2011, Florida ranked among the top ten states in the country for solar jobs, with more than 4,000 people in the solar workforce. Ramping up solar in Florida will be good for our economy and good for our environment.
Better Buildings: Florida has some of the best building energy codes in the nation. We should expand on those and make new buildings in Florida even more energy efficiency. In 2010, Florida’s legislature passed what’s known as a “Property Assessed Clean Energy” program (known as “PACE”), which allows local governments to provide up-front financing for energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy systems like solar panels and to recover the funds over time through non-tax property assessments. Several Florida communities have adopted PACE programs, which will help Floridians improve the energy performance of their homes and businesses, saving money and reducing pollution.
Following through on Florida’s Climate Action Plan: Several years ago, Florida developed one of the most comprehensive plans to for reducing the emissions that cause global warming. It included recommendations to increase renewable energy to 20 percent by 2020, require utilities to allow net metering (so that customers generating electricity from their own renewable sources could get credit on their electricity bills) and increase the energy efficiency requirements of Florida’s Building Code 50 percent by 2019. Unfortunately, those plans have been put on shelf. As a result, Florida’s Public Service Commission projects that Florida’s electricity from renewables will hover at about 3 percent by 2019, and most of the policies that would have expanded opportunities to improve our renewable energy portfolio are not happening either. Florida needs more innovate programs like net metering and PACE, along with solar programs and better transportation choices that will improve our quality life, reduce pollution and move us to a clean energy future.
What Washington can do
Local and state actions are critical to achieving big cuts in carbon pollution, but we also need action from Congress and the White House as well. Thankfully, several historic initiatives are under way:
Clean car standards: This summer the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation are finalizing new fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for new cars and light trucks sold in model years 2017-2025. Once in place, these standards are expected to cut annual carbon emissions by 280 million metric tons in 2030, which is equivalent to the pollution created by 70 coal-fired power plants in a year.
Carbon pollution standards for power plants: EPA is also developing the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new power plants, and may soon begin developing standards for existing power plants. Given that power plants are the largest single source of carbon pollution, these historic standards will be critical to helping the U.S. tackle global warming.
Clean energy tax incentives: Tapping into our vast clean energy resources—including the power of the wind, the heat of the sun and the energy leaking from drafty windows in our homes and businesses—will decrease our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Federal tax incentives have played a critical role in jumpstarting and growing the clean energy industries, such that the price of wind has dropped 90 percent since 1980, and from 2010 to 2011, jobs in the solar industry grew 10 times faster than the rest of the economy—but now these programs are under attack. Now is not the time to pull the rug out from under these growing industries. Washington should renew and extend clean energy incentives to keep driving down costs for clean energy.
Lead by example: The Obama administration has challenged all federal agencies to develop plans to reduce their emissions. With agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development leading the way, all agencies are now actively implementing their plans by adopting measures; such as improving energy efficiency of buildings, installing renewable energy and improving the efficiency of their transportation fleets and the fuels that they use.
Reducing carbon pollution to levels that ensure a safe and stable climate is an incredible challenge with far-reaching consequences for our planet and future generations. Yet in our communities, in Florida and in Washington, we are making exciting progress in the race to solve global warming. Be part of the solution. Learn more. Share what you learn. And most importantly, take action to reduce carbon pollution in whatever ways you can.