Climate talks open amid dire warnings about greenhouse gases; Florida paying the price of inaction

Greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere continue to increase. Modest efforts to reduce air pollution have failed to stop the growing accumulation, leading to demands for drastic measures. Credit: Getty Images

When scientists and world leaders gather in Madrid next week for climate talks, Florida scientists studying climate change will watch the proceedings from afar with little optimism.

When you’re a scientist living in a country that is one of the world’s three largest polluters, and is run by a president who sneers at climate-change science, it’s hard to nurture hope.

“None of this is good. Any progress the U.S. and other countries were beginning to make in Paris is being dismantled, and leadership on this is lacking at the moment,” said Carolyn Cox, coordinator of the Florida Climate Institute at its branch within the University of Florida’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Cox said she has her “fingers crossed” that good decisions are “on the horizon.”

In 2018, the World Meteorological Organization measured CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere at its highest level in history.

Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25, which convenes on Monday, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported this week that greenhouse gases causing the climate to warm hit record levels last year and continue to accumulate at dangerous concentrations in the atmosphere.

Its reports will bolster demands for massively intensified efforts to cut emissions around the world, which would lessen the damage but can no longer prevent it.

“This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea level rise, and disruption to marine and land ecosystems,” the WMO states in an executive summary.

The WMO is a scientific coalition with 193 member nations under the auspices of the United Nations.

“There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration,” WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said in releasing the findings. “We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the mankind.”

The United States, China, and India are the three largest polluters. President Trump, who famously calls climate change a hoax, formally withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and has rolled back environmental protection programs. Under President Obama, the United States ratified the Paris Agreement and engaged programs to achieve its commitments to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Florida feels it

The Florida Climate Institute, an alliance of 10 university research programs around the state, and other scientists and scientific organizations argue action on climate change is conspicuous in Florida by its absence.

“There is undeniable evidence linking increased greenhouse gas emissions to sea level rise,” the institute contends in a book, Florida’s Climate: Changes, Variations, & Impacts.

Rising seas, and the resultant flooding along Florida’s coasts, are just one measure. Increased numbers of high-heat days, intense rain events, and other forms of severe weather afflict the entire state and threaten Florida’s environment, economy, health, and culture, the institute scientists insist. Worsening conditions likely are accelerating the spread of red tide, blue-green algae and marine diseases killing Florida corals.

“Climate change poses significant challenges to a wide range of economic activities in Florida [such as] tourism, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and the infrastructures that support those activities,” they write.

Cox said the Climate Institute is encouraged by recent shifts in Florida environmental policy under Gov. Ron DeSantis, including creating the post of chief resiliency officer. In July, he appointed Julia Nesheiwat to the post.

“Florida is actually starting to take climate impacts more seriously under Gov. DeSantis with the appointment of Dr. Nesheiwat. This gives me hope,” Cox said.

The governor’s office and Dr. Nesheiwat did not respond to Florida Phoenix requests this week for comment on the greenhouse gas reports and the degradation occurring in Florida.

The Southeast Regional Climate Center, serving six southeastern states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, reported that temperatures in October were well above average across the region — reading roughly 5 degrees F above normal at half of its long-term reporting stations. Twenty-six of those sites, including Sarasota, were tied for hottest in the region at 6 degrees above normal.

Rising seas threaten coastlines around the state, including one of Florida’s most famous places: the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center.

Climate Central, a nonprofit science and news organization, reported in October that Launch Pad 39-A, developed for the Apollo missions, later used to launch space shuttles, and now launching private rockets, will face a 14 percent annual risk of flooding next year and could flood at least once a year on average during the 2060s. The entire launch site will flood monthly on average by 2100.

The Atlantis space shuttle, ready for launch in 2011 for a mission to the International Space Station. Credit NASA/Bill Ingalls

“This iconic and invaluable part of America’s space infrastructure is coming under greater and greater threat from sea level rise and coastal flooding. Without adaptation measures, flooding driven by sea level rise will almost certainly inundate the space launch complexes of America’s Space Coast during this century,” Climate Central reported.

The Florida Climate Institute cites increased health risks including heat-related illness, waterborne and vector-borne diseases, exposure to stronger hurricanes and storm surge, intensive rainfall and flooding, and other extreme weather.

It also predicts societal challenges such as possible migration from coastal areas due to climate change and sea level rise.

In all, Sierra Club of Florida says the Sunshine State faces environmental collapse if policy makers do not dramatically change course.

Politics get in the way

Meanwhile, political obstacles are blocking access to the scientific evidence for the general public and to lawmakers.

“In particular, there is a nationwide organized effort embraced by some Florida politicians to reject climate change science, which makes it difficult to consider practical and rational policies at the state level,” the Climate Institute said in 2017.

Without naming anyone, the statement points to Republican leaders including Floridians such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and then Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. Both long denied climate change but, since red tide and blue-green algae started polluting waterways in wealthy South Florida communities, they have softened their stances.

algae bloom
A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, FL. Photo by John Moran.

Scott squelched discussion of climate change during his two-term administration as governor, from 2010 to 2018. In August, a Miami Herald editorial titled “Rubio and Scott are too smart to be so clueless about fighting climate change” blasted the two senators’ very recent and long overdue concessions that climate change is real and is harming the state they represent.

Gov. DeSantis, a Republican elected in 2018, has set a different tone, calling for increased funding for environmental protection two years in a row and naming a climate czar last summer.

At COP25, scientists will implore world leaders to intensify their work to reduce emissions. Along with its findings on increasing greenhouse gases, the WMO reports the years 2014 through 2019 were the hottest five on record and that last June through August constituted the hottest summer yet.

Key messages from the United in Science report, which says climate degradation is occurring faster than was predicted a decade ago.

The U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) calls for drastic reductions in emissions to slow the rate of global warming during this century (compared with pre-industrial temperatures on record around the year 1900). To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to 1.5 degrees, UNEP calls for three to five times as much effort globally to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Scientists report that the global climate has warmed by 1.1 degrees already and is on track to rise by no less than 3.2 degrees.

Even with drastic action, it is no longer likely that the world’s citizens can limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees because of damage already done, the WMO report says. The back-up plan is to contain warming to 2 degrees, but even that is unlikely if future emissions continue to outstrip reductions, as forecast by the WMO in its emissions and production reports this week.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that temperature increase of more than 1.5°C will increase the frequency and intensity of climate impacts.

All signs point to continuing increases in greenhouse gases through at least 2030, according to the “United in Science” report issued by UNEP this fall.

“For ten years, the Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm – and for ten years, the world has only increased its emissions,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a news release. “There has never been a more important time to listen to the science. Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heatwaves, storms and pollution.”

The WMO reports to the United Nations. Members include the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

In the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, 186 ratifying nations set emission-reduction goals but too few have achieved them, UNEP says. Building on that agreement, nations will be asked in Madrid to intensify their pledges and demonstrate in practical terms how they will achieve the necessary reductions.