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Lucky, Though Probably Not For Long PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor   
January 2013

We may have ducked Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but that doesn’t mean climate change should be any less a concern

WPix_GoingGreen_1-13hat’s the state of the environment in South Florida? Lucky.

Lucky that we didn’t get hit by Hurricane Sandy. Lucky that we live near the end of a peninsula, far from intensive coal mining and natural-gas fracking. Lucky that no oil spills have arrived from Cuba.

Our proverbial glass is always full, because one-half is filled with water, and the other half is filled with air -- just like the heads of so many anti-environmental politicians.

Asking about the environment’s status reveals how people are responding to the most important issue of the century. Terrorism may come and go, but water and air are forever -- unless you pollute them to death.

We cannot talk about South Florida’s environment in isolation from global events, yet there is no other place on earth like it, so we must try to think both locally and globally.

Perspective is everything, because an optimist can look outside the window and see nothing but blue skies and clean beaches. The pessimist sees a less-blue sky owing to air pollution and bemoans an eroding beach and degraded ocean. A realist sees both.

A more nuanced approach finds hope in the actions of local individuals who care about the environment, even though our collective actions register as apathetic, if not just plain pathetic. We are building a sandcastle in response to a tsunami of waste and historic climate change.

Hurricane Sandy batted her vengeful eyes at us, but had other prey in mind this year. For every year that The Big One misses us, we must be grateful.

The glass-half-full version of Hurricane Sandy is that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican (now an independent), acknowledged climate change and endorsed President Barack Obama. With its head in the sand, the rest of the GOP is bent over and headed for a wicked sunburn.

The last presidential debate in Boca Raton happened before Hurricane Sandy, so there was no serious talk of climate change. (Indeed, there was possibly less talk of climate change in these presidential debates than in any since 1984, when the subject never came up at all.) On the other hand, Boca Raton hosted the region’s first conference on sea-level rise this past summer. That glass is half full, and rising.

On October 18, a few local protesters stood in saltwater above their ankles on Alton Road in South Beach to draw attention to this issue. (That’s because the area near the Whole Foods Market regularly floods during the year’s highest tides.) The beaches are eroding, despite massive attempts at dredging and filling -- falsely called “renourishment” -- and in Fort Lauderdale, flooding at the beach in December tore down portions of the seawall. Yes, the ocean’s glass is definitely getting fuller.

When I talk to local environmentalists, they seem both energized by the need to address growing threats and underwhelmed by the public’s response. “Apathy” is a common sentiment. If “A” stands for apathy, what does the letter “E” stand for?

Like a nightmarish episode of Sesame Street, this letter has been kidnapped. The former DERM of Miami-Dade County, where the E stood for Environmental, has changed its name to the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. It also replaces the former DSPE, where the S stood for Sustainability.

Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t dismantled the state’s Department of Environmental Protection -- yet -- but he managed in 2011 to replace the state’s Department of Community Affairs with the Department of Economic Opportunity. His priorities are clear.

State Sen. Miguel de la Portilla of Miami has followed the governor’s lead by trying to protect sewage pipes that dump directly into the ocean, which exist nowhere in the state except in South Florida.

Just over one year ago, the Miami Herald published my op-ed about the state of the environment in Miami, but recently they turned down a similar offer. At least they still employ a sound environmental reporter, Curtis Morgan, unlike many other news outlets.

News about South Florida’s environment is almost universally bad and getting worse, and this trend holds globally as well. (Keep in mind that global warming affects colder regions more severely than warm regions.)

But climate change involves much more than rising temperatures.

When it comes to sea-level rise, Miami tops the list as the world’s most vulnerable city (economically speaking), yet serious discussions about it are rare. Some good organizations, such as the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, and some good people are doing their best to initiate the conversation.

But we should be way beyond starting the conversation. We are acting in the Everglades, however slowly, but urban South Florida still struggles with the letter “R,” for reduce, reuse, and recycle.

This new year, the forecast for our environment is decidedly mixed: warmer weather, higher seas, and one big hurricane away from a new reality. Lucky us.

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