Let’s Talk: Florida

Of all states to be concerned about the effects of climate change, I would think that Florida would be first on the list.  A state with a mean elevation of only 100 feet and subject to regular hits by hurricanes and other storms, Florida stands to lose a significant amount of landmass as sea levels begin to rise and storm surges increase.  Perhaps this is why Senator Bill Nelson received a 100% rating from the League of Conservation Voters in their rating of the 111th session.

Stratton Kirton, a staffer from Senator Bill Nelson’s office, talked to students and faculty from across Florida on March 25th about how Senator Nelson’s support for environmental issues plays into his support for the economic development of Florida – and his sticking points in policy decisions.

Echoing the sentiments of many of the staffers that we have been speaking with during the Let’s Talk series, Kirton said that Senator Nelson will support a climate change bill as long as it is carefully constructed and designed with concern for consumers in mind. This includes what I think needs to be a major shift in framing of the issue.  The focus is always how environmental regulation will harm the economy and a carbon cap-and-trade will negatively affect our competitiveness in the global economy, especially if our trading partners (namely China) fail to enact similar legislation.  The focus needs to shift away from this idea to how legislation will spur the new growth economy.  The Michigan Senators hammered this home when we talked with them back in February and so have the other staffers, but that discussion is not happening in the press or among the common people.  The Senate and environmental groups need to emphasize that climate change is going to present us with a huge challenge – but one that will also provide us with new jobs, make us more secure, and more energy independent.

Mr. Kirton was optimistic about the chances for climate change legislation.  He compared it to the 1990 Clean Air Amendments, which were essentially given up for dead before finally being passed.  The same process is basically occurring here – first we had the original Kerry-Boxer comprehensive bill, which has now been scuttled.  Next, the Waxman-Markey Bill died in the Senate and now finally we have the tantalizing hint of something being developed by Kerry-Lieberman-Graham.  While the prospects of this bill have been debated in recent weeks, according to Kirton, the Senators have now reached the stage where they are beginning to reach out to other offices and asking what elements need to be included, and what elements are dealbreakers if they were to be included in the bill.

What was Senator Bill Nelson’s sticking point? According to Kirton, he will absolutely not support any drilling for oil off the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and recently headlined a letter, along with nine other coastal states, that emphasized this point.  However, after President Obama announced the opening of major portions off the coast of the Eastern United States to oil exploration today, this point may be moot.  While Obama has apparently given up one of the environmental lobbies main bargaining chips, perhaps he has insured one vote for the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill – since they will no longer have to include any provision about this.

My favorite question asked of Kirton was submitted by Eric Stewart of St. Petersburg College.  A man after my own heart, Mr. Stewart asked this staffer, “How will our country deal with peak oil? Will we be asked to sacrifice, such as previous generation did during WWII?”  Another thing that makes me sick (and I apologize in advance for injecting so much of my own opinion into this post) is the incessant claims that climate change won’t require us to change our lifestyles.  Don’t worry, we tell the general public, you won’t have to live like Europeans in their cold, small houses, wearing the Jimmy Carter sweaters.  But the reality is that our livestyles and worldviews HAVE to change if we are to meet this challenge – and we should figure out what those changes are and challenges people to rise to the occasion as we have in the past.  Are the American people really so decadent and reliant on luxury that they can’t endure a little hardship? Remember, our country was built on the ideals of the pioneering spirit and enduring hardship in the search for a better life. We need to return to that ideal.  As any staffer should, Kirton skirted the answer to this question, neglecting to face any hard issues and instead repeating the platitudes we hear all the time.

As the most affected state, Florida really has to start thinking about development that will last through the next century.  All states need to do this – but especially Florida, since it could disappear entirely if GHG emissions are not checked.  The first and most obvious thing that needs to be done, according to Kirton, is to cite new structures only on land that will not be underwater in 20, 50, or 100 years.  Other necessary measures, although not quite as obvious, include maintaining wildlife corridors so that wildlife are able to flee rising waters and improving water efficiency use so that Floridians don’t deplete their aquifer and allow saltwater to contaminate it.

Kirton pointed out that many exciting projects are on the ground in Florida – local development initiatives that are aimed at new energy technologies, developing alternative fuels, building electric cars, and others – and said that some of the most exciting and effective things can be done at the local level.  He pointed out the Gainesville Regional Utility’s efforts in starting to use forestry waste products as a energy source rather than coal and its use of a feed-in tariff for solar.  But again, I have to interject that development cannot occur only at the local level. We can’t just allow California to set strict CAFE standards and have different standards for the rest of the country.  During this financial crisis, state subsidy money for new ventures is going to disappear and without federal government spending and guaranteed support and a guaranteed market, new industries are not going to get their feet off the ground.  Instead they’ll move to another country that has more reasonable and NATIONAL regulatory policies – businesses want certainty more than anything else – I would dare to imagine that strict but predictable regulation is better than weaker but unpredictable standards.

Gainesville Regional Utility

This series of talks with Senate staffers is sponsored by the Bard Center for Environmental Policy.  Talks have taken place so far with Michigan, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, and North Carolina.  For more information and for more scheduled calls, visit our website or e-mail us at climate@bard.edu.

1 Response to “Let’s Talk: Florida”

  1. 1 rmarg Apr 1st, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Your mention of lifestyle change is interesting. One of the most controversial parts of the climate change issue is the debate over technology versus lifestyle change. Many who are opposed to responding to climate change trot out the Jimmy Carter model. My guess is that previously unpopular technologies (e.g., LNG, nuclear) would become more acceptable to the public if they can ameliorate many of the lifestyle impacts.

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