Americans in climate-threatened regions anxious for solutions from world summit

The alternative: wildfires, rising seas, heat waves, drought, floods, storms

By: - November 1, 2021 1:00 am

Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida in 2017. Warren Faidley/Getty Images

Flooded beach towns will be abandoned along millions of miles of coastlines. Islands will be inundated. It has already begun.

Heat will become so oppressive that field workers can’t endure it and crops fail. It’s already happening.

Huge wildfires will scorch millions of acres and spew toxic smoke plumes across swaths of the planet. Astronauts in orbit right now can view the fire and smoke from space.

To slow the advance of such catastrophes in the next 20 to 80 years, scientists insist the nations of the world must stop the torrent of greenhouse gases accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere and deforming its climate.

Although some of the damage is irreversible, halting the advance of climate degradation is both attainable and vital for life as we know it, according to a global consortium of climate scientists from 66 nations called the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The panel’s report “Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis” is described by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres as a “code red for humanity.” It is a centerpiece of the global climate summit opening today in Glasgow, Scotland. Some 30,000 people from around the world are braving COVID-19 to gather for what is described as an historic and urgent mission.

The downward direction of the red line in this NOAA graphic illustrates loss of ice in the Arctic Sea since 1979. The planet’s ice caps help moderate temperature. As they melt, sea levels and global temperature continue to rise.

Joining them is President Joe Biden and a delegation of his top administrators, returning the United States to the global climate stage after former President Donald Trump formally withdrew from it.

The U.S. delegation is attending to demonstrate American support, to describe U.S. plans to drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions, and to encourage other nations to cut theirs as much as possible, according to White House briefings and UN reports.

The urgent objective of this year’s climate conference — the 26th Conference Of the Parties, or COP 26 — is to enlist nations to slash their emissions of carbon and methane, also called greenhouse gases. The goal is to lock in programs called Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs, that collectively can limit the overheating of the climate — which cannot be prevented at this point — to 1.5 degrees Celsius, equal to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The IPCC says climate warming is already at 1.2 degrees C and must be limited to 1.5 C, though it is on trajectory to 2.8. Beyond 1.5 C, the climate will become more dangerous — with prolonged heat waves, severe droughts, widespread flooding, and worsening health conditions — and by 4 C, it will be unfit for human habitation, client scientists predict.

Recently, devastating flooding in central China and western Europe, back-to-back hurricanes in the Southeastern United States, out-of-control wildfires in the American West and sea levels flowing into coastal cities across the world are evidence of the hostile weather lying in store.

Hurricane Ida this year, which traveled from Louisiana to New Jersey and beyond flooded urban and rural areas, drowned oil refineries in the South and flooded subways in the North. The Category 4 storm is blamed for killing 91 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland, according to the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need to understand that the expression of what the science says is exhibited before our very eyes,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, when the IPCC issued its 2021 climate assessment in August. “What this excellent report does is, it projects those scenarios outward and tells us: If we do not take action, what could be the potential outcomes, or if we do take action, what will be a very good outcome.”

It’s global and it’s personal

For Pam McVety, a Florida scientist, and Sean Casten, a chemical engineer and congressman from Illinois, fighting climate change is a moral imperative driven by their love of their children and grandchildren.

“The only thing that matters in life is whether our grandchildren are proud of us. The West is on fire. Floods are coming. Ice is melting. … Are your grandchildren proud of you?” Casten asked of oil-industry executives who stand accused of blocking progress on clean energy by investing in disinformation about climate science.

Casten was speaking Thursday at a U.S. House committee hearing investigating the role of oil corporations in climate change.

“I thought my grandchildren would be safe at our family’s place in the north woods of Wisconsin, away from the heat and

The Caldor Fire burned homes and woodlands across 346 square miles of the Sierra Nevada’s Lake Tahoe region in September and October. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

hurricanes and sea-level rise in Florida, but toxic smoke from the wildfires in the West blanketed our area for weeks and kept us imprisoned in our house,” McVety said. “Now we realize, you can’t get away from it, no matter where you go.”

Those wildfires this summer were burning far, far away, in Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Nevada, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

“Climate change, dangerous fuel accumulations and increased development in the wildland urban interface has caused a significant increase in catastrophic loss of life, property and ecosystems across the United States, most dramatically in the Western U.S.,” said Nevada State Forester and Firewarden Kacey KC, in testimony at a recent hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee as reported by the States Newsroom bureau in Washington, D.C.

More than 48,000 wildfires burned over 6.5 million acres in the United States, setting historic records, according to the national fire center. That includes 1 million acres burned across 12 Western states just this year. In Arizona, the Telegraph Fire alone burned more than 193,000 acres, according to the Arizona Mirror media outlet.

McVety and Casten are experts in their fields. McVety was a senior manager for Florida’s environmental regulatory agencies for 30 years and has for the last 20 years been “politely demanding” that lawmakers, policy makers, church leaders, and other influencers divest from fossil fuels and support a rapid transition to clean energy on a grand scale.

Casten is a member of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which grilled the oil executives  on Thursday. The committee wanted to learn how long the major oil companies have known that their products, as useful as they may have been over the years, cause climate change — and to what extent they strategically sowed doubts about climate science.

All four conceded their products cause climate change and none cleared up whether they have financed climate-science disinformation. The committee has issued subpoenas for their corporate records on that point.

Casten wants to know why Exxon’s spending on Facebook ads, estimated at $4 million this year, according to InfluenceMap, recently spiked from $50,000 weekly to $600,000 weekly. InfluenceMap is a global, nonprofit think tank related to business, finances and the climate crisis, according to its website.

Exxon CEO and chairman Darren Woods offered no insight. Casten suggested at the hearing it was a campaign to derail Biden and Democrats in Congress from finalizing a multitrillion-dollar spending bill that includes historic investments in clean-energy infrastructure and jobs. A “framework” for passage of the bill was negotiated Friday but is not finalized, leaving the president with a not-quite-solid U.S. climate-action plan as he addresses world leaders at the climate summit.

No Republicans in Congress have supported the plan.

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U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a south Florida Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, compared alleged climate-disinformation campaigns through false advertising and front groups to the 1994 lies of tobacco executives who testified to Congress that nicotine in their cigarettes was not addictive.

“You work to crush good climate policies. … You’re no better than Big Tobacco,” she said at the hearing Thursday.  She accused the oil executives of protecting their profits by derailing climate action that could have prevented chronic coastal flooding and other climate-change consequences hurting properties, property values, and Florida’s leading economic drivers: tourism and agriculture.

“I found that offensive, being from Ground Zero, where climate change is not a someday thing, it’s a right-now thing,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Certain states are first to take the hits

Florida is frequently cited as Ground Zero for climate damage because the peninsular state is uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise, excessive heat, and increasingly strong and frequent hurricanes.

Major cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa are fighting to hold back sea-level rise, as are the Florida Keys, according to Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Climate Institute and other sources.

Already some parts of the Florida Keys are considered lost causes that cannot be defended against permanent flooding, according to a Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact report. It forecasts 17 inches of sea-level rise by 2040.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit policy-analysis organization that focuses on taxation and business, reported last week that climate change is causing billions of dollars in property losses. It diminishes tourism and agriculture, threatens financial sectors including investments and insurance rates and makes Florida a less healthy place for residents and visitors.

Excessive heat fueled by climate change contributes to drought, wildfires, crop failures, and impaired human health. Getty Images

Repeatedly last week, by phone and email, the Phoenix requested comments on that report from Republican leadership: Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson’s office, House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ office and the House and Senate GOP caucuses led by Rep. Michael Grant and Sen. Debbie Mayfield.

None replied to questions about their own estimates of current and future losses due to climate change and what they recommend to address the causes.

The Legislature did not pass bills to convert Florida to clean energy this year or last year, but it did pass a first-of-its-kind state program to invest $640 million in state funding to bolster infrastructure in their districts to push back on chronic flooding.

That flooding, caused by rising sea levels, inundates neighborhoods, overtakes roadways, allows saltwater intrusion into supplies of freshwater, and causes failures of water treatment systems that then spill raw sewage into communities and their adjacent waters. Those are expensive problems that affect cities, taxpayers and voters.

“To protect Floridians and their communities, the Legislature passed the most robust flooding legislation that addresses the impacts of flooding and sea level rise in the nation,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Republican who championed the legislation, when it was signed into law in May.

“With 35 coastal counties containing the majority of our population and economy, our risks are only going to increase with time,” Senate President Simpson said at that time.

“With 1,350 miles of coastline at relatively low elevations, Florida is particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding. Over time, the combined effects of sea level rise, storm surges, and extreme rain events will have a significant impact.” said Florida Sen. Ray Rodrigues, Republican from Lee County, home of the world-famous Sanibel and Captiva islands. He was lead sponsor of the 2021 Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience bill.

That said, resilience does nothing to address the causes of the increasing problem: ongoing greenhouse gas emissions accumulating in the atmosphere, warming the planet, and forcing the climate to change.

In fact, Florida Republicans passed legislation in the spring that now prohibits cities wanting to switch to 100 percent clean energy from banning fossil fuels.

Democratic-sponsored bills to phase out fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) and convert the state to clean energy have failed year after year in Florida’s GOP-controlled House and Senate, including annual efforts by State Sen. Lori Berman, representing part of Palm Beach County, to help public schools install solar panels on their rooftops.

Louisiana has been pummeled by big storms, including Category 4 Hurricane Ida in August and Category 4 Hurricane Laura in 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and a Louisiana delegation of 10 is attending the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow. His state’s 2020 Climate Initiatives Task Force aims to reduce that state’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

“Make no mistake: An industry-wide transition to cleaner, less environmentally impactful energy production and utilization is going to happen regardless of if Louisiana participates, so it’s best that Louisiana be a leader in this space,” Edwards said, as reported by the Louisiana Illuminator.

“For my part, I want world leaders to know that in Louisiana, we have the most productive manufacturing workforce in the nation, a workforce that makes essential products that drive the global economy, and a workforce that is ready to make those products but with a greater reduced carbon footprint,” Edwards stated.

To aid with industrial changes that reduce carbon emissions, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, called for state and federal support of workers in transition, while “corporate polluters pay for the climate disinformation they have peddled for decades.”

“I am tired of oil-industry-backed groups opposing efforts to address climate change in the name of ‘protecting good jobs and workers.’ Let us remember, it was not the CEOs and big bosses of these companies that made oil-refinery jobs good jobs. It was unions and workers who fought for decades and are still fighting for these benefits,” Levin said at the hearing Thursday.

“We can save life on earth as we know it and support our workers to have good jobs.”

Pay now or pay more later

While the U.S. congressional “framework” President Biden is pitching at the COP 26 climate summit would, if finalized, dramatically cut U.S. carbon emissions, what remains to be seen is whether China, another top carbon producer, will match the effort. There is no indication that China will attend the climate summit.

Greenhouse gases accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere are causing ice caps to melt, oceans to warm, and climate to change in dangerous ways. Getty Images

Congressional Republicans argue that if the United States has to do most of the heavy and expensive lifting, China will benefit from the cleaner atmosphere without having to pay for it.

World leaders in Glasgow will grapple with that scenario over the next two weeks, knowing that the world’s total greenhouse-gas pollution must come down one way or another to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

The less nations cut their emissions of carbon and methane, the more the planet will suffer from climate disasters and the enormous costs of recovery and rebuilding, say climate scientists, emergency managers, and national insurers that figure those costs into rates paid by policyholders and taxpayers.

Singing in that chorus are Florida TaxWatch, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Pushing for greater effort, the Biden administration argues for investments in future sustainability, not spending money to prop up polluting industries and recover from preventable disasters.

The plan pending in Congress would create millions of clean-energy jobs for Americans transitioning from work in the oil, gas and coal industries into solar, wind and other sustainable-energy industries.

The infrastructure for that conversion would be financed by a new tax on billionaires, who received a large tax cut under President Trump. A ProPublica analysis found that in the first year after Trump passed the tax cut, just 82 ultrawealthy households collectively saved more than $1 billion in taxes. “Republican and Democratic tycoons alike saw their tax bills chopped by tens of millions,” the report says.

States Newsroom’s special reporting on climate will continue throughout the COP 26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

This report includes news coverage by the States Newsroom bureau in Washington, D.C., and affiliates Arizona Mirror, Colorado Newsline and Louisiana Illuminator.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels of the Florida Phoenix is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]

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