May 13, 2014

Climate Change in Florida

As delivered on the Senate Floor

Mr. President, I’m here for the sixty-seventh time to urge  my colleagues to wake up to the growing threat of climate change, and today I’m joined by my friend and colleague, Senator Nelson of Florida, who is a true leader in this fight.  I’d like to ask unanimous consent that we be able to engage in a colloquy for the next, say, twenty five minutes.

Mr. President, Florida is about a thousand miles from Rhode Island.  And it is, what, slightly larger than my home state?  But Florida and Rhode Island have a great deal in common, like a  beautiful coastline, an economy and a way of life that is tied to the sea, and, as a result, risk from the ocean in a changing climate.

On my recent trip down the Southeast Coast, I spent two days in Florida and heard firsthand about the unprecedented changes taking place there.  Like the folks I met in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, Floridians are worried about the coastal communities that they love.  They’re  getting serious about protecting their homes and their livelihoods.  And they want their representatives in Congress to get serious, too. 

Senator Nelson hears them.  He recently took the Senate Commerce Committee to Miami Beach Town Hall to examine the dangers posed by rising seas.  Here’s what the Miami Herald said about his effort, I’ll quote the editorial.

“South Florida owes Senator Nelson its thanks for shining a bright light on this issue.  Everyone from local residents to elected officials should follow his lead, turning awareness of this major environmental issue into action.  It is critical,” they said, “to saving our region.”

Senator Nelson and I also had  a press conference, at the Jacksonville Friendship Fountain, with Representative Corrine Brown, to highlight these serious implications of climate change. 

So, I am grateful to Senator Nelson for bringing his passion and expertise on this issue to the Floor today.

[Nelson intro; description of field hearing]

Sea-level rise threatens Florida

[Nelson on SLR in FLA]

On my trip through Senator Nelson’s state, the Army Corps of Engineers officials in Jacksonville gave me some pretty dire warnings about what the sea level rise portends for Florida.  Both the punch, from storms that will bring higher seas ashore and the steady encroachment of salt water.

[No wake zone chart]

This, as the senator will recognize, is a scene from Western Boynton Beach, after Tropical Storm Isaac in 2012, and, I don’t know if you can see it on the, if you’re watching, but this sign says ‘no wake zone’.  The family put up a ‘no wake zone’ sign in their front yard for cars going by not to put wakes up to create more damage.

[Sea-level rise for Everglades chart]

The Corps also showed me what two feet of sea-level rise would do to  Everglades National Park.  I went down to Everglades later on, but this is what it would look like. You can see all the green in the Everglades here and all the development up here. Basically, add 60cm of sea-level rise, two feet, and that’s all ocean again.  That’s a pretty serious change.  The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, which is that  bipartisan coalition of four South Florida counties, predicts that waters around Southeast Florida could surge up to two feet in less than fifty years.  So, that’s a preview of coming attractions, Everglades underwater. 

What was interesting is that the local officials, both Republicans and Democrats, were  working together on this.  The division that exists in this body doesn’t exist down there.  Mayor Silvia Murphy of Monroe County is a Republican.  Former Mayor Kristin Jacobs of Broward County is a Democrat.  They both know that flooding and access to drinking water are not partisan issues, in the way that they divide us here 

[Castillo de San Marcos National Monument sea-level rise chart]                                        

Here are a couple more examples from my visit.  This is Castillo de San Marcos, which Senator Nelson will recognize as being in St. Augustine,  It’s a famous ancient fort, very beautiful.  And it sits along the water there, and if you add three feet of sea level rise, it turns from being part of the coast, to being its own tiny little peninsula, surrounded by flooding.  It’s the oldest masonry fort in the United States.

[Fort Matanzas National Monument sea-level rise chart]

And this is what Fort Matanzas would look like.  This is a little fort built by Spanish colonists in 1742.  It’s right here on this inlet, and if you add three feet of sea-level rise, suddenly, it’s in the water.  It has nothing to stand on.  As it is, they have built a wall to protect it from the sea-level rise that’s already happened, and from time to time the high tides lap over that wall.  You’ve said that there is an enormous amount of harm here that could happen to people.   One of the scientists that I met in Florida said it this way, very simply, he said “If we don’t do something about this, people are going to get hurt and it’s going to cost a lot of money.”  And that’s true.

FLA’s unique geology

One topic I’d like to discuss is the question of how the sea water will affect the fresh water supply of Florida.  And Senator Nelson is an expert on the geology of Florida and why it’s different than my rocky New England coast, and I’ll yield back to him to discuss the limestone bedrock problem.

[Nelson on limestone bedrock]

[Mola Avenue – Fort Lauderdale high tides 2010]

It’s a pleasure to be with you, Senator and your leadership is really remarkable.  Here’s another example from my tour, this is Broward County.  If people say it’s not real, ask the owner of this house.  For sale sign, good luck selling that house with the ocean up through it.  That was 2010.

[Hendrick’s Isle – Fort Lauderdale high tides 2012]

Another Broward County photograph.  Your Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, who was the mayor during this time, gave me these pictures.  Again, this is not, this is tide.  Look at the sky, it’s a beautiful day, this isn’t rain, this is tide flooding in.  And what it does to the cars, it’s a mess.

[Red Line Chart]

And as Senator Nelson described, because Florida is this limestone, kind of hard sponge, what keeps the salt water out is the pressure of the fresh water holding it at bay.  There’s no wall, there’s no structure that keeps the water, salt and fresh, balance.  It’s a hydraulic system.  And what they’ve done is they’ve built these canals, a very complex system of canals, where they’ve raised the water so that they have pressure so that they can push it back. Well, as the sea level comes up, they’re losing that fight.

And so here’s a line through Broward County of how far the salt water has already intruded into the water supply.  If you drill wells on this side of the red line, your water is no good.  And all these wells, the little green spots all over here, all these water areas, they’re in the way, because this line is moving.  And as the Army Corps engineer in Jacksonville said, Florida is in a box because, as the sea level rises, the way you keep the fresh water available to people is by raising the fresh water, and that keeps what the engineers call the hydraulic head that pushes the sea water back and allows you to maintain fresh water for drinking and other purposes. For agriculture, for Florida oranges and grapefruits and all the things we count on.

Well, if what you’re worried about is flooding, you could only raise the fresh water head so far, because you raised it enough and what have you got?  You’ve got fresh water flooding.  And there’s no way out of that conundrum. There is no way out of that conundrum for Florida, and he said whether it happens in a hundred years or whether it happens after the next bad hurricane, that’s what’s going to happen.  And that’s a terrible predicament, and it’s not going to get better by pretending it’s not real.  It’s not going to get better by denying it.

And if you go offshore, you get to the problem of acidification which happens from the carbon.  This is not a theory.  People say climate change is a theory: no.  The acidification of the ocean from heightened carbon dioxide is something you can do in a lab.  It is a scientific fact.  It is a law of chemistry.  So, it happens, and what happens is that it’s really starting to hit the reefs, and the fisheries, as the ocean warms and turns more acid.

Ocean acidification

Mayor Murphy is the Mayor of Monroe County.  I met her in Key Largo, which is one of the famous world destinations, and I said what is acidification and warming, what’s that doing to your reefs?  And she said   “Well, the reefs are still beautiful, unless you’d been out to see them 10, -15 years ago.”  The reefs are still beautiful, unless you’d been out to see them 10, 15 years ago.

Shifting habitats

People see the change.  I met with the Snook and Gamefish Foundation in Florida and marine industry folks, and they’re concerned about what’s happening there.  And in fact, the problem goes all the way up the coast.  When I came down through North Carolina, South Carolina, the fishermen there told me that they’re starting to catch snook off the Carolinas.  I mean, it’s one thing when we’re catching grouper and tarpon in Rhode Island, but what they’re seeing in the south Atlantic coast is the same thing that a Rhode Island fishermen said to me about the ocean off our coast.  He said “Sheldon, it’s getting weird out there. We’re catching fish our fathers never saw in their nets in their lives.  And so when a snook comes up on the line off the Carolinas, that’s a sign that something is really dramatically changing.  And these reefs are changing as well. 

Last story: Rhode Islander, Mike Shirley,  works at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas–How’d I do Senator Nelson? Guana Tolomato MatanzasNational Estuarine Research Reserve.  He moved up there, that’s just outside of St. Augustine.  He moved up there from South Florida.  He moved up seven years ago.  When he got up there up there, he said you know one thing was noticeable, there are no mangroves.  South Florida is covered in mangrove.  But there weren’t any here.  Now, seven years later, the place is covered in mangrove. All that habitat, migrating northward, as the oceans and the water warms, and it’s changing things.

And he said one other thing.  He  said, “You know what we gotta look out for?  There’s going to be another migration north.  It’s going to be the  people leaving flooded South Florida, who can’t get fresh water, whose homes are flooded, who can’t deal with their car going hubcap-deep in salt water every high tide.  They’re going to be moving up.  It’s not just the people from the cold North coming down to Florida, now the people from the flooding South are going to be coming north again


And I’ll say one last thing: the mayors were terrific. Sylvia Murphy, the mayor in Monroe County is putting climate and energy policy at the very forefront of her 20-year growth plan for Monroe County.

Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach is hard at work  He says, “Sea-level rise is our reality in Miami Beach..  We are past the point of debating the existence of climate change.   We’re now focusing on adapting to current and future threats.”   Mayor Levine is pushing a $400 million plan to try to make the city’s drainage system more resilient in the face of rising tides.

From Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston, to Mayor Edna Jackson in Savannah, to Mayor Alvin Brown in Jacksonville to the mayors in South Florida I mentioned,  council members, mayors from Pinecrest, South Miami, Surfside, Miami Shores, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, the Seminole Tribe—the local officials are all serious about tackling climate change  I’ts real, they see it in their neighborhoods, they see it in their districts, they see it in their towns.  And they’re away from this poisonous place, where the polluters control what people are allowed to think and see, and do something about.  We have got to start listening to the American people.  We have got to start listening to the mayors, who inhabit real life, and not the political fantasy in this Senate.  We have got to start dealing with this.    

Policy solutions

Lee Thomas. Lee Thomas worked for  President Ronald Reagan.  He was a member of the Reagan Cabinet.  He ran the Environmental Protection Agency for Ronald Reagan.

[Time to Wake Up]

Last week, he wrote an op-ed that I know the senator saw in The Tampa Bay Times, urging Florida’s leaders to wake up to the changes taking place in the Sunshine State.  Here’s what he said, “Whether Democrat or Republican, Florida residents cannot afford to ignore the evidence of climate change.”  That’s a Reagan official saying that.  Come on, Republican mayors, Reagan officials, at some point we have to wake up.  This is real.  Just last year, Thomas joined all the other former Republican EPA heads, four of them, and they wrote this:

“The costs of inaction are undeniable.  The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous.  And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes “locked in.”  A market-based approach,” they say, “like a carbon tax, would be the best path to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions…”

And Bob Samuelson just said the same thing in his editorial over the weekend.

And I’ll say that the citizens of Florida and the people of the United States are very fortunate to have a senator like Bill Nelson, who is aware of this problem, who’s fighting hard to solve it, who’s listening to his mayors–Republican and Democrat alike–who are telling him what is happening in their home state, and who is willing to bring the Commerce Committee of the United States Senate down to Miami Beach Town Hall to make sure that everybody understands what is going on.  He helped bring that message back to Washington and it was a terrific thing.

So, we will continue working together to get this body to wake up out of its polluter-induced slumber, and face the realities that people all across this country are seeing in their daily lives.  It is indeed, Mr. President, time to wake up and I yield the floor to any final comments that the senator may wish to make.

[Nelson closing]