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Climate Change Doesn’t Recognize City Boundaries

September 30, 2013

Drive just thirty miles west of Pinecrest, Florida – a beautiful, cozy village neighboring Miami – and you are engulfed in a dramatically different landscape.  You look around, taking in the dense, semi-tropical air and the mysteriousness of a river that slowly meanders  through the saw grass, a river home to alligators and crocodiles, water lilies, mangroves and mosquitoes.

Everglades_RVThirty miles and you’ve arrived at the Everglades, the third-largest national park in the mainland United States.  The Everglades is the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America, home to roughly 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammal, and 21
federally threatened or endangered species.

Last Thursday, as part of our Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee meeting focused on climate change adaptation, we had the opportunity to do an airboat tour of the Everglades. On the bus ride over from Pinecrest, experts from the Everglades Foundation told us stories of the land and the surrounding communities, stories that really drove home the fact that the fate of urban, man-made spaces is much more closely tied to the fate of nature than we think.

Once stretching over 3 million acres in Southern Florida, today the Everglades is confined to roughly 1.3 million acres, with a majority of it designated as a wilderness area to prevent any further alteration of the natural landscape.  In the last century, as a result of growing population and increasing development pressure, the natural water flow has been diverted into 1,800 miles of canals and endless dams.

How does any of this affect cities in South Florida?

In Florida, one in every three residents, and all of the roughly seven million residents of South Florida rely on the Everglades for their water supply.   Most businesses and homes in South Florida are dependent on the continual supply of drinking water from the Biscayne aquifer, and the $55 billion agricultural industry in South Florida would not exist without it.

As we see more visible impacts of climate change, it becomes even clearer that the Everglades and the cities in South Florida are inextricably linked to one another. For example, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion are threatening South Florida’s national parks and the coastal regions, which mostly lie at an elevation no greater than eight feet above sea level. This, in combination with warmer air temperatures, could drastically affect the saw grass beds that are not only home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife, but also serves as the vessel for the water that so many South Floridians rely on for their basic needs.  While it is still unclear the extent to which climate change will affect the unique biodiversity of the Everglades, there is no doubt that its effects will be increasingly seen and felt in both the natural and man-made ecosystems of South Florida.

What are South Florida cities and their partners doing about this?

In South Florida, perhaps because the effects are so visible and in some cases immediate, cities and partners alike understand this connection to nature.  Initiatives are taking place to not only protect and restore the environment, but city governments are strategically thinking about the multiple effects of climate change programs and policies:

  • In 2009, following the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit, elected officials formalized the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which has been getting a lot of publicity for its unprecedented levels of cooperation and action on climate change issues by cities and counties alike.  Most recently, the Compact released a regional climate action plan, outlining mitigation and adaptation strategies to adopt.  Read about the Climate Compact here.
  • Following a bipartisan decision by Congress in 2000 to direct efforts at restoring the Everglades (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project), the Everglades Foundation is taking the lead on a number of restoration projects to restore the natural habitat. Projections show that restoration of the Everglades will actually have a 4-to -1 return on investment for South Florida. Watch this video to learn more.
  • The South Florida Regional Planning Council, funded by the U.S. EPA, is currently doing research on the impacts of sea level rise over a 200 year period on seven counties in South Florida. Read more about their work.

These are only some examples of the types of work taking place in South Florida to ensure that cities and partner organizations are effectively preparing for and adapting to a changing climate.  However, what’s clear with the work going on down south is that effective climate change planning necessitates taking a closer look at what’s happening both within and outside of jurisdictional boundaries.

Raksha Vasudevan

About the authorRaksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC.  Through  the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency.  Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.

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