Commentary: Climate change deniers may be washed away by rising seas

The Miami HeraldOctober 26, 2011 

The rising sea will wash across great swaths of South Florida. Salt water will contaminate the well fields. Roads and farmland and low-lying neighborhoods will be inundated. The soil will no longer absorb the kind of heavy rainfalls that drenched South Florida last weekend. Septic tanks will fail. Drainage canals won’t drain. Sewers will back up. Intense storms will pummel the beachfront. Mighty rainfalls, in between droughts, will bring more floods.

The economic losses and the mitigation costs associated with the effects of global warming over the next few decades will be overwhelming. It will cost a medium-sized town like Pompano Beach hundreds of millions just to salvage its water and sewage systems.

A sobering study released by Florida Atlantic University contemplated the effects of global warming in specific terms, particularly for South Florida, considered one of the more vulnerable metropolitan areas in the world, with six million residents clustered by the ocean, living barely above sea level.

The study from FAU’s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, adding to an overwhelming scientific consensus about the disastrous effects of global warming, and along with growing hard evidence that temperature changes are already altering the environment, ought to have sent tremors through the halls of government.

Except it didn’t. Perhaps the most peculiar phenomenon associated with global warming has been a burgeoning disdain for climate science even as scientific consensus grows more urgent. Forget the stickier question of whether global warming has been fueled by human activity (as an overwhelming percentage of climate scientists believe), a poll by the Pew last year found that only 59 percent of Americans will even acknowledge the earth is warming, compared to 79 percent just five years ago.

This peculiarly American phenomenon comes despite a decade of record high temperatures. And despite findings of a sustained global temperature increase from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Hadley Centre in England, and, just last week, the University of California’s Berkeley Earth project, which compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world.

If a billion temperature readings and a record-breaking drought this summer in Texas and Oklahoma weren’t convincing enough, global warming should be as plain as the Google Earth satellite photos of polar icecaps.

“It is really quite an unbelievable time,” said Harold Wanless, chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami. Wanless, who contributed to the FAU study, described the “dramatically accelerating melt from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.” He said, “We have forced the greenhouse gasses to levels that have not been reached since sea level was about 100 feet higher than present.”

And yet, Wanless lamented, “The population and many politicians seem to be grabbing at whatever denial statements are tossed out. Seems a bit like smoker and alcohol addiction.”

Somehow, lamented FAU’s Ricardo Alvarez, an expert on structural vulnerabilities and hazard mitigation, denial of global warming has been absorbed into an ever more contentious competition between political convictions in the U.S. “It’s no a matter of belief. It’s not religion,” he said.

Climate is not politics. Not abortion. Not gun rights. Yet another Pew poll this spring found 75 percent of far right conservatives, 63 percent of libertarians and 55 percent of self-described “Main Street” Republicans did not “believe” in global warming. The denial doctrine seems to have been embraced by the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, as a rite of passage.

Barry N. Heimlich, lead researcher on the FAU study, suggested Friday that the media has contributed to the gulf between science and the public. “By giving equal credence to positions that are not well supported by science, the media presents a confusing and distorted picture to the public,” he said. “I believe that the media has a responsibility to present all sides of a story, but it also has an obligation to emphasize the truth and provide people with the proper balance of information so they can make intelligent, informed choices based on information that is reliable, supported by facts and not manipulated by special interests.”

Yet Heimlich is something of an optimist. In a state dominated by right-wing politics, with a climate denier in the governor’s office, he said, South Florida has remained a relative island of climate enlightenment. Heimlich talked about the green initiatives by both the Broward and Miami-Dade county commissions and by city governments. He spoke of the sense of urgency among the 40 South Florida water managers he interviewed for the study.

Heimlich insisted that in the hundreds of talks he has given across the region, from schools to political groups to civic organizations, deniers are a diminishing presence. It could be that the utter specifics that Heimlich and his researchers have accumulated simply scare the skeptics into silence. Daunting facts just tumbled out of his mouth: add another six inches to the sea level, he said, and 15 of Miami-Dade’s 28 flood-gate structures lose their ability to drain the region. Those six inches are an imminent inevitablity.

The study (http://www.ces.fau.edu/files/projects/climate_change/Fl_ResilientCoast.pdf) uses a single city, Pompano Beach, to illustrate the coming hazards facing water managers and local government. Within the next few decades, Pompano Beach will need to relocate well fields, build pump stations, replace septic tanks with a modern sewage system, reclaim wastewater, build a saltwater conversion plant and perhaps relocate residents from lowlying areas. It won’t be cheap.

And then there’s the beachfront. The study warns of erosion and of the possibility of very intense hurricanes, with a devastating sea surge riding atop heightened sea levels. The oceanfront, once the very allure of South Florida, will come to seem a treacherous and risky stretch of real estate.

Stephen Leatherman, co-director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research, who contributed to the study, insisted the science here was settled. He said via e-mail, “My work on sea level rise is straightforward — global warming causes sea level to rise, and rising sea level results in land loss, especially beach erosion…. There are no scientists that disagree with this statement, albeit the public may still be confused or not willing to accept this situation,” he said. “Especially if they own beachfront property.”

The question becomes, as climate deniers flourish in inverse proportion to the actual evidence, whether there’ll still be enough sand enough left on South Florida’s beaches to bury our collective heads.

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