MIAMI — Unless greenhouses gases are sharply reduced in coming decades, Florida could face environmental catastrophe, with rising seas, increasingly violent weather and severe droughts, Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday.
That was the governor's opening salvo at the two-day Serve to Preserve Florida Summit on Global Climate Change, which seeks to bring together political, business and environmental leaders to find alternative energy sources and urge conservation to combat the effects of global warming.
"Ultimately, this is as much about conservation as it is about climate change," said Crist, who, despite being in office for just over six months, is trying to establish himself as the state's most environmentally friendly governor.
Crist noted Florida is one of the most vulnerable states to global warming because of its long coastline, covering almost 1,300 miles, as well as its environmentally sensitive Everglades and coral reefs. Some of those areas face being inundated because scientists estimate sea levels will rise 5 inches in the next 25 years and 20 inches by the year 2100, he said.
Larry Schweiger, chief executive officer of the Natural Wildlife Federation, said Florida could see two-thirds of its current beaches vanish under the waves by the end of this century, as melting ice in Greenland is depositing 90 cubic miles of water into the oceans each year.
"Nature takes over and laughs last," he said.
Crist told about 600 participants of the conference, being held at the InterContinental Miami Hotel, that Florida already is feeling harmful effects from global warming.
"Due to declining rainfall, parts of Florida, including South and Southwest Florida, are currently experiencing long-term drought conditions," he said.
As one solution, Crist said: "Florida will pursue global solar energy sources. After all, we are the Sunshine State."
Among other energy sources the state needs to utilize more: Wind, ethanol and hydrogen, Crist said. He wants state government to lead by example, by using solar panels on state buildings - including the governor's mansion in Tallahassee - and fueling more state vehicles with clean-burning ethanol.
Though some, including many of Crist's fellow Republicans, dispute whether humans are to blame for global warming, the governor said, "There is a strong body of scientific evidence indicating the global climate change is real. We cannot ignore this situation any longer. We have a responsible to face this reality head on and take action to address it now."
A keynote speaker at the summit was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an ardent environmentalist and son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He lashed out at the Bush Administration, saying it has allowed coal-burning industries to flourish and air quality to suffer in return for political contributions.
"This is the worst environmental administration we've had in our history," said Kennedy, a New York attorney.
The White House has denied the allegations, calling them politically motivated.
Kennedy said that though he is a Democrat and Crist is a Republican, the battle to clean up the environment should be nonpartisan. He praised Crist for taking environmentally friendly initiatives.
Kennedy had particularly harsh words for companies that continue to burn fossil fuels, saying they are polluting the water with mercury, the air with ozone and the earth with acid rain. Other companies have taken measures to reduce emissions and saved millions of dollars by doing so, he said. For instance, Wal-Mart has placed small electrical devices on the engines of its delivery trucks to save fuel, he said.
"It's business logic," Kennedy said. "There is gold in green development and innovation."
Florida has numerous natural gems that must be protected for future generations, Crist said, including the Everglades; Lake Okeechobee; rivers, streams and waterways; 130 miles of coral reefs and Florida Bay, which has the world's largest sea grass bed.
While those help attract 86 million visitors each year, they also attract energy gluttons who harm the environment, he said. Florida ranks third in the nation in energy consumption, with 70 percent of the state's electricity generated by fossil fuels, he said.
"For these reasons, the long-term economic well being of our state is dependent upon the strategies we develop to address global climate change," Crist said.
Friday, Crist plans to sign three executive orders that will start a process to sharply reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air. As a first step, he would like to see carbon dioxide brought to 1990 levels by 2025. Pending U.S. government approval, starting with the 2009 model year, automakers would be required to cut carbon dioxide and other gas pollutants by 25 percent for cars and 18 percent for sport utility vehicles.