Stephen Tilbrook, of GrayRobinson in Fort Lauderdale. (Courtesy photo)
It was the withdrawal heard around the world. On June 1, President Donald Trump sent a clear message to the world with his dramatic announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump declared that the agreement is a bad deal for the United States and that the economic disadvantages of the agreement outweigh the uncertain environmental benefits. But the withdrawal also sends a clear message to South Florida, a region at particular risk to the effects of climate change. The message for South Florida is: you are on your own. South Florida is at the forefront of planning for the effects of climate change. But the solutions will be complex, the costs will be significant, and don’t look to Washington for guidance or support.
The Paris Climate Agreement
On Dec. 12, 2015, representatives from 195 nations entered into the Paris Climate Agreement with a goal to adapt energy sources, cut down on climate change emissions and limit the rise of global temperatures. The agreement acknowledges that the threat of climate change is “urgent and potentially irreversible” and can only be addressed with the “widest possible cooperation by all countries.” However, the agreement is an aspirational document; it is not a binding treaty and there are no implementing regulations. The central goal of the agreement is to limit the rise in global average temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels. Each participating country is required to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but each country’s plan to reach the goals is left to their discretion. The agreement merely provides a framework to gain momentum in combatting climate change and adapting to its effects. Through the agreement, the United States pledged to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 26 percent by 2025. The United States also pledged to contribute $3 billion to the effort, and has already invested over $1 billion.
Impact of U.S. Withdrawal
The United States is the largest economy in the world and the second largest producer of greenhouse gasses. Accordingly, the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement is a major setback for international efforts to avert global warming. Because the agreement was not ratified by the Senate, the United States will face few barriers for withdrawal. President Trump intends to invoke the formal withdrawal mechanism within the agreement, a legal process that will take four years to complete and will lead to an official exit on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election. While a future administration could choose to rejoin the agreement, President Trump has already begun efforts to reverse the climate change initiatives of the Obama administration, including cancelling the Clean Power Plan and regulations that capped the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted from power plants. Meanwhile, over 30 states and 88 cities, as well as many large corporations, have pledged to adhere to the terms of the Paris Agreement despite the formal U.S. withdrawal.
The Plan for South Florida
South Florida is uniquely positioned to observe climate change. This past Memorial Day, Miami set a record with the highest May temperature ever recorded, with temperatures at 10 degrees higher than the historical average. Higher temperatures result in rising sea levels. King tides in the fall flood streets in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. In South Florida, sea levels are projected to rise 6 to 10 inches by 2030 and 14 to 26 inches by 2060 (above the 1992 mean sea level). By 2100, sea levels are projected to rise 31 to 61 inches. The impacts of sea level rise are not limited to coastal areas, as evidenced by saltwater contamination of groundwater and changing hydrology throughout South Florida and even extending into Everglades National Park. Climate change and sea level rise are well documented in South Florida, and impossible to ignore.
To plan for the effects of climate change and sea level rise, South Florida leaders have undertaken a number of regional initiatives. In 2010, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties entered into the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The compact calls for these four counties to work collaboratively to address issues, including responding to sea level rise, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating a more resilient transportation system, and protecting water supply and other public infrastructure. The compact facilitated the development and adoption of the South Florida Regional Climate Action Plan, which includes 110 action items to be implemented over the next five years. The costs and complexities of implementing the action plan are just starting to emerge.
Each of the counties in South Florida have updated their comprehensive plan to address issues related to climate change and sea level rise. In particular, Broward County amended its land use plan to implement land development regulations that address climate change mitigation and adaptation. One new Broward County rule, which amended Sections 27-192 and 27-200 of the Broward County Code of Ordinances, requires land development to accommodate greater amounts of stormwater due to the changing hydrology of South Florida and results in an increase in development costs of up to 1.5 percent. In addition, federal flood insurance maps were revised in 2014, requiring the minimum floor elevation for some new buildings to increase by 18 inches and causing a ripple effect for other building regulations. In Miami-Dade County, some communities have been forced to invest over $500 million in enhanced infrastructure by installing water pumps and raising the elevations of roads and seawalls. In some flood-prone urban areas, Miami-Dade County officials are even considering the significant cost of land acquisition in order to relocate water supply wells and to build stormwater management areas where neighborhoods exist today. As the plans emerge for addressing climate change in South Florida, property owners and businesses are discovering that the solutions will be complex and the costs will be significant.
While President Trump sent a message to the world by announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, he also sent a message to South Florida—a region particularly at risk to climate change and sea level rise. South Florida can’t rely upon the federal government for guidance, direction or support in planning for or reacting to climate change. Instead, South Florida must lead the country in responding to the challenges of climate change through investing in infrastructure, revising land development regulations, and making the hard choices regarding natural resources and property rights that are necessary to protect the economy and quality of life that makes South Florida a livable, sustainable and resilient community.