A peninsula on a peninsula, St. Petersburg is uniquely affected by sea-level rise resulting from climate change and generally ranks behind the Miami metropolitan area as the most at-risk city in the most at-risk state in the country.
According to climatecentral.org, St. Pete ranks as the eighth-most vulnerable American city for coastal flooding as augmented by projected sea-level rise, putting 91,000 of its residents directly at risk. Florida is home to 23 of the 25 most at-risk cities. Under this harrowing backdrop, Mayor Rick Kriseman spent last week in Glasgow, Scotland, representing the area at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
Kriseman told the Catalyst he was honored the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked him to be a part of the delegation it sent to Scotland for the climate summit. The Conference of Mayors is a non-partisan organization representing the 1,400 cities in the country with populations of 30,000 or more.
“It was an opportunity for me, as a mayor, to represent my city at an international event – which I thought was important and a big deal,” said Kriseman. “Equally important, I was to be able to communicate our concerns and the issues that we’re facing in St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region, as it relates to climate change.”
Kriseman cited a recent study by Dr. Gary Mitchum, Associate Dean for Research at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science. Conducted in conjunction with the University of Hawaii, the study showed St. Petersburg will go from seven days of flooding without a storm present to 70 in the next 10-15 years – unless the city can mitigate the causes of climate change.
Part of the mitigation efforts is the Cities Race to Zero campaign. Kriseman is part of the effort to recruit cities from around the country and world to commit to the program, which he said is not just about setting goals but also taking the necessary actions to reduce a city’s carbon footprint. Kriseman said one of the first steps is measuring the current CO2 output to establish a baseline to measure what programs are having a positive effect.
During the climate conference, it was announced that over 1,000 cities signed the Race to Zero pledge. “That’s significant,” added Kriseman.
Kriseman also described a noteworthy meeting with Prince Charles, who introduced the Terra Carta. The Terra Carta is a roadmap to 2030 for businesses to move towards a sustainable future by harnessing the power of nature and combining it with innovation and resources from the private sector. The ambitious plan derives its name from the historic Magna Carta, which inspired a belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of people over 800 years ago. The Terra Carta now aims to give fundamental rights and value to nature.
“I think we should be ambitious in the goals that we’re setting and the actions that we’re taking,” explained Kriseman. “If we’re going to have a significant impact on the CO2 in the world, we all collaboratively need to take action.”
Kriseman was joined in Glasgow by his colleague and friend, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. Kriseman noted Suarez is the incoming president of the Conference of Mayors, while Kriseman is the chair of the environmental committee for the consortium – a role Suarez also previously occupied. The two mayors share a deep commitment and passion for addressing climate change, and both oversee two of the most at-risk cities in the country.
“His voice, not only as the mayor of Miami but as the president of the Conference of Mayors speaking on behalf of all the mayors around the country, is really important,” stated Kriseman. “That’s a powerful voice to speak to our leaders in Washington and to our leaders around the world in the international community.”
In addition to Suarez and Kriseman, Florida was also represented by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levin Cava. However, no state officials made the trip, even as governors and lawmakers from several other states were in attendance.
Kriseman said the lack of support at the state and federal has always been a concern and underlines the importance of the Cities Race to Zero program.
“We’re the ones who are really getting things done and doing things that are going to be the most impactful as it relates to climate change,” he said. “When President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, you had more than 500 cities say, ‘we’re still in.’”
Kriseman added that he is optimistic and thankful for the Biden administration and said the recently passed infrastructure bill contains “a considerable amount of money in there that will help all of us make good progress on our goals as it relates to climate change.”
While federal funding is helpful, Kriseman said a lack of state assistance hinders progress. He believes the state government exclusively focuses on adaptation rather than mitigation. He understands the need to prepare communities for a changing climate and rising seas, “but if you spent money on mitigation, the amount you’d have to spend on adaptation would be significantly less.”
Kriseman, along with the mayors of Houston and Des Moines, Iowa, met with Gina McCarthy, President Biden’s national advisor on climate change. They explained how important it is for federal dollars to combat climate change to go directly to cities. Kriseman relayed how former Governor Rick Scott refused federal funding for high-speed rail and sent it back to Washington, and Kriseman has heard rumors out of Tallahassee that Governor Ron DeSantis would do the same with climate change funding.
“In St. Pete, we have an integrated sustainability action plan,” exclaimed Kriseman. “That is our roadmap to how we’re going to address climate change and become more resilient and sustainable.
“We already know things that we would want to invest in – if we have those funds. If it goes to the state, we don’t know if we’re ever going to see those dollars.”
Kriseman is serving out the final months of his second term as mayor. Kriseman believes mayor-elect Ken Welch shares his passion and understanding that the city has no choice but to take action to address climate change and rising sea levels. Kriseman noted that when he was elected, there were no employees, directors or a department of sustainability and resilience to combat these issues.
“My hope is, and my goal has been all along to make sure that we’ve given him the tools to make it easier for him than it was for me when I first got elected,” he said.
Kriseman stressed that the city can only do so much on its own, and it will take a collaborative effort to address what he calls a climate emergency. He implores the residents of St. Pete to partner with the city to avert significant problems moving forward.
“It has to be the community coming together with a focus on taking steps to address this,” said Kriseman. “We can’t do it by ourselves as the government.”