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Mayors, experts preach adaptation amid changing climate

Mark Parker



From left: Dr. Gary Mitchum, professor and associate dean of the College of Marine Science; Terry Root, senior fellow emerita at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University; Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch at Tuesday evening's Spotlight Tampa Bay Community Conversation. Photos by Mark Parker.

While the area continues to see warmer temperatures, increased flooding and rapidly intensifying storms, Tuesday evening’s conference on climate change had an underlying message of hope.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor joined Terry Root, senior fellow emerita at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, Dr. Gary Mitchum, professor and associate dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, and Cara Woods Serra, director of the resiliency for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council onstage at the Palladium Theater. Max Chesnes, a climate and environment reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, moderated the Spotlight Tampa Bay Community Conversation.

Root, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize recipient with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, noted a recent study found that a 2.6-degree temperature increase would eliminate half the world’s lifeforms. “My feeling as a human is, why do I have the moral right to cause the extinction of even one species,” she said.

“Humans are causing this, and that is fabulous,” Root added. “Because if we’re causing it, we can stop it.”

Mitchum said sea levels increased about two inches every 25 years through the 20th century. That has doubled since 1999.

Mitchum expects those rates to continue accelerating and local high-tide flooding events to soar “by a factor of almost 10 by the mid-2030s.” He said the collective associated costs are nearly equivalent to rebuilding after a hurricane.

St. Petersburg, a peninsula on a peninsula, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Welch noted that over 40% of the city exists in a Coastal High Hazard Area, a ratio that will likely increase.

“Frankly, there’s some places where we shouldn’t be developing,” Welch said. “And at some point, we’ve got to have that conversation.”

Beach tourism remains Pinellas County’s economic driver. “What will that look like” in 50 years?, Welch pondered.

The city has invested in new stormwater technology and tidal backflow prevention systems. Welch said improving infrastructure is a prelude to making “some very tough, strategic long-term decisions.”

Rainy day flooding in St. Petersburg.

Castor said Tampa is drastically rebuilding its urban tree canopy. The city plans to plant 30,000 by 2030.

Tampa officials and residents are planting about 1,200 trees annually, and Castor believes federal funding will help accelerate the process. However, she also noted the need to loosen stringent zoning regulations.

Root explained that harmful carbon dioxide lingers in the Earth’s atmosphere for 1,000 years. Trees remove those gases, and she said the more “we plant, the better off we are.”

Scientists published the first paper describing the warming effects of greenhouse gases in 1826. “We’ve known about this for a long time,” Mitchum said.

Those gases trap heat in the atmosphere, which causes polar ice caps to melt. Mitchum noted that warmer water loses density and occupies more space.

“The physics are quite simple,” he added. “You tell me the emissions; I’ll tell you the sea level rise.”

While more expensive, Root said developers have the technology to create zero-emission buildings. An attendee inevitably asked Welch why environmental sustainability was not a priority in the Historic Gas Plant District’s $6.5 billion redevelopment.

Welch suggested reading the development agreements. He said the Hines/Tampa Bay Rays development team must incorporate “the best technologies for sustainability and resiliency” throughout the design phase.

“And Hines, in fact, has received awards for their approach on doing that,” Welch said. “It’s integral to that project.”

Serra noted that climate impacts can exacerbate equity issues. Low-income, disabled and elderly residents typically lack the resources and ability to implement mitigation strategies or move to more resilient areas.

Serra was also the first to stress the importance of mass transit. Welch said the Tampa Bay’s bus systems are the nation’s most underfunded.

Castor expressed the need to change the cultural reliance on personal vehicles. Serra said the increasing acceptance of clean energy sources shows those transitions are possible.

She said once hesitant local governments are now adopting the regional planning council’s resilience action plan, which also provides hope. Several panelists believe younger generations will foster change and urged attendees to vote for politicians with similar environmental sustainability goals.

“You have to listen to the community, as well,” Welch said. “They’re telling you that what you’re doing here needs to be done better. But I have nothing but optimism that we’re going to focus on those issues, and for our kids and their kids, we’re going to get it right.”



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  1. Avatar

    Richard Courson

    May 24, 2024at7:57 am

    Without CO2 everything dies. The more CO2 the more crops are grown. CO2 is essential to all living things. We are at one of the lowest levels of CO2 in thousands of years. Plants need CO2 to produce oxygen. Are you all brainwashed or just bought and paid for?

    Richard Courson BCHS “71”

  2. Avatar

    John Donovan

    May 23, 2024at8:19 pm

    I have doubts about 99 and 44/100ths of everything written about climate change. And everything spoken and any actions taken. The issue routinely polls dead last in terms of voter interest or concern. Why still talking about it? At this point its simple, follow the money.

  3. Avatar

    Darren E Ginn

    May 23, 2024at1:40 pm

    It’s critical to impress upon people the importance of how their lifestyle choices affect climate and all of the world around them. The majority do not want to accept the facts regarding this as it will expose their counterproductive habits. This is no fault of their own as society has ended up being brainwashed and managed by entities driven by greed to reap profits at all costs.

    Those with clear and unbiased observation of humanity, our planet, and all those we share it with know full well that unless immediate corrections are made, there will be total collapse. Humanity factually has one foot over the threshold of the next mass extinction.
    Proposed solutions that are incomplete and superficial simply will not work on any level.

    The good news is the fact that exponentially growing millions of people around the world realize everything is inextricably connected and living their lives for the betterment of humanity, our planet, and all those we share it with. This is living in non-selective compassion.

  4. Will Michaels

    Will Michaels

    May 23, 2024at12:01 pm

    This was an excellent forum on the urgency of preparing for the growing impact of climate change in Tampa Bay. Regarding St. Petersburg specifically, we have a 20-year $760M Stormwater Master Plan underway. While the Master Plan addresses rainfall and sea level rise it does not deal with hurricane storm surge. Some important recent steps have been taken to deal with surge such as the install of backflow preventors and new seawalls in a few neighborhoods but much more needs to be done and soon. That so many community leaders recognized the urgency of this at the forum is hopeful.

  5. Avatar

    David B.

    May 22, 2024at2:09 pm

    With Ron DeSantis now banning the use of the term “climate change,” there’s only so much that local communities can do about climate change when the state denies its existence.

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