South Florida climate change action plan unveiled

Five years ago, Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent did not recycle. And he certainly didn’t compost his kitchen scraps.

Now, he and his wife are doing both to try to do their small part to help reduce greenhouse emissions and thus combat climate change and sea-level rise.

“I see it as a very infectious movement,” he said.

That was evident Friday in Key Largo, where the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact rolled out a nonpartisan draft action plan that is a cooperative effort among Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Climate scientists, biologists, emergency management leaders, county commissioners, water management experts, transportation planners and many other public and private professionals worked together for two years to determine the potential impacts of global climate change on the region — and recommended actions to address them.

“Southeast Florida is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, with very few areas of the country having as many economic assets at risk,” said Eugene, Ore.-based Steve Adams, senior program advisor for climate adaptation for the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communities, which has a global presence.

Adams, who worked in Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration as director of energy and climate change policy development, said Southeast Florida ranks in vulnerability with New Orleans and Hampton Roads, Va., where the Navy has invested heavily in infrastructure.

The compact’s plan is a draft, compiled with input from more than 100 experts in various fields. The public has 60 days to comment on the plan, which can be downloaded at

It recommends 100 things that can be done in the next five years. Some involve mitigating the root cause of climate change by using fewer fossil fuels, while others are actions to adapt to changes that already have happened and future inevitable changes.

“The changes are projected to accelerate in the future as a result of greenhouse gas emissions that already have taken place over the last 100 years,” said Chris Bergh, the Keys-based director of coastal and marine resilience for The Nature Conservancy.

Those changes included the documented rise of the sea level in Key West by nine inches during the past century.

Rising seas can lead to salt water intrusion in the water supply, affect habitat and wildlife and ruin property and infrastructure.

Because of that data, Monroe County is planning to build its new fire station on Stock Island, the neighboring community of Key West, a couple of feet higher than originally planned to account for the projections of rising sea levels.

The list of 100 recommended actions — which deal with infrastructure, transportation, water supply, natural systems, agriculture, energy and fuel — seems daunting. But handled piece by piece, they are doable, said Susanne Torriente, assistant city manger of Fort Lauderdale.

“I see this as a huge opportunity,” Torriente said.

But it will be a challenge. “It really is overwhelming just thinking about all the players involved in transportation, said Lois Bush, policy planning section leader for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The compact includes 108 municipalities and represents 5.6 million people, according to the 2010 Census. That’s more people than the population of 30 states, and about 30 percent of Floridians.

“We’ve already gotten the attention of the federal government,” said Broward County Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs, a leader in the compact’s formation.

It took awhile for many climate scientists and others to get the attention of local leaders about climate change, which occurs slowly over the decades and does not come barreling at the region like a hurricane.

“It’s like the Benson Hedges [cigarette] commercial: “We’ve come a long way, baby,’” Neugent said.

But the consensus is this action plan is just a start, and it’s a document that should be updated as new science comes along.

Bergh, who stood on a road in Key Largo just three feet above sea level and next to million dollar homes, said nobody knows exactly what the future holds. For now, the compact is dealing with sea rise projects of three to seven inches by 2030 and nine to 24 inches by 2060.

“We’re still battling with the naysayers,” said Roman Gastesi, Monroe County’s administrator. “I talk to old timers in Key West who think climate change doesn’t exist. But I ask them: ‘How about the regular flooding at the end of the street?”

The old-timers said: “We’re sinking.” Gastesi said he replied: “No, the sea is rising.”