Recently released by 13 federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, NOAA and NASA, the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) has sobering news for the future of the U.S. In particular, impacts to our health from climate change could be especially dire in Florida if we don’t act now.
Climate change is expected to bring out the extremes: extreme heat, rain, droughts, wildfires and storms. Not every region will experience climate change the same way; one community may see excessive rain and flooding that damages infrastructure and homes, while another might see droughts and an increase in dangerous wildfires fueled by dry weather. Regardless of what climate change looks like in your region, it’s bound to increase health risks—from the dangers of raging wildfires and increasingly strong hurricanes to more insidious effects like mosquito-borne diseases and higher levels of dangerous mold due to a warmer and wetter climate.
During a recent briefing with Florida scientists, Jacksonville area gastroenterologist Todd Sack weighed in on the assessment. “This report reminds us of what we’ve already known, which is that climate change is the No. 1 public health threat to our planet and to Florida in the 21st century,” said Dr. Sack.
According to the NCA, if we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change could result in tens of thousands of deaths each year from extreme temperatures. Heat-related deaths are of particular concern for the Southeast. In a higher emissions scenario, the report projects the Southeast will face “the largest heat-related impacts on labor productivity in the country, resulting in average annual losses of 570 million labor hours, or $47 billion” by 2090.
The assessment also projects less obvious effects. Without meaningful action, poor air quality from climate change could lead to hundreds to thousands of deaths each year. Allergies, asthma and hay fever are expected to become increasingly prevalent and more severe. Warmer air, water and excessive precipitation are likely to increase exposure to waterborne and foodborne diseases. Shifts in the climate also affect the distribution of some disease-transmitting insects, meaning climate change is likely to expose more people to mosquitoes that transmit viruses like West Nile, encephalitis and Zika, not to mention ticks that carry Lyme disease. And let’s not forget the respiratory issues that come along with red tide and other toxic algae blooms, which are fueled by warmer, wetter weather.
Of course, the impacts of climate change extend far beyond human health. More broadly, the health of our planet and its many diverse species are also at stake if we fail to address this critical issue. At the recent 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) in Poland, naturalist David Attenborough bluntly warned, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
Besides threats to our environment, our health and our safety, the National Climate Assessment estimates that many counties could see a decline in gross domestic product (GDP) of as much as 10 percent by the end of the century. In nearby Union County, which is projected to be the nation’s worst-hit county, economic losses could reach nearly 28 percent in a likely scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.
Case in point. In Florida, tourism is our No. 1 industry, generating 23 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue and employing more than one million Floridians. Our tourism-based economy helps to keep taxes low. In 2017, almost 120 million visitors spent $112 billion, creating almost 1.5 million jobs.
Now imagine a Florida where the heat is too extreme to go to Disney World or the beach, where longer mosquito seasons and intensified toxic algae blooms send tourists packing. This year, in the midst of the longest red tide outbreak in more than a decade, tourists canceled their Florida vacations, and some coastal businesses saw revenues decline.
All of this does not paint a pretty picture of the Sunshine State for the years to come—especially when the president of the United States chooses to ignore the facts of this more than 1,600-page report. All of that bad news aside, there is still reason to be optimistic if we act now and move quickly to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Faced with the lack of federal action from the Trump Administration and state action from Florida’s governor, many of the state’s local government leaders are working to fill the void when it comes to climate solutions. Cities and counties are implementing regional climate and resiliency collaboratives to work together toward solutions. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, formed in 2010, led the way, and others have followed suit. In the Jacksonville area, the Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council brought together their community to examine vulnerabilities to sea-level rise with the P2R2 Public Private Regional Resiliency effort. A more comprehensive effort formed on Florida’s Gulf Coast this October, the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, to enable intergovernmental collaboration on the Gulf Coast, and the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council recently passed a resolution to develop a regional resiliency collaborative in its area. The Florida Association of Counties also recently added the call for a State Resiliency Plan and formal cooperation among these collaboratives to its list of legislative priorities.
What is perhaps the key aspect of resilience is to avoid making the problem worse. Only if we reduce the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving the problem can we avoid the worst implications of climate change.
The good news, according to a report by the New Climate Economy, is that if we make the right choices over the next few years, we could create 65 million new low-carbon jobs and avoid more than 700,000 premature deaths from air pollution. These solutions are available and affordable. The cost of solar panels has dropped, making it feasible for more home and business owners to reduce their carbon footprint and save money. Solar United Neighbors solar co-ops and financing from the Solar & Energy Loan Fund make it even easier and more cost effective to go solar. The deployment of electric vehicles and the installation of vehicle charging stations make it possible for more drivers to reduce carbon.
The solutions are out there, and we must deploy them to ensure a safe and healthy today as well as a future for our children tomorrow.
When it comes to leaders who are still on the sidelines, Dr. Sack had this to say: “We know the disease, we know what causes it, and we even know how to treat it, and yet we’re not embarking on that treatment. And that’s something we have to hold our communities responsible for—for treating the disease now before it’s too late.”
Wise words. Let’s heed them before it’s too late.
Glickman, the Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, was recently named to Florida Trend’s inaugural list of 500 Most Influential Business Leaders.