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In Deep Water

Climate change issues cry for attention

When I rear-ended an SUV at the Hollywood on-ramp to I-95 on Thursday afternoon, I had no traction. Really. That’s not an excuse. There were at least 4 inches of water — seawater — on the road. I-95 is 3 miles from the ocean, but there it was flooding up and out of the storm drains onto the freeway entrance. On streets from downtown Miami to Palm Beach, the water was more than 6 inches deep in some places.

Since the accident I’ve learned that during an extreme high tide, such as the one that occurred on Wednesday, the storm water pipes in Hollywood, and many other south Florida cities, can become submerged in seawater. It’s the by-product of a changing sea level along Florida’s south coast. In the past 70 years, since the storm drain system was constructed, the sea level has risen more than 8 inches and it is expected to rise another 9 to 24 inches in the next century.

The woman whose car I hit wasn’t particularly interested in a conversation about climate change or gravity, but at least several newspaper editors and environmental groups want the presidential candidates to talk about it. The Union of Concerned Scientists and others were standing ankle deep at the corner of 10th and Alton in Miami Beach, while I was navigating the on ramp, pleading with the presidential candidates and debate moderator, Bob Shieffer, to talk about the dilemma. More the 120 scientists and local government officials have signed a letter to the candidates urging the topic to be included in the final debate in Boca Raton this week. By the time you read this, we’ll know if their pleas were heard.

Storm drains are only the most visual indication of the subterranean crisis that faces south Florida. More than five million people live in the Miami metropolitan area on land that, at its highest elevation, is only 6 feet above sea level. The city of Miami estimates that its costs alone will be $206 million to combat the current sea levels. 

The letter to the candidates says: “Because Florida is so densely populated, it is estimated 40 percent of the population and housing units at risk from sea level rise in the nation are here, in the state of Florida.”

In March of this year, Yale and George Mason Universities released the results of a survey, The Political Benefits of Taking a Pro-Climate Stand in 2012. The researchers asked voters in swing states several questions: do they worry about climate change (55 percent of Democrats polled answered “yes,” as did 46 percent of Independents and 33 percent of Republicans); would it influence their vote (57-49-44); should it be a priority (79-60-61), and should we invest in reducing it (73-63-49). When nearly 50 percent of the Republicans in swing states agree that solving a problem is worth a public investment, the problem is worth talking about. 

For Gov. Romney, the challenge is to reverse course yet again. He mocked the president during the Republican convention for promising to address climate change and he has taken the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes at any time under any circumstances. ATR founder Grover Norquist has defended the pledge saying, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Romney has to convince us that he understands that climate change is a significant concern and that it is worth spending federal dollars to address it.

For President Obama, he can get a little wonky and tell us what he’s already done — increased fuel efficiency standards as a part of the auto bailout, cut carbon emissions across the energy sector, increased investments in clean energy and weatherization. But he also needs to passionately remind us of the Colorado fires last summer and the ongoing acceleration of the polar ice melt. Then he needs to look in the camera and, adapting a familiar phrase, he needs to say, so that everyone understands he means it, “I hear you, Florida, and if you give me another term, the whole world will hear you.”

Oh, and he could put in a good word for me to a certain judge in Broward County.