Retrofitting Tampa Bay for climate change: From understanding to action

Seventh and last in a series.

As the climate changes, so too do attitudes of people living in Florida. 

Today, more than four in five Floridians are very or somewhat concerned about climate change, according to findings recently released by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. That reflects a significant jump from last year, when just two in three Floridians answered the same way, according to Leo Ondrovic, one of the survey’s designers.  

Drawing on 1,015 online survey responses, plus another 540 from the Sunshine State, the Polling Institute’s latest annual environment survey compares how Floridian’s understanding of climate change and other environmental issues stacks up against that of their national peers. 

According to Ondrovic, the new results suggest that Floridians are more concerned about climate change, perhaps in part because specific environmental issues -- like rising sea levels and coastal flooding -- may be more visible here. 

“I think it is the everyday man and woman who are acknowledging that changes are occurring, as these are apparent to careful observers,” says Ondrovic, Associate Professor of Biology and Physics at Saint Leo.

About 62 percent of Floridians think climate change is the result of a mix of human and natural factors, according to the poll results. Roughly 19 percent believe humans are entirely to blame, while slightly fewer than 9 percent say climate change is caused by natural causes alone. 

Only 3.7 percent of Floridians responded that they don’t believe climate change is happening. That’s down from 8 percent last year.

While the results suggest that recognition of climate change is growing at both the Florida and national scale, the issue still ranks relatively low on most respondents’ lists of priorities. Just 4.1 percent of Floridians and 4.7 percent of Americans listed climate change as the most important issue facing the nation today, well below perennial issues like jobs and the economy, government spending, healthcare, and terrorism and security. 

“Short-term economic interests currently drive political decisions,” suggests Ondrovic, when asked to reflect on why climate change presents itself as a less urgent issue. 

Although Ondrovic joined the polling institute in 2015, after the environment and climate change poll was launched, he wanted to better understand the willingness of individuals to act on climate change. So this year, the poll included a question about which activities respondents would be willing to do in order to help reduce carbon pollution. Poll choices ranged from small actions, like planting a tree, up to major investments and lifestyle changes, like buying an electric car or paying higher taxes to build mass transit infrastructure.  

“Unfortunately, one of our secondary findings was that people were more likely to actually do the things that are not costly, and reluctant to do the things that are costly, even when the stakes are high,” he says. “If there is a cost associated to making changes, there is tremendous resistance to that cost. Until our leaders realize this is a real threat, which is much more important than lost revenues, climate change is not going to be satisfactorily addressed.”

The poll also posed a series of three related questions about who is most able, effective and responsible to deal with climate change, respectively. Across the board, the responses gravitated toward larger, national and international institutions, like the U.S. government and United Nations. Notably, local governments finished last across the three questions, with just 4.8 percent of Floridians seeing them as most able to address climate change.

But the results also show that Floridians and their national counterparts are uncertain about who has been -- or could be -- most effective at addressing climate change, be it at a particular level of government or in the private sector. Roughly half of all respondents say they don’t know who has had the most success at dealing with climate change to date. 

Cities and regions to the rescue?

In the Florida case, a great deal of climate change action may be taking place at the city and regional level. Ondrovic says that Florida’s statewide political leadership “has abdicated responsibility,” perhaps prompting local governments to step up. Here, he points to various adaptation projects across the Tampa Bay region as examples, including the climate vulnerability analyses currently underway in Pinellas County.

The idea that cities and regions may be in a particularly strong position to lead on climate change issues is taking root across the globe -- and inspiring tangible action. In 2005, for example, London’s then-Mayor Ken Livingstone brought together leaders from 18 of the world’s largest cities to see how they might take collaborative steps to reduce their carbon emissions. That initial network evolved into an international nonprofit organization called the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. (The name takes its cue from G8, or Group of Eight, a key global political forum.)

Today, that international network is chaired by Mayor Eduardo Paes of Rio de Janeiro and has grown to 83 cities, in which 1 in 12 people live. Past leaders of the network include media magnate Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s three-term mayor. 

“C40 is an organization of cities. That’s our bottom line. We’re there to support and elevate the work of cities around the world, who are collaborating to accelerate action on climate change,” says Laura Jay, who manages one of C40’s seven thematic professional development networks. She works directly with city planning officials around the world to help them learn from other cities as a means to help advance their own climate goals. 

Jay argues that cities play a decisive role in addressing climate change. “If we’re talking about reducing carbon emissions, for example, that work happens at the local level, because that’s where decisions are made about land use, transportation, and so on.”

Most of C40’s work focuses on “megacities” -- that is, the biggest of the world’s largest cities. Unlike many other large metropolitan areas, however, the Tampa Bay region isn’t dominated by a single large city. While the City of Tampa is the region’s most populous city, only about 8 percent of the region’s estimated 4.3 million residents live within the city’s formal jurisdiction. And Pinellas County alone has 24 unique municipalities. That heavy degree of political decentralization is in many ways reinforced by both the natural and urban character of the region, with sprawling communities ringing the vast water body known as Tampa Bay. These features make it harder to imagine -- let alone institutionalize -- a one size, singular city approach to the region’s climate change challenges.

Although no city in the Tampa Bay area (or in Florida) is a member of the C40 network, Jay is quick to draw parallels between this region and others, insisting, “Tampa is not alone.”

Jay says many cities facing similar regional challenges are fast learning that they can’t go it alone. “Regional planning is so important for climate change. Without regional coordination, it’s hard to get that long-term vision for what a city and region can be, and to get there.”

Sustainability initiatives in Southeast Florida

Closer to home, the Miami area has been focused on building regional capacity to address climate change. In 2009, 108 South Florida municipalities voluntarily formed the Southeast Florida Regional Compact for Climate Change. Three years later, that regional group produced a plan with 110 different measures cities could take to offset their carbon emissions and manage their exposure to sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

Today, a great deal of the Compact’s work focuses on “helping people go from zero to 60 on climate change planning,” says Katherine Hagemann, who helps support the work of the Compact in her role as the Sustainability Initiatives Coordinator for Miami-Dade County. The Compact works through the efforts of several thematic working groups, and facilitates regular workshops on specific capacity building topics, she explains. To date, the workshops have been popular. In April (2016), for example, the Compact hosted a half-day workshop on the economics of climate risk management that was targeted specifically for city managers, budget and finance managers and economic development staff. That workshop designed for a room of 100, was fully booked and had a waitlist nearly as long, Hagemann adds.

Outside of her work with the Compact, Hagemann says her work is all about ensuring that climate change considerations get woven into Miami-Dade County’s projects. That entails building capacity and partnerships both within the county and within the community, by “facilitating those partnerships and projects to ensure we’re working together,” she explains. Her team meets with stakeholders far and wide to look for smart ways to address climate change, from building manager associations to university students, chambers of commerce to global insurance professionals. 

What now, what next for the Tampa Bay region?

While Tampa Bay leaders might find ideas and inspiration in the Miami story, Frank Orlando, Director of Saint Leo’s Polling Institute, is quick to emphasize the diversity of political interests at play across the state, even as more conservative Florida politicians have spoken in favor of climate change planning in recent months.

“While Republicans in South Florida are more likely to feel the impact of climate change, those in Central and North Florida are a lot less likely. Furthermore, the issue has become so politicized that it's difficult for anyone to act without incurring the electoral wrath of climate change skeptics down the line,” Orlando says.

Comparing the differences between adaptation efforts in the Tampa Bay area and metro Miami, Maya Burke, Senior Environmental Planner at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, offers a similar perspective. “The politics in the Tampa Bay region are very different from those in Southeast Florida -- the Interstate 4 corridor is known as a national bellwether and generally reflects a moderate, pragmatic brand of politics.” 

Over the course of the last seven weeks, 83 Degrees Media has worked to shed light on what that unique brand of leadership looks like, as individuals and institutions across the Tampa Bay region today grapple with climate change. To do so, we’ve turned to both the private sector and government, and across thematic issues ranging from insurance and real estate development to environmental planning and water management.

Several key themes and insights have emerged through these conversations and reflections, arguably leaving us with more questions and ideas than clear answers or sound solutions. In that spirit, by way of conclusion, here are four provocations to keep the conversation moving forward across Tampa Bay:

Climate change requires us to think about scales of action in new and creative ways

“Climate adaptation has to happen at all levels. Here, in Florida, there has been a lot more action at the local level. We’ll need more active partnerships with state and federal government moving forward,” says Katherine Hagemann. 

“As we look at adaptation on the ground, at neighborhoods that are most impacted, some of that planning needs to happen at the block scale,” she continues, pointing out that even the span of a single street can make the difference when it comes to climate vulnerabilities, which will shift over time as sea level rise and other environmental variables change.

The City of Tampa’s own online inventory of “redlined” properties -- that is, those prone to recurrent flooding – bring this property-scale view into sharp relief. Tampa is not alone in holding a long -- and expensive -- to-do list when it comes to retrofitting its storm water infrastructure to meet the demands of a growing population and changing climate. 

At the same time, as debates over Go Hillsborough, Tampa Bay Express, and other proposed fixes for Tampa Bay’s transportation challenges unfold today, there’s a need to further develop the capacity for more regional leadership and action where it makes sense. Tampa Bay Water and other regional institutions and efforts featured over the course of this series model what regional climate leadership can look like.

How and where the region grows is the million-dollar question

From Downtown Tampa to coastal Clearwater Beach, construction cranes once again mark the Tampa Bay skyline. There’s no doubt that the region will continue to grow -- and grow in high-risk, low-lying coastal areas, even as sea levels rise. Sand and sun, real estate and tourism are Florida’s largest economic sectors.

But managing how and where that growth happens -- through building codes that encourage sustainability and resilience, by reducing the region’s dependence on emissions-heavy cars, and through the protection critical coastal habitats -- may require a change of mindset for the region. Pointing to New York City after Superstorm Sandy, Laura Jay says that the conversation has become “less of ‘we’re not going to build here,’ and more of a ‘we’re going to build here in a smarter way.’” 

What might that smarter path look like in Tampa Bay? Will new growth further strain the region’s infrastructure, both natural and manmade, or be the basis for rethinking and retrofitting it? 

The practical challenges posed by climate change aren’t all that new 

“Growth then remains the manifest challenge to Tampans. Assimilating the endless streams of new migrants into an embattled environment will tax future generations. Efforts to clean up wastewater, air pollution and jammed expressways will supersede questions of urban promotion and Superbowls.”

Although that quote could be attributed to a contemporary op-ed, it comes from a little-known 1983 essay by local historian Gary Mormino. Many of the very institutions and new planning regulations that emerged after the Tampa Bay region’s overnight population boom after World War II play an important role in shaping today’s climate change conversation. One of the greatest examples takes lies in the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which was established to help offset the effects of pollution on the area’s waters. Today, that organization has added climate change to its long-term environmental research and planning efforts. History has a powerful way of reminding us of what has changed, and what hasn’t.

Strong vision and strong leadership is needed more than ever

“Every city that has had success has had strong vision, strong political leadership, and strong collaboration between public and private sector,” says Jay. 

“The more you can make climate change a local issue, the more you can get people in office who can address it. It’s a full circle issue: it may take awhile, but outreach and engagement is key in every city.”

Even without strong state support, it’s clear that climate action is increasingly becoming a priority in the Tampa Bay region, across a wide range of communities and sectors. 

In Andrew Ross’s recent book about Phoenix, Arizona’s turn towards sustainability, the New York University professor says, “the greening of cities is a grand act of improvisation.” 

Today, those words probably hold true for the Tampa Bay area, too. And so, for now, the region evolves, new ideas and practices emerge, and the climate continues to change.

Links to 83 Degrees Media's series of stories on climate change:

Part 1 -- Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

Part 2 -- Preparing for climate change: Pinellas County, local towns take steps to get ready

Part 3 -- Is the global reinsurance industry making Florida more resilient to climate change, hurricanes?

Part 4 -- Tampa Bay real estate boom and climate change: 5 big insights

Part 5 -- Climate change: Across Tampa Bay, environmental organizations mobilize around sea level rise

Part 6 -- Rethinking Tampa Bay's water resources as the climate changes

Part 7 -- Retrofitting Tampa Bay for climate change: From understanding to action
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Read more articles by Zac Taylor.

Zac Taylor, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he studies climate change adaptation in cities, with a focus on real estate and finance. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in the UK and holds degrees in urban planning from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics. You can reach him on twitter @zacjtaylor.