New Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition promises collaborative action on climate change

Part 1 of a 2-part series.

Public and private sector leaders across Tampa Bay are increasingly working together to build a more resilient future for the region, which has been named one of the world’s most vulnerable to the economic and environmental risks posed by climate change. 

A new milestone in this journey will be reached on October 8, when officials representing 22 local and county governments will meet to formally inaugurate the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition. 

The Coalition will help Tampa Bay Area governments work together across jurisdictional lines to reduce the region’s vulnerability to climate change, according to Susan Glickman, who is the Florida Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and is a key architect of the initiative. 

A Tampa native and Belleair Beach resident, Glickman has worked on climate change and energy issues in Florida and internationally for nearly two decades. For the past several years, Glickman and several regional elected officials, including Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, have worked together to create the Coalition. Susan Glickman, Florida Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

The premise behind the Coalition? “To bring the region together, to both adapt to climate change impacts in the pipeline like sea level rise, and to develop a more resilient community by helping people to reduce greenhouse gasses,” says Glickman. 

“We understand our vulnerabilities, and we need to get out in front of this problem through a planning process to figure out what how we can best make our community more resilient in the face of this challenge. 

The Coalition’s activities will fall into one of two “sandboxes:” the adaptation sandbox and the mitigation sandbox, according to Glickman.

The adaptation sandbox 

The adaptation sandbox includes efforts which minimize the worse impacts of climate change and environmental vulnerability, including those that are already being felt and those that are quickly emerging on the horizon.

In recent years, several studies have found the Tampa Bay region to be among perhaps the most vulnerable areas in the country when it comes to hurricane-fueled storm surge and flooding. As the climate changes, Tampa Bay is expected to contend with stronger and more destructive hurricanes.

“We are going to see more Hurricane Harveys. Warmer, wetter weather is going to make for more hurricanes, and more rainfall like we saw with Harvey in Houston,” says Glickman.  The impacts of hurricanes will be amplified by already-rising sea levels. Drawing on the latest climate science, Tampa Bay scientists and policymakers estimate that seas will be upwards of 7 feet higher by the end of this century.

While some of this vulnerability is an unavoidable product of the Tampa Bay region’s physical geography, much of it has been created by how and where we have developed our cities -- and how we decide to grow moving forward.

Tampa Bay faces increased storm systems and sea level rise related to climate change.“If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have put Tampa General on an island,” as one example, explains Glickman. 

As a result, local governments have to both protect what is already here and to manage steady growth in a way that doesn’t deepen the region’s economic and environmental vulnerabilities. This is the challenge of adaptation. 

“Simultaneously, and equally important, we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions so we don’t further the drivers of the problem,” says Glickman. “There’s an old adage: If you find yourself in a hole, you stop digging.”

The mitigation sandbox

Enter the mitigation sandbox, which will include projects to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions and save sources. The built environment -- including buildings and our transportation system -- accounts for about two-thirds of emissions today. Energy retrofits, alternative energy systems (like solar), and mass transportation systems (like rail) are all prime ways to reduce emissions.

“It’s crucial that we don’t take people from denial to despair. It’s very important that we help people to understand we have solutions. They will protect our natural environment, and bring economic benefits to our community. They save money and create good jobs,” promises Glickman. 

Glickman points to energy as one example where the region has a big opportunity to implement mitigation projects. “Florida sends $50 billion out of state to bring in fuel. When we invest in solar, we grow a clean energy industry.” A home with solar panel installations near the coast in Belleair.

This strategy -- creating economic soundness in the face of economically disruptive climate risks -- is key to Florida’s future, she reasons.

“There’s a good news story at the end of the realization that we have a challenge before us.”

Barriers to regional climate action remain significant. Beyond the scientific uncertainties of climate change, there are several practice hurdles. Local government in Tampa Bay has historically been very fragmented. Pinellas County is comprised of 24 independent municipalities, for example. Many smaller governments lack the technical and financial resources to develop their own resources. 

And while some governments and their economies are on the front lines of sea level rise, like Pinellas County’s tourism-driven beach towns, others in the region are relatively insulated from the immediate effects of climate change. Differences in the immediacy and extent of vulnerability, and the politicized nature of climate change science more broadly, has impaired action at higher levels of government.

The State of Florida has not developed a state-wide adaptation plan, adding pressure to local governments to take leadership. 

Without collaborative efforts on the regional and state levels, adaptation and mitigation efforts are not only likely to be more expensive, but also less effective.

“When you look at sea level rise, water doesn’t stop at the county line. It requires a broader collaboration across boundaries,” says Glickman.

The Coalition seeks to address these challenges head-on.

“What we are really agreeing to do is a planning process,” explains Glickman. “We’re going to plug in what’s been done, and look at the gaps.”

Setting priorities?

Among the Coalition’s top priorities? To coordinate the existing planning and investment activities. Local governments like Pinellas County and the City of Tampa, along with regional institutions like Tampa Bay Water and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, are already far along in creating adaptation resources.

Several local governments have implemented sea level rise vulnerability assessments for critical infrastructure, and have added future flood risk to land development regulations, for example. 83 Degrees highlighted these stories of regional climate action over a 7-part series published in 2016.

The Coalition aims to build on this early innovation by furthering the use of state-of-the-art, science-based assessments of local and regional vulnerabilities, and to share existing tools and learning. That way, local governments avoid reinventing the wheel and get in the habit of collaborating together on a range of new challenges. Ultimately, these activities will feed into a Regional Resiliency Action Plan. 

The Coalition plans to amplify the region’s voice in Tallahassee and in Washington D.C., and to raise public and private funding for projects. The Coalition will also build on existing expertise in climate science, urban and environmental planning, and finance and economics in the region, furthering the learning from ongoing and past initiatives like the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel (or CSAP) and the One Bay Resilient Communities Working Group, respectively.

No need to reinvent the wheel 

Many of the ideas for the Coalition have been drawn from what’s worked in other regions, particularly in South Florida.

Formalized in 2010, the Southeast Florida Regional Compact has produced two successive regional climate action plans, informed the creation of legislation which enables adaptation planning, and has secured critical funding for projects, including philanthropic grants. Having supported climate action in South Florida for years, Glickman is confident that the Tampa Bay area is poised to learn from the Compact’s trials and triumphs.

While the Coalition is setting out to do ambitious work, Glickman reckons that many of the ingredients for success are already in place. “We have the well-respected Climate Science Advisory Panel. Pinellas County has a well-regarded capital planning tool which incorporates sea level rise,” for example.

“This is going to pull everything together.” 

Part 2: Next up, we’ll talk to one major Tampa Bay company that is an active proponent of the Coalition, and discuss how they’ve adopted resilience-thinking throughout their company’s practice.

The Coalition will be signed formally on October 8, 2018, at the next Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council meeting, located at 4000 Gateway Centre Blvd #100 in Pinellas Park. As always, the meeting is open to the public.
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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.