In a nondescript office building in Pinellas Park, a group of officials came together Feb. 11 to start figuring out how the 3.1 million people who live in the coastal plain that is the Tampa Bay area should grapple with a global crisis.
It was the sixth meeting of the recently formed Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition’s Steering Committee. Officials call it the first time local governments have come together in a meaningful way to identify, address and plan for climate change.
It quickly became clear that the group has a lot of work to do.
Just a few minutes into the meeting, Gulfport City Council member Michael Fridovich voiced concern about $1 billion in waterfront residential construction and road improvements slated for the Tampa end of the Gandy Bridge.
“Municipalities keep okaying buildings being built in areas that they shouldn’t be being built,” he told the group. “My question is, are we not getting the word out?”
The coalition is Tampa Bay’s attempt to finally start doing that – and to prepare the region for what’s to come.
Science is daunting
The most pessimistic federal projections show the seas will rise 8 feet on average by 2100. That’s high enough to submerge Eckerd College along St. Petersburg’s southern coast, according to one National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map. Other, more generous forecasts say it will rise by two feet – but even that’s enough to leave parts of Redington Beach underwater by 2100.
Hotter summers and intensifying storms also pose economic threats: A recent Brookings Institute report projects that the Bradenton-Sarasota-North Port region is the fifth-most vulnerable metro in the U.S. to the monetary consequences of climate change. Lakeland-Winter Haven was No. 1; Tampa-St.Petersburg-Clearwater was No. 2; and Cape Coral-Fort Myers was No. 4.
Enter the Regional Resiliency Coalition. Its steering committee first met in April 2018 and in October, 24 city and county governments signed its organizing memorandum of understanding. The number is now 27.
It is overseen by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, which last month brought aboard Catherine “CJ” Reynolds to be its resiliency director and point person on the coalition. She’s a former University of South Florida researcher who spent five years leading a project on how to best work with local governments on climate change resiliency efforts.
This November, the coalition is planning to hold its first annual summit – complete with a keynote speaker, a big name in the field of climate change, and a signing ceremony with local businesses – to show the bay area what it’s doing about climate change. By March of 2020, it hopes to approve a regional resiliency action plan that will recommend best planning practices for local governments.
The group doesn’t have the power to regulate the bay area’s myriad governments, raise its own funds through taxes or build its own projects – it can just advise.
Even local governments, which are also working independently to address climate change, can only do so much. For example, even if it wanted to, Tampa has no way of stopping the development criticized at the Feb. 11 meeting so long as it meets state and federal building requirements, said the city’s administrator of economic opportunity Bob McDonaugh.
USF College of Marine Science oceanography professor Gary Mitchum, who belongs to a group of local scientists advising the coalition, said the group’s most important task is getting local governments to start focusing on what they can do to address impending problems.
Experts say the changes must be quick and profound: Governments may have to lobby for state and federal changes to building codes. Development in especially threatened areas will have to be scrapped altogether. Leaders will have to shore up the region’s drinking water to protect it from creeping saltwater.
“We try to mitigate as much as we can, but if we don’t manage to mitigate enough, then what are our options?” Mitchum said. “Adapt or give up? We’re not going to give up. We’re going to adapt.”
Will we adapt together?
Tampa Bay has long been at odds with itself.
Pinellas County was born in 1912 in rebellion against Hillsborough County. Since then, St. Petersburg and Tampa have fought over the airport, the university, major league baseball – even the hockey team.
The brightest glimmer of regional cooperation was the end of the so-called Tampa Bay “water wars” in 1996. That’s when the combatant governments came together to form Tampa Bay Water, the agency that oversees the region’s drinking water.
Two decades later, it remains the only regional governmental agency of its kind. Even the bay area’s transit authority is just a planning agency. It can’t build anything, either.
But there is precedent for environmental cooperation.
In the 1970s, Tampa Bay smelled like rotten eggs. Algae blooms wreaked havoc on the delicate marine ecosystem, ravaging seagrass and drawing the ire of residents who had to live with the smell.
It took decades, but in 1998, local business leaders and politicians agreed to help the Tampa Bay Estuary Program complete its science-based conservation plan. The joint effort has led to an impressive revitalization of Tampa Bay’s seagrass beds, and thus the quality of its water.
Maya Burke, the science policy coordinator of the Estuary Program, said the coalition should heed an important lesson from the seagrass success story: buy-in must come from all corners of the region.
Local officials say the coalition is off to a good start on that front. Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who chairs the coalition, said the group is stressing the importance of buy in from the business community as well – a lesson learned by studying similar efforts like the Southeast Regional Climate Compact. That’s the 2010 agreement struck by Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties to address climate change together.
Still, government has to lead the way, Long said.
“It’s a bigger problem than people can attack on their own,” she said, “so they need the power of government behind them.”
In November, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano caused a stir when he refused to bring the coalition’s organizing document before his commission because it included the words “climate change.”
Mariano told the Tampa Bay Times then that he did not believe the scientific consensus that human activity is driving global warming.
In December, he changed his mind. Pasco commissioners agreed to join.
Is it too late?
Mitchum co-authored a landmark climate change paper in 2018. He and his colleagues showed, for the first time, that sea level rise is accelerating in line with computer models.
For the professor, climate change preparation involves three distinct phases: identifying the threats it poses; planning for those threats; and mitigating those threats.
But Mitchum believes the coalition’s most important mission is convincing its member governments to do their part to cut down on carbon emissions.
“They have a unique opportunity because it’s a collection of political leaders,” Mitchum said.
But what can cities and counties do about climate change when the world’s most powerful nations have to failed to do enough?
For example, St. Petersburg City Council can ban plastic straws – but it can’t stop developing countries from pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Mitchum said local governments must push and prod state governments to act, and so on up the ladder until the federal government listens.
“The process is going to be bottom-up,” Mitchum said. “And this is the kind of process we need. We need this in every region.”
But University of Miami geography professor Harold Wanless is pessimistic about local efforts to combat global climate change. The time for such conversations was long ago, he says. Carbon emissions are causing oceans to warm and rise in an irreversible way.
He says there’s no amount of planning regional governments can do to alleviate what’s coming.
“This wonderful word ‘resilience’ has become very popular everywhere,” Wanless said. “But for a low lying town or an Air Force base, how are you going to be resilient when you’re inundated?”
He also finds the efforts of local governments to be timid as well.
“Miami-Dade County has a resiliency officer,” Wanless said. “It would be nicer if they had a reality officer.”
One longtime activist, Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, remains hopeful.
When asked whether it was too late for the bay area to plan for a changing climate, she responded succinctly: