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Florida’s Response to the Climate Crisis

BY: William “Coty” Keller

It’s all adaptation, and that must change.

The governor and legislature are making noise about climate. It’s a pitch for adapting to rising seas with a “resiliency” strategy. It avoids the cause of the problem, and the real solution which is “mitigation,” defined by the UN IPCC as action to reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. Michael Oppenheimer, co-authors of the UN report on climate change says, "Everyone agrees that if we don’t slow the warming down, our prospects for adaptation are not good."

We should adapt. But we must also mitigate because the consequences of not attacking the cause are unbearable. 

Consequences

NOAA reports we are close to experiencing two dozen $1B climate influenced disasters annually and that’s not counting wildfires. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission warned in September 2020 that climate related mortgage and insurance risks will soon make housing unaffordable for many. The world’s scientists and our administration’s best and brightest agree that unless we take bold and immediate action, global average temperatures will exceed the cataclysmic threshold of 1.5OC above pre-industrial levels. The Union of Concerned Scientist’s Killer Heat predicts that part of Florida will be unlivable. David Attenborough presents this timeline in his documentary, A life on this Planet: 

  • 2030 – Rainforests lost, artic is ice-free in summer (accelerating climate change). Severe economic crisis is forecast by the UN’s IPCC by 2030
  • 2040 – Frozen soils thaw, releasing methane, further accelerating climate change
  • 2050 Ocean heat>coral reefs die, fish populations crash
  • 2080 Food production crashes, pollinators disappear, weather becomes unpredictable
  • 2100 – 4OC warmer, large parts of earth uninhabitable, 6th massive extinction underway, millions homeless
  • No amount of adaptation/resiliency can manage these consequences. The only hope is mitigation.   

Causes

NASA explains that the natural movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans has been put out of balance by human activity. After a million years of CO2 levels cycling up and down between about 150 and 300 parts per million (ppm), carbon levels are skyrocketing. CO2 is a main concern, but other heat trapping gases contribute to the greenhouse effect that is causing global temperatures to rise to harmful levels. It’s more than emissions. The natural process of photosynthesis has been hindered by deforestation and poor soil management – reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon processed by plants and trees and returned to the soil. 

Solutions

The solution to the climate crisis is to become nature’s biggest ally; to restore and then maintain the carbon cycle so we have tolerable levels (below 350 ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere. We do this by reversing the root causes of the problem: human caused emissions, deforestation and poor soil management. And it has to happen very quickly. 

The UN 2019 Emissions Gap report explains half of the solution: We must reduce emissions 70-100% by 2030 (almost 8% annually). Project Drawdown, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rewiring America and others explain a combination of (1) reduction of energy use (using less energy by efficiency and conservation measures) and (2) transition to zero emission energy. #1 is important because unless we bring down the consumption curve, #2 is too hard to achieve in time. The overriding strategy is to electrify (almost) everything and then generate all our electricity by zero emission energy sources (solar farms -#8 of 100 solutions by Project Drawdown, rooftop solar -#10, wind -#2 onshore & #22 offshore, nuclear #20, small hydro #48 and geothermal #18)

The Union of Concerned Scientists, Project Drawdown and others tell us that more photosynthesis is the second half of the solution. Because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries, we must remove lots of carbon already residing in the atmosphere by restoring forests (or planting new ones) and improving soil management through better farming and landscape practices. Florida’s leaders don’t mention these solutions. It’s not part of the resiliency toot. 

Florida’s Role – states regulate electric utilities

Bill Gates and the Union of Concerned Scientists explain that various levels of government are positioned to take effective action in different ways. For example, the federal government should use diplomacy to secure the global cooperation needed, and to enact a national law to price carbon. Local government has the leverage needed for planning land use and zero energy building codes, managing transportation, landscapes and reforestation. (Florida’s leadership is trying to preempt local initiatives on climate. It’s bad enough our state does nothing itself. Now they are making matters worse by stifling good work at the local level.)

Florida’s proper role comes into focus when we recognize that states regulate utilities, and electricity is at the core of the solutions. Experts agree that effective mitigation requires that all states adopt three state level policies:   

Low Carbon Electric Portfolio Standard. The Union of Concerned Scientists call this the most powerful arrow in the state’s quiver. The standards require electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from non-emitting sources by specific dates. By requiring a clear and firm target date, the state law would offer certainty to investors and developers of non-emitting energy while helping utilities get away from carbon-based fuels. To meet the bold action goals needed to keep us below the 1.5OC threshold, Florida should mandate the transition to 100% zero emission energy by 2030.

Low Carbon Electric Portfolio Standard. The Union of Concerned Scientists call this the most powerful arrow in the state’s quiver. The standards require electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from non-emitting sources by specific dates. By requiring a clear and firm target date, the state law would offer certainty to investors and developers of non-emitting energy while helping utilities get away from carbon-based fuels. To meet the bold action goals needed to keep us below the 1.5OC threshold, Florida should mandate the transition to 100% zero emission energy by 2030.

Solar is a promising zero emission option because of the ample sunshine in Florida, the low cost of solar, and the jobs it could provide. Science reports that solar electricity, including storage to take care of nights and cloudy days, already competes with “cheap” natural gas. Solar farms save customers money, and provide lots of well-paying job.

But industrial solar is not being developed fast enough. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) reports that if Florida Power & Light (FPL), a solar leader in Florida, meets goals, FPL will be generating only 23% of its power by solar in 2030. If you combine that with their current 22% nuclear, that’s only 45% from non-emitting sources in 2030 when we need to be at 100%. A bold low carbon portfolio standard could fix this shortfall. 

Reducing electrical consumption. SACE reports that Florida has the second-worst performance in energy efficiency delivered to consumers in the Southeast region. Florida utilities need to up their game with programs such as energy audits, which enable customers to find out how to use energy more efficiently, how to conserve it, how to save more money. Utility companies should also offer discounts for more energy-efficient air conditioning units and other energy-reduction programs such as solar heated water (#41 of Project Drawdown’s solutions). 

Reducing electrical consumption. SACE reports that Florida has the second-worst performance in energy efficiency delivered to consumers in the Southeast region. Florida utilities need to up their game with programs such as energy audits, which enable customers to find out how to use energy more efficiently, how to conserve it, how to save more money. Utility companies should also offer discounts for more energy-efficient air conditioning units and other energy-reduction programs such as solar heated water (#41 of Project Drawdown’s solutions). 

We must break the link between the utility's profits and the amount of electricity it sells. As it stands now, utilities make more money by selling more electricity. As explained by NRDC’s Sheryl Carter, “electric utilities should not be viewed or regulated as if it were a commodity business dependent on growth in electricity sales to keep its owners financially whole. This outdated model creates a disincentive for investment in energy efficiency, zero emission distributed generation, and many other important customer choices that can reduce their consumption and bills. Instead, utilities should be focused on meeting customers’ service needs and our energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

Rooftop solar friendly laws and rules. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the U.S. could meet almost 40 percent of its electricity needs with rooftop solar alone. Project Drawdown ranks rooftop solar as #10 of the top 100 solutions for global warming. Rooftop solar in the sunshine state could be a big part of the climate solution, meanwhile providing hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and saving people money on their electric bills. 

FPL and SACE both project that Florida is not likely to exceed 2% rooftop solar by 2030. The reason for this pitiful projection? Florida scores F for their solar policies, as judged by the Center for Biological Diversity. To become rooftop solar friendly, Florida needs to make it legal for neighbors, condo or apartment residents to share a common solar generator (a practice called “net metering” or community solar) and to allow third-party ownership so people who cannot afford to buy solar can borrow the equipment thru purchase power agreements. 

Co-benefits

Mitigating climate change, of itself yields benefits worthy of pursuit. Think about avoiding David Attenborough’s dreadful time line. There are more benefits including money saved from more efficient energy. Stanford research estimates that converting to zero emission energy (think no smokestacks, no tailpipes) will eliminate about 65,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in the United States each year and save about $2,600/person annually in health costs. 

The jobs report from Rewiring America estimates the massive industrial mobilization involved in transforming our nation’s energy system could create as many as 25 million net new jobs at peak, with 5 million ongoing new jobs after the initial surge. These jobs would be distributed over every zip code in the US, in a wide variety of well-paying trades and professions. What’s more, the jobs involved in installing solar panels and smart appliances, retrofitting buildings, and constructing high-voltage electricity lines cannot be outsourced.  

Regulatory Capture

One reason we don’t have these solutions in place in Florida is the influence that special interests play in our state politics. Futurist Tony Seba uses the term “regulatory capture” to describe the situation where instead of government regulating utilities for the long-term well-being of the people, the public is being regulated by a government serving the interests of industry. As the Tampa Bay Times editorial board puts it, in Florida the utilities call the shots, and the public loses.

We the people can end this regulatory capture by electing a governor and legislature who will act in the people’s interest. 

Conclusion

Florida’s leaders must move beyond the smokescreen of their adaptation/resiliency toot and immediately implement climate mitigation policies that will serve the people of the state:

  • Low Carbon Electric Portfolio Standard. 100% zero emission electricity by 2030
  • Reducing electrical consumption. Energy audits, discount on efficient appliances including solar heated water.
  • Rooftop solar friendly laws and rules. Community solar. Third party ownership. These unique state level policies will mitigate climate change, save citizens money, create jobs and improve our health. If our state leaders are not able and willing to abandon their allegiance to special interests, and act in the people’s interests by putting these policies in place; we the people will have to replace them. 

William "Coty" Keller is an ecologist, working to conserve and restore the natural relationships among living things and the environment. He is a Vietnam combat vet whose navy career included command of two ships and assignments as professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. Coty lives and works in Port Charlotte. https://ecopapak.org/

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