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Forget “bans” on talking about climate. These Florida Republicans are too busy protecting their coasts

Hollywood, Fla., Commissioner Patty Asseff (Angel Valentin for The Washington Post )

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Patty Asseff, a longtime realtor and a Republican, drives through town in her jet black Tesla. Asseff, who has sold so many homes here, speaks with passion about two related matters — clean energy, and making Hollywood homes more resilient, not just against hurricane threats but against periodic flooding that  seems to be worsening as sea levels rise.

“Talk about climate change, you know, whether it’s scientific or not, it’s got to be so much better for everybody all the way around going to clean-burning automobiles,” says Asseff. When it comes to a changing climate, she adds, “Anybody that has any kind of sense, has to know that there’s got to be something to look at.”

But her outlook, as a realtor — and as a city commissioner — is practical: People aren’t going to leave Southeast Florida or their homes and their families. So they need to prepare. Indeed, here in Southeast Florida, adaptation to climate change is already happening. Moreover, it’s happening in a remarkably nonpartisan, get-it-done manner that, in some cases, doesn’t require an explicit acknowledgement of the science behind human-caused climate change – but doesn’t waste time debating the matter, either.

In recent weeks, we’ve gotten a skewed picture of Florida, arguably the most vulnerable state in the union to climate-driven sea level rise. Charges of a “ban” on even mentioning “climate change” within Rick Scott’s government have made much of the country wonder whether heads in Florida aren’t, literally, in the sand.

But what’s happening in Southeast Florida belies this picture entirely. If anything, as the nation shifts more and more toward living in a changed world – in Florida’s case, one in which rising seas are already beginning to erode beaches, flood neighborhoods, spoil underground water supplies and expose new areas further inland to storm surges — Southeast Florida is a model for how to deal with a problem that is neither going away nor getting less politically contentious.

Asseff is just one indicator of the get-it-done attitude. Far more sweeping is the 2010 agreement by the four counties of Southeast Florida – Miami-Dade, Broward (which includes Hollywood), Palm Beach, and Monroe – to form the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, an agreement that they would work together to pursue climate change adaptation measures, as well as federal recognition of their plight.

Two years after its founding, the compact released an action plan containing 110 recommended steps for cities and counties, ranging from cutting emissions and facilitating the deployment of clean energy to identifying areas which needed special attention due to constant flooding or proximity to rising seas.

“They’ve been leading on this for a while,” says Vicki Arroyo, who directs the Georgetown Climate Center. Not only is the compact the U.S.’s shining example of a regional collaboration to advance climate adaptation, says Arroyo, but its structure — a partnership between counties — may be more sturdy than anything that can be achieved at a state or national level. Here, administrations sweep in and sweep out and often change course — precisely what happened in the switchover from Charlie Crist’s government to that of Rick Scott in Florida.

What’s most striking is how the compact has deftly handled the difficult politics of climate change. The founding county commissioners behind the agreement were three Democrats and one Republican. The four counties themselves are politically quite mixed. Broward is the most left-leaning, with almost twice as many registered Democrats (551,794) as Republicans (237,693) — but it also has a very large proportion of voters with no affiliation (277,952). Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties favor Democrats by smaller margins and in Monroe County, which contains the highly vulnerable Florida Keys, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Nonetheless, the compact’s counties released a 2011 report finding that by 2030, sea level could be 3 to 7 inches higher, and by 2060, 9 to 24 inches higher – and it continues to rise from there. “The scientific evidence strongly supports that sea level is rising and, beyond 2060, will continue to rise even if mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are successful,” notes the report. The numbers are consistent with major scientific assessments and a 2010 report from the state-formed Florida Oceans and Coastal Council, which found that global sea level rise by 2100 will probably be between 20 and 40 inches — but could be higher.

Mindful of such numbers, cities across Southeast Florida are steadily implementing the compact’s recommended adaptation measures. So far, according to a survey conducted in late 2014, Asseff’s city of Hollywood had implemented 38 out of 110, ranging from restoring trees in urban areas to advancing local renewable energy development, to studying how rising seas will affect stormwater systems. That’s an impressive third of the recommendations, but it’s actually well behind some other compact cities, such as Key West, which had implemented 65 at the time of the study, and Miami Beach, which stood at 61.

If adaptation comes easily in Southeast Florida, it may be because the threat is so obvious to those living there. Most stark is the situation facing Monroe County, where the compact states that “three-fourths of Monroe’s four hospitals, 65 percent of schools and 71 percent of emergency shelters” lie on land that would be flooded with a mere foot of sea level rise. But rising seas are a reality throughout the region.

In Hollywood, Patty Asseff drives toward the Atlantic Ocean along gorgeous palm-lined Harrison Street in the Holiday Lakes neighborhood, where Jorge Ferrer, 62, a retired airline pilot, lives in one of a clump of houses surrounded on three sides by water, just inland from the Intracoastal Waterway. Ferrer’s meticulous blue and white home features an underground pump system to keep the water out and the floor of the house dry. It floods sometimes, and Ferrer — also registered as a Republican, though he says he leans independent — thinks it’s getting worse.

“I’ve gotten to see the change in the canals here over a 50-year period,” he says. “And believe me, it’s not the same thing it used to be.”

But flooding and rising seas or not, residents aren’t leaving. “We love it here,” says Asseff.

“I love Hollywood,” Ferrer agrees. “She’s the best commissioner we’ve ever had.”

To the north of Hollywood in Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, lies a particularly striking example of climate change adaptation (though it isn’t necessarily going by that name). Here, the vital state road A1A, which runs along popular beaches and also serves as a hurricane evacuation route, was lined on a recent morning not only with spring breakers’ vomit, but a mile long stretch of construction.

Two and a half years ago, a 600-or-more-foot stretch of the road was severely damaged due to waves  from Superstorm Sandy (which barely grazed the area, but still drove powerful waves onshore) and then  subsequent flooding. Both brought high tides that eroded much of the beach, weakening A1A from beneath.

But now, the road is being built back taller and stronger – two feet higher on the beach side in the key area where the damage occurred, according to Scott Peterson, design project manager for the A1A construction with the Florida Department of Transportation. Forty-four-foot-long sheet pilings have been driven into the ground along the road to ensure stability, and there will be a stronger seawall as well as newly installed dune protections on the beach side.

“We’d be crazy if we didn’t build in resilient features into all of our projects – especially where we sit, next to the ocean,” says Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner and registered Republican, as we tour the road along the beach in the beating morning sun.  Indeed, adds the transportation department’s Peterson, the planners were “mindful of an increased frequency and severity of events in this area and took steps to mitigate damages from future events.”

The destruction to A1A was a galvanizing moment for the community, says LaMarca — for good reason. Some 14 million people visited Fort Lauderdale in the past year, and spent $11.5 billion, he says. “Instead of debating the politics of science, or the science of politics, as this has become, we actually just got the work done,” he says.

The restoration project is a joint one between the state, the city of Fort Lauderdale, and Broward County — and the compact seems to have helped all the cooks work together in the kitchen. “It’s a state road, running through the city, on a beach managed by the county,” says Steve Adams, a former energy and climate staffer for former Florida governor Charlie Crist, a Democrat, who now heads up the climate adaptation program at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which receives funding to provide support to the compact. “So there was a lot of complexity there in terms of who had what jurisdiction. And because of the relationships the compact put in place, they were able to work together very effectively.”

LaMarca, in an interview, was hardly outspoken about climate change, but certainly was in favor of stronger future planning for sea level rise. “We’ve had, what, eight inches since 1870?” he said. “If that’s elevating or accelerating, that’s something we should put into our codes and how we build.” His construction business background doesn’t hurt — he speaks with a clear knowledge about both road projects and also beach restoration.

So what’s happening in Southeast Florida to make people so adept at adapting to climate change, irrespective of politics? It’s not just living alongside rising seas — the tone set by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact and local leaders also seems to matter a great deal, says Yale law professor and science communication researcher Dan Kahan, who has consulted with the compact and heralds its approach.

Kahan found that if you pose polling questions in one way — simply asking how much people consider climate change to be a risk — then people in Southeast Florida look a lot like the rest of the United States. Strong liberals in the area rate climate risks as very high, strong conservatives rate them as very low — and the more people actually know about science, the more polarization increases. Thus, the seeds of the climate pathology on the national level — or, at the Florida statehouse level — are present here, too.

However, Kahan continues, something has happened in Southeast Florida to prevent those seeds from growing. It seems to be about using local government, competently, to address real risks that people can sense all around them. Thus, Kahan’s data show that the same Southeast Floridians who could potentially polarize over climate change broadly agree, on a bipartisan basis, with statements like the following: “local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels.”

“What matters is not the word, it’s the conversation,” said Kahan of the compact and how it handles the climate issue. “And they have a conversation in which they engage people about the ‘climate change’ they all recognize has something to do with how they live.”

“They don’t engage them in a way that makes the topic the ‘climate change’ that determines whose side you’re on,” he continues.

None of which is to say that Florida’s path into a climate-altered future can ever be an easy one. The state has seen a fortunate dearth of major hurricane landfalls in recent years, but all future storms will be coasting atop rising seas, with the potential to fling them farther inland. Moreover, there’s dismaying evidence that the contributions to sea level rise from the planet’s great ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica may have been underestimated — meaning that sea level projections could keep rising.

But as Patty Asseff likes to say, “baby steps.” After visiting Jorge Ferrer’s house, she drives me to the waterside along Hollywood’s South Lake, where recently installed flap gates have been inserted into existing drainage systems to prevent flooding when water levels rise.

It used to be that at some high tides, water would “backflow” from the lakes and waterways up through drains and spill out into neighborhoods. But now, a simple one-way valve lets rainwater flow down and out without letting tidal water push back in the opposite direction. Nine such gates have been installed in South Lake, with three to go; another 12 may soon need to go in in the nearby North Lake neighborhood, according to the city’s Department of Public Utilities.

And thus, even as seas rise, Hollywood just got a little bit better protected — and people can resume their sun-drenched lives. For now.

“If somebody gave you a house around here, I bet you’d take it,” laughs Asseff. “And just deal with the consequences.”