Climate Change: A Local Perspective from the Florida Keys and some of the Women Leading the Response
During the 1800’s coal powered, fossil fuel consuming industries gained an increasing presence in the economies of both England and the United States. The slave laborers of the Americas produced raw materials like sugar cane and cotton, which were sent to England to be processed, refined, and manufactured into goods in the coal powered factories. Coal powered transportation then distributed those goods throughout the British Empire and the United States. Slave labor was also used to mine the coal for the newly developing factories.
The tremendous growth of commerce and production through the coal-powered economy marks what is referred to as the ‘Industrial Revolution’ and is often considered as a starting point for measuring the impacts of climate change.
We know from our Key West history that around this time, Key West became home to Africans who had been held as captive slaves on the last slave ships to pass through U.S. waters. Many of those persons died and were buried here on the island. We also know that around this same time the U.S. Navy began to collect tidal data, monitoring high and low tides at its Key West Tidal Station. That data shows a change over the last one hundred years of approximately .35 meters, or 35 centimeters, or 13.8 inches in the level the sea reaches at high and low tides. For homes, yards, government facilities, roads, and other infrastructure built before the levels reached these heights, this means greater risk of flooding and more vulnerability to the risk of flood. As we have seen in Upper Keys’ neighborhoods, parts of Big Pine Key, and areas of Old Town, floods now come without rain, on otherwise dry days, due to extreme high tides and a higher sea level.
Sea level is only one impact of climate change. Increasing global temperature rise is directly linked as a cause of sea level rise. Our hotter planet, means warmer oceans, and warmer water expands. Additionally, warmer temperatures on land and sea are causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt, further expanding the seas as glacial ice the size of small states become fluid water.
This period since the Industrial Revolution has become known as the ‘Anthropocene’. ‘Anthro’, meaning ‘man or human’, the term is used to indicate that ‘humans’, and our activities, are the most dominant forces influencing life on earth.
In light of this awareness, South Floridians from all walks of life have responded and are responding to the impacts of climate change, impacts to businesses, to homes, to our health, and to the future of our communities.
In 2009 the four governments of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe Counties organized the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. They have since taken on an extensive list of partners to assess, identify, and address the impacts of climate change in Southeast Florida. The Compact recognized early on that climate change does not recognize jurisdictions and that the response of one government was only valid if it was aligned with the responses of the others. Collaboratively they host workshops, an annual summit, planning forums, and research projects. They have developed a website and a working document known as the Regional Climate Action Plan. You can learn more at the website https://southeastfloridaclimatecompact.org/recommendations/. The Compact strives to address equity issues and to create targeted and tailored response to the concerns and issues facing South Floridians in their day to day lives and in the future.
Monroe County, Florida’s government, like its partner governments, created a new office based on the work of the Regional Compact. Since 2012, Rhonda Haag has served as the Sustainability Manager and Chief Resilience Officer for Monroe County. She has developed the County’s Green Keys Sustainability Action Plan, which can be found at her website https://www.monroecounty-fl.gov/803/Sustainability. Rhonda is currently working on a project to raise certain County roads and elevate them above the floodplain.
The County and the local municipalities partner closely with the University of Florida Extension Service, whose Key West office is located on the second floor of the Gato building. The
Extension Service is present in all of Florida’s Counties. They support understanding plant and soil issues, native and edible gardening and landscaping, adaptations to sea level rise, and other programs to support positive environmental relationships for Florida residents.
The City of Key West also has a Sustainability Coordinator and an Energy Manager, both of whom work to reduce heat-producing greenhouse gas emissions and to support the adaptation of our City’s infrastructure to higher seas, hotter temperatures, and increasing extreme weather trends.
The Key West Sustainability Office (https://www.cityofkeywest-fl.gov/481/Sustainability-Advisory-Board) and the Extension Service (https://www.monroecounty-fl.gov/131/Extension-Services) are female-led. Alison Higgins of the City of Key West and Alicia Betancourt of the Extension Service, like Rhonda Haag, have been instrumental in the successes of the Regional Compact and in making local voices heard in the climate change response. Alison maintains a local Sustainability Board comprised of community residents, which provides information and recommendations to the City Commissioners. Alicia served for more than a decade as the staff liaison to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioner’s Climate Change Advisory Committee which provided similar input to the Board of Commissioners. This Committee was sunsetted in 2020 and at the time, it too had a female Chair and Vice-Chair, Vicki Boguszewski and Lisa Kaul, respectively.
Women were instrumental in the formation of the Compact and each of the Compact partners has strong female leadership; however, two individuals stand out in making the work of the Compact more equitable and relevant to South Florida citizens. Those individuals are Caroline Lewis, the founder of the CLEO Institute (Climate Leadership Education and Outreach https://cleoinstitute.org/about-us/) and Dr. Cheryl Holder of Florida International University and the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action (https://floridaclinicians.org/).
Dr. Holder’s work has focused extensively on the health impacts of extreme heat. She is part of a team that advocates for legal-medical partnerships to protect citizens form the health impacts of climate change through policy and legislative efforts, but also with simple things like letters from doctors to landlords advocating for air conditioning repairs to deal with heat or window screens to protect mosquito spread diseases like dengue. Extreme heat is noted to worsen kidney disease and respiratory disease. It has also been linked to low birth weights and pre-term deliveries in pregnant women. Poverty, access to care, and other social influences have been shown to disproportionately impact people of color. This further increases the vulnerability of people of color to the impact of climate change and their ability to respond to those impacts.
CLEO offers education for all levels of leaders and activists. We can all take small steps to reduce our contribution to the factors causing climate change by reducing our use of fossil fuels, like gasoline, by driving less or driving electric vehicles, voting to reduce or eliminate coal and nuclear-powered electricity in favor of increasing solar powered electricity, eliminating single use plastics by carrying our own cloth shopping bags or having a reusable/refillable water bottle.
Additionally, animal husbandry for meat production and our commercial agricultural system make large negative contributions to health of our planet and the methane gas produced in is one of the greatest contributors to increased global temperatures. For this reason, switching to a plant-based diet one or more days per week is considered one of best ways an individual can reduce the negative impacts of lifestyle on climate change.
Investments in low-flow plumbing, LED lighting, cisterns, and solar hot water heaters serve to reduce utility bills and lower the negative impacts of home energy consumption. Investing your 401k in climate smart businesses and devesting retirement funds from fossil fuel companies or corporations with poor environmental records are also proactive steps an individual can take. When investing, consider a company’s ESG score (environment, social, and governance) which looks at the impact of a company on people and planet, as well as profit.
Lastly, communicate your ideas and your concerns in your local neighborhood and to your local representatives. Consider taking a seat at the planning table or joining a workshop to determine what resiliency will look like for you and your neighbors. Follow the work of South Florida women like Valencia Gunder who calls for community driven, neighborhood-based solutions, Delaney Reynolds who is among a group of Florida Youth filing lawsuits against the government for not protecting the health of the future, or Ciera Cox, a Coral Shores High School graduate who currently represents local youth in a global climate action forum.
As Pope Francis notes, the Earth is the common home of the human family. Each of us has a role to play in sustaining it for the next generation and part of that is knowing what is happening locally and determining how we will respond.