Scientists and economists Tuesday warned lawmakers of consequences Florida faces from climate change, including more destructive hurricanes and a rising sea level, but they also said the state could be a leader in reducing global warming.
Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami's Department of Geological Sciences, predicted a 1.5 foot rise in sea level in 50 years and a three- to five-foot increase by the end of the century.
"Three feet's going to get messy," he said. "Four feet becomes extremely difficult to live in South Florida and five feet probably impossible."
At two feet, South Florida would still be livable, Wanless said.
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Three panels of experts spoke at a symposium held by the House Environmental Resources Council and three related committees.
Climate change will figure into comprehensive energy and environmental policy legislation the lawmakers will be considering during the 2008 legislative session, said Council Chairman Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.
Some legislators, though, questioned whether Florida could do much to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, spewed mostly from power plants and vehicle exhausts, that contribute to global warming. That's because Florida emits only 1 percent of those gasses worldwide.
"If Florida is the only group in the world doing anything you're not going to make a dent in this," acknowledged Judy Curry, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "But some of the things that Florida is doing really could lead the way."
Gov. Charlie Crist has attempted to put Florida in the lead by ordering that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 2000 levels by the year 2017, to 1990 levels by 2025 and 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Economist David Montgomery, a business consultant from Washington, D.C., said Crist's goals will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet without a significant reduction in the demand for electrical power through such approaches as a carbon cap-and-trade system or carbon taxes. That's because other options for reducing emissions are limited, he said.
Nuclear power is one solution, but it's unlikely regulatory hurdles for building new plants can be overcome in time to meet Crist's goals, Montgomery said. Systems to capture and store carbon from coal-burning plants also are unlikely to be available to meet that schedule and Florida lacks a sufficient supply of natural gas or renewable fuels, he said.
Tufts University economics professor Gilbert Metcalf acknowledged Florida's contribution to global warming is "a drop in the bucket."
Metcalf said, though, that Florida and California, which also has a greenhouse reduction policy, can put pressure on the federal government to adopt a national program because businesses don't like the idea of dealing with a patchwork of different state requirements.
Martin Manning, director of a technical support unit with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he thought solutions can be found but it'll take until the end of the century.
In the meantime, scientists said Florida can expect more frequent and destructive hurricanes, hotter weather and rising sea levels that could inundate coastal areas.
Scientists don't yet have a clear picture of whether climate change will make Florida wetter or drier, but either way the forecast is for heavier rains that are fewer and far between, creating a potential for flood and drought, said Brian Soden, an associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami.