By Dr. Ana Puszkin-Chevlin
For more than a decade, the perils of climate change in Florida have been discussed in terms of increased hurricane intensity and sea level rise. It seemed logical in a state with over 1,200 miles of coastline where many residents have experienced the inconvenience and destruction of hurricanes, and where encroaching seas would impact nearly everyone. After all, the visual of Miami residents wading through, or kayaking on flooded streets was attention-grabbing. In retrospect, however, these messages were less powerful than we thought. Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to the issue of heat.
Why has the focus on hurricanes and sea level rise (SLR) not resonated as a catalyst for climate action? The hypothesis I offer relates to the intermittent nature of hurricanes and the long timescale of SLR. Hurricanes don’t make landfall in Florida, no less in the same area every year. If a region is hit every 5 or 10 years, then the memory of the impact fades. The scientific data on coastal storm activity doesn’t currently tie climate change to more frequent storms, but rather to more intense storms (more category 3, 4, and 5 storms than category 1 and 2), that contain more rain (and thus increase flooding) and might intensify faster, and move a bit slower, resulting in more danger and destruction. But the average Floridian may not accurately conceptualize the impact of stronger hurricanes and is thus likely to accept that risk and chalk it up to “living in Florida.” Some see living through a hurricane as a rite of passage, a badge of honor, and in some misguided way, a “reason for a hurricane party’. Floridians may simply not treat hurricanes as a dangerous climate impact.
Scientists have also focused on the impacts of SLR, as we know that much of Florida’s most attractive assets and valuable real estate are associated with its waterfronts. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that there are $351 billion worth of real estate assets at risk of climate-related flooding in Florida. As SLR can be modeled and projected, we can plan for it and adapt. Giving agency to people and cities to solve a problem should encourage action, but it hasn’t. While the state has increased the amount of “freeboard” — the amount of elevation a new building must sit over base flood elevation–, and a few jurisdictions have invested in pump systems, little else has been done in terms of seawalls, land regulations, or saltwater intrusion. The lack of alarm and action on SLR is likely related to its long timeframe, gradual impact, and its geo-specificity. Buoy data shows that sea levels have risen 8 inches since 1950 and the rate of SLR is accelerating, resulting in between 12 and 21 inches of SRL over 2000 levels by 2040.
Averaged over the four decades SLR amounts to between 0.3 and 0.5 inches per year; which is hardly perceivable to many residents – this inundation rate does not raise alarms to the layperson. Moreover, the impact of SLR depends on location and setting. Homes built up from the shoreline are unlikely to be inundated in the next 10 years, so it’s considered “the next person’s problem.” Additionally, in Southwest Florida, most coastal properties are high-value assets whose owners, folks assume, should be able to afford to take protective actions or absorb the depreciation. In reality, there are lower-income neighborhoods located on riverfronts and other low-lying areas that can be impacted by SLR.
Perhaps the rising heat index and duration of heat waves are poised to emerge as a climate call to action. This summer’s headlines have been dominated by alarming heatwaves across the globe. On August 2nd, Iran ordered a two-day nationwide shutdown of schools, banks, and government agencies as temperatures reached 102 degrees in Teheran and up to 123 degrees in the southern city of Ahvaz. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia, and Italy faced sizzling temperatures of over 104 degrees throughout the prime July tourist seasons, forcing some tourist sites to close. The 2022 summer heat wave in Europe killed nearly 61,000 people according to a recent public health study. The heat has been even worse in Texas and Arizona, with Phoenix experiencing temperatures of 110 degrees every day in July, breaking the 18-day consecutive record. The monthly average for July was 102.7 degrees, beating the record of 99.1 degrees set in 2020.
Here in Florida, the heat index — what it feels like outside in the shade factoring in the humidity — has been over 105 degrees for 103 hours this year as of August 8th. This is “more than double the previous record of 49 hours in an entire year”, stated a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. Florida ocean and gulf temperatures reached 97 degrees, triggering coral bleaching events in the Keys, which have dire environmental impacts and up-market impacts on Florida fisheries and tourism. While some may argue that a record-breaking year is not a trend, this year is just the highest of a steady upward trend. According to NOAA, “The Junes of 2015–2023 rank among the ten warmest Junes on record. June 2023 marked the 47th consecutive June and the 532nd consecutive month with global temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average.”
Heat and the heat index may be a more effective measure to incite determinative action on climate for several reasons. Heat is tangible and universally felt. Outdoor temperatures are simple to measure and visually displayed on one’s home or car dashboard thermometer. Because heat can be felt and measured by anyone, it is not labeled “fake data”. Even data on running temperature averages are easier for laypeople to understand. Also, the connection between greenhouse gas accumulation and global warming is direct. More greenhouse gases trap infrared heat waves, making temperatures hotter. By comparison, data on SLR requires an understanding of tides, currents, shoreline subsidence, and the physics of thermal expansion. Simplified explanations of glacial melt don’t resonate, as these regions are far away and most people will never see glaciers in their lifetime, so it is hard to grasp the impact of their retreat.
Everyone feels the discomfort of a rising heat index. And, while it’s certainly true that lower-income people are likely to be more impacted by heat because air conditioning may be less available and they may have less work autonomy and resources to mitigate hot conditions, heat can physically impact anyone. Heat is a public health issue first. It can be deadly to young athletes, workers outdoors, older adults, children, overweight individuals, and those with medical conditions. The public is often more empathic about concerns related to illness and morbidity than property loss.
The economic losses related to rising temperatures are also being quantified and spotlighted. A new report from the public policy research group Center for American Progress estimates extreme heat will create $1 billion in healthcare-related costs in the United States this summer. There are also increased energy costs for cooling (estimated to grow 5% per year in Florida) and stress on the electrical grid, repairs to roads, bridges, and airport runways from buckling, and increased jet fuel needed to fly through less dense, hot air. Heat will disrupt what people enjoy most about Florida – spending time outdoors on the golf course, pickleball court, at the beach, and dining al fresco. As the heat index climbs higher in future summers, the number of year-round residents may decrease, and along with that the discretionary spending that keeps businesses and services afloat year-round and fuels economic growth. Even the length of time seasonal residents spend here might shrink. Milder temperatures in northern latitudes make it less imperative to come south until January, and attractive to return north earlier in the spring. Data on these trends is only now being examined, but it may offer a compelling reason to earnestly and expediently address climate challenges.
As temperature records are broken daily this summer, climate professionals, educators, and advocates may have a better metric to communicate climate concerns to citizens. In sum, temperature extremes, especially heat waves, and associated issues of water shortages and wildfires, may prove to be the catalyst for public engagement on climate issues.