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Climate changes would test Florida

Published February 3, 2007


A grim new international climate report released Friday is a wake-up call for legislators and policy makers in Florida and the southeast United States, according to local scientists and weather experts.

Unless states begin to take action now the drastic climate changes forecast over the next century will likely have a negative impact on agriculture and coastal property values, they say.

Climate change also could play a major role in determining the future energy options for the state's power utilities.

"Southeast states with our vast coastline, rich agriculture and great forest, are the most vulnerable areas in our nation," said Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a Tennessee-based nonprofit group.

The report issued Friday in Paris by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws together the work of scientists in 113 countries, is considered to be the most authoritative study yet on global climate change. The report finds that scientists are now more than 90 percent certain that the world's climate is being affected by human activity, largely due to "greenhouse gas emissions" from usage of fossil fuels.

Failure to control those emissions will most likely lead to rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, and stronger hurricanes.

To assess the impact of the study's findings on the southeast, Smith's group hosted a phone conference with reporters and scientists Friday, including two of the American authors of IPCC report.

Smith pointed out that 11 of the last 12 years were the hottest on record. "That's a trend that is undeniable," he said.

The observed record of global warming in the southeast has so far been "relatively modest compared to other parts of the world," said Greg Carbone, professor of geography at the University of South Carolina. But a four-year drought between 1998-2002 was "clearly was a global signal of nature."

Some models show that reductions in crop yields could be as high as 50 percent if temperatures increase. Even if farming methods were adjusted, yields would still drop 20 to 30 percent, due to climatic extremes, such as flash floods or reduced soil moisture.

Even if measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures still are likely to rise.

"There is a level of climate change that we are already committed to because the planet is catching up to our past emissions of greenhouse gases," said Brian Soden, professor of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography at the University of Miami, who is a contributing author to the IPCC report.

But he said "the severity of future changes" could be reduced by "today's choices."

A key issue for Florida will be its choice of power generation. Some environmental groups oppose permitting future construction of coal-fired power plants which are major greenhouse gas polluters. New "clean coal" technology can capture and sequester greenhouse gas emissions, but environmentalists prefer policies that promote greater energy efficiency and use of renewable sources.

One of the big questions raised by the report is how it will be digested by the insurance industry. "Insurers have been described as the main futurists," said Thomas Peterson, a research meteorologist at the National Climatic Data Center and also one of the IPCC authors.

If predictions turn out to be true, insurers will likely be even more reluctant to offer policies in coastal areas. The good news, say scientists, is that forecasts should improve as more data is collected using better satellites and ocean monitoring.

But the key, said Peterson, "is sound planning."

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 00:25:53]

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