Florida finds voice on climate change

Alex Sink speaks at a conference in Tampa on global warming.

Published May 10, 2007

TAMPA - Massachusetts, California and more than two dozen other states have been taking strong steps to deal with global warming in recent years - but not Florida.

"Florida's leaders have not been leading on the subject of climate change; we've just been on the sidelines," Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, told a crowd of about 300 gathered for a conference on global warming Wednesday.

Given the amount of coastline Florida has, that's not right, Sink said, pointing out that half of the state could wind up submerged by 2100 if some predictions of sea level rise prove true.

"We are the most vulnerable state to climate change," she said.

Florida joined 30 other states this week in a consortium that will measure and jointly track greenhouse gas emissions by major industries.

Sink said Florida should go even further, for instance pushing electric utilities to build environmentally friendly power plants. As a member of the state Cabinet, Sink gets a vote on where utilities build their plants, although not what kind.

Sink was the headline speaker at the first day of the three-day Climate Change Conference, jointly sponsored by the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University. The conference, the first of its kind ever held in Florida, drew officials from local, state and federal government agencies as well as professors, scientists and activists.

Conference organizers hope it will produce concrete recommendations for action that can be given to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, the panel chaired by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker that is supposed to help state leaders chart a course for the next 50 years. The commission's first report identified climate change as the most important issue for the state to deal with.

Florida is among the top 30 emitters of greenhouses gases in the world, according to Tom Peterson, executive director of the Center for Climate Strategies, and its emissions are growing faster than the national average. Florida ranks third, after Texas and California, as the state consuming the most energy, according to George Gonzalez of the University of Miami, author of The Politics of Air Pollution.

Peterson said 29 other states have come up with plans to deal with climate change, but Florida has not been one of them. However, Sink predicted that will quickly change. Gov. Charlie Crist has a strong interest in the issue, she said, noting that he wants to put solar panels on the Governor's Mansion and tools around Tallahassee in a car fueled by ethanol.

Crist has called a climate change conference of his own for July, Sink said. In his first State of the State speech in March, he talked about the need for Florida to deal with global warming. And in announcing Florida's participation in the 31-state carbon registry, Crist said that "by effectively measuring the impacts of carbon emissions, we take the first steps towards addressing the impacts of climate change."

Sink said Florida residents and state officials began to realize the importance of the issue when the state was hit by four hurricanes in a single year. Some scientists believe global warming will lead to more hurricanes and more intense storms.

Among the 29 states that have taken steps to curb their contributions to global warming, some have been more active than others. Massachusetts sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and won a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

California, at the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, passed the nation's most stringent emissions control legislation. California also worked with several New England states to set up the carbon registry.