Obama’s climate change plan and the sound of two, wet hands clapping

June 28, 2013

Goodbye, Miami?

Last week, Rolling Stone published a stunning report about the bleak future facing Miami because of climate change:

“[T]he unavoidable truth is that… rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. ‘Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,’ says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. ‘It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.’”

This dire warning wasn’t news to the scientists, federal agencies, local governments and academic institutions in South Florida, which have been alert to this crisis for some time.

Earlier this year, U.S. government scientists singled out Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, each with at least a thousand square kilometers of dry land less than 1 meter above high tide, as uniquely vulnerable to rising seas. In Dade County, land valued at $70 billion is at risk due to accelerated sea-level rise.  The Everglades and Florida Keys, top tourist attractions, are threatened, and one study projects that Florida will lose $9 billion in tourism revenue by 2025 and $40 billion by 2050.

While the Miami Herald reported last year that “South Florida took the threat seriously before most everybody else,” the magnitudes of the climate threat and the costs associated with mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency make the risks “seem only bigger, scarier and no longer quite so far down the road.”

Not so far away across the Florida Straits, Cubans are subject to the same weather and similar anxieties.  According to the Associated Press, Cuban scientists are now projecting that 122 Cuban towns could be seriously damaged or ‘wiped off the map’ by rising tides which, in turn, would taint supplies of fresh water, brutalize croplands, drive families from their homes, and endanger “a $2.5 billion-a-year tourism industry that is its No. 1 source of foreign income.”

The U.S. and Cuba live in the same neighborhood and share the same climate and ecosystems.  However distant Havana and Miami are politically, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why it is in both our nations’ interests to increase cooperation on scientific activities and take steps to ultimately solve the problem of climate change.

Here, there are reasons for hope.

First, Cuba can be a real partner. As scholars from UC Berkeley and the University of Matanzas reported last year, while “Cuba represents 2 percent of the Latin American population…it has 11 percent of the scientists in the region.”  Compared to many developed and developing nations, Cuba has robust resources for research, and a real track record of focusing on core dimensions of the climate change problem.

Second, while Cuba’s environmental record  is hardly spotless, it has long taken decisions to protect its natural resources, to save food and water supplies or revenue from tourism.  Scientific American offers this summary of Cuba’s work to create a sustainable shark fishery.  Here, the Environmental Defense Fund discusses a joint project with Cuba’s government that led to the creation of the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean.

Third, the U.S. government has acted quietly but affirmatively to encourage scientific and environmental exchanges with Cuba for a number of years.  In one example, the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, and the Bahamas held talks in March on oil spill prevention and response and have all but finalized a “protocol” for cooperation.

Fourth, in the climate change action plan he unveiled this week, President Obama signaled a commitment to working with willing global partners in a way that bypasses Congress:

“I’m directing my administration to launch negotiations toward global free trade in environmental goods and services, including clean energy technology, to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global low-carbon economy.”

This declaration could form the basis for executive actions to remove barriers and resource constraints that stop scientists on both sides of the Florida Straits from doing more.

As Melissa Gaskill writing in Scientific American explains:

University of Havana researchers can’t just hop over to Cabañas whenever they need to—few have cars and fuel can be hard to come by. Also, scientists in the U.S. and Cuba find it challenging to communicate, as e-mail can be slow and sporadic. An American scientist may suggest a Web site resource to a colleague in Cuba only to discover Cubans can’t access it. Travel restrictions imposed by both governments create delays, a forced flexibility familiar to Cubans. The U.S. government restricts U.S. scientists from training their Cuban counterparts but allows mutually beneficial exchanges of information, turning the normal process of collaboration into something more complex.

Experts like Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund know how problems like this are solved. “Environmental protection doesn’t happen by accident. It requires good science, careful planning, and strong political will. In the case the U.S. and Cuba, it starts with exchange, dialogue, and cooperation.”

Earlier this year, a dozen environmental, scientific, and research organizations called on President Obama to ease restrictions on licenses required for travel to Cuba for environmental purposes, licenses for research equipment, and licenses that would enable donors to fund environmental projects and programs in Cuba that would otherwise limp along or not get done.

Having spoken so forcefully on climate change, the president can answer their call for action, and the people of Miami will applaud him for doing so.

After all, he’d just be carrying their water.

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