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Fla. Scientists, Local Leaders Ask Next President: Will You Help Fight Climate Change?

Climate change is changing the way local Florida governments are planning for the future. And with the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney coming up on Monday in Boca Raton, local Florida leaders and scientists are asking the next U.S. President to keep climate change on the national agenda as well.

One recent day, the Florida sun is shining brightly in an upscale Miami Beach neighborhood that looks out over Biscayne Bay. But try crossing the street here and you’ll wish you had your rain boots. There’s water, several inches deep, covering the roadway and the sidewalks.

A few blocks away at the Miami Beach City Hall, Nanette Rodriguez, with the city, says, "If you have a day like today when it’s absolutely beautiful and there’s not a drop in the sky, you’re like, 'Why is my street flooding all of a sudden out of nowhere?' So, you usually have people calling in, saying, ‘Oh, there’s a water main break.’”

But it’s not a water main break. It’s water backing up from the bay. She says the flooding happens here every fall and spring, when the ocean tides are at their highest.

And Miami Beach city engineer Rick Saltrick says it’s not just high tides causing the rising water.

“We’re seeing a long-term trend with sea levels rising," he says. "Now it’s rising at about a tenth of an inch a year, and in the future, it’s projected to rise more quickly."

So when the city recently proposed its new 20-year storm water plan, he says, a big chunk of the $200 million in proposed upgrades to the system is to account for the steadily rising ocean.

Many projects are already underway. On Purdy Avenue, a crew is drilling into the ground to install one of 17 pumps the city’s put in since 2005. They only had two pumps before that. Around the corner, another work crew is building a higher sea wall. And all new pipes will be wider to drain water more quickly.

The proposed upgrades are based on ocean-level data from the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other scientists.

Just across the bay, in Virginia Key, Professor Ben Kirtman is just getting to work at the University of Miami.

“There’s something about seeing the ocean that’s just so relaxing," he says. "And then when you leave at the end of the day and you get to see it again, it’s just like, all your troubles go away.”

Upstairs in his office, the climate scientist’s tone toward the ocean becomes considerably less Pollyanna.

“It is really quite overwhelming, particularly when you look at sea-level rise, that the data are indisputable. There’s a clear trend," he says. "And the ice sheet data—you know, glaciers and things like that—that data is also becoming more and more clear that things are changing. And not for the better.”

Kirtman contributes his research, computer modeling of the sea and atmosphere, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s the worldwide scientific collaborative that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

Kirtman says, after reading years of increasingly alarming studies—and because he lives in vulnerable South Florida—he’s joined about 120 other Florida scientists and local government officials in signing aletter to President Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

“I’m sort of a little bit conservative about getting involved in the politics," he says. "But at a certain point it’s hard for me to sit back and be quiet when I think we ought to start acting now."

The letter was organized by a group called the Union of Concerned Scientists. It urges Romney and Obama to address questions like “How would you work with the rest of the world to address rising sea levels and other effects of climate change?”

Another of the letter’s signers, Broward County Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs, says her county knows the costs of sea-level rise all too well. Upgrading the water system for just the city of Pompano Beach is projected to cost as much as $1 billion. And Jacobs says, it’s time for the federal government to step up and help. 

“It almost feels like local governments are the grown-ups here, and those on the federal side are still the children because they’re still bickering about whether or not these issues are real," Jacobs says.

Federal help or no, Jacobs and leaders from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties have been collaborating on climate-change issues since 2009. The four governments are working toward writing and approving a group action plan before the end of the year.

Jacobs says the collaboration between such diverse counties gives her hope that Washington will also be able to confront the sometimes politically charged and hotly debated issue of climate change.

“You have those naysayers out there who think it’s magic or voodoo, and so they don’t trust science," she says. "And I think that’s part of our job as government, is to be able to validate scientifically what we expect to see in the future and then, as government, to be responsible to be ready for it."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 40 percent of all U.S. property at risk from sea-level rise is in the state of Florida.

And, hoping to keep the issue in the national spotlight, a group called Energy Action Coalition is organizing students from across the state to demonstrate about climate change before Monday’s presidential debate in Boca Raton.