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In the Climate Change Coal Mine

The Year the Canaries Came Home to Roost

by ALAN FARAGO

For my final essay of 2013 I am going to (again) write about climate change. This seems to be the year of the canaries in the climate-change coal mine. “Seems”, because at the risk of repetition I have been on that metaphor from the moment I started on the environment.

Back in the late 1980’s I wrote about serial algae blooms in northern Florida Bay. Although the scientists were scratching each other’s eyes out at the time — on the facts and cause –, it was clear that nothing could stop amorphous, amoeba-like blobs from destroying a vast, extraordinary piece of the Everglades ecosystem.

Nothing but government action to reverse decades of water mis-management that accrued to the benefit and upstream profits of Big Sugar. But the deniers controlled the levers of government: it was the time of Ronald Reagan, James Watts and the Wise Use Movement mobilized through the precursor to the Tea Party, called then the Sagebrush Rebellion — against government and especially against environmental regulation — and its Florida Keys branch, the Conch Coalition.

Even the scientists have stopped arguing. Florida Bay is, for all intents and purposes, converted to a blighted remnant that mainly hosts scavenger species. There are still a few trophies left. They are bewildered stragglers. Just go to a few restaurants in the Keys to see the photos on the walls — like the Square Grouper on Summerland Key or Stouts on Marathon Key — to see what was only a generation ago.

As those early algae blooms were canaries in a coal mine to the fate of Florida Bay, so is the degradation of our coastal waters in Florida a canary in the coal mine for land-based natural resources. The state, recently claimed the third most populous in the United States, is awash in a sea of pollution — the toxic form of mercury flows in the middle of the Everglades in degrees that make it one of the world’s hot spots. In other words, the canaries in the coal mine are everywhere.

Superstorm Sandy. Ice storms, now, through much of the nation depriving millions of electricity while serial cold fronts sweep through. And in Miami? Just yesterday I had the AC repair out: the humidity busted my air conditioner. I asked the repair guy had his business ever been so good in December? He just shook his head. The other day I asked a motel owner in the Keys, have sea levels been rising? He confided, I’m a climate change denier until I sell my property.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an important story, “Spared Winter Freeze, Florida’s Wetlands Are Marching North“. “(Dr. Gruner) said that scientists needed to start considering changes beyond just average temperatures as they analyzed the environmental consequences of climate change. More surprises are likely in store, he said. “I don’t like to think about it, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s a little scary.”

“Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, offered no specific comment on the new paper. By email, he said the agency had indeed “seen an increase in mangrove habitats to the north and inward along the Atlantic coast. It’s difficult to determine whether this is good or bad for the ecosystem because it’s happened over a relatively short period of time and may be a result of many factors.” Tell that to the insurance industry, Mr. Gillespie, your boss, Gov. Rick Scott, and Senator Marco Rubio-who-still-refuses-meeting-with-climate change scientists.

So there you have it: 2013, the Year of the Canaries In The Climate-Change Coal Mine”. Unpersuaded? Watch Malcolm Gladwell’s “How much proof do we need”, beginning with the literal coal mine and the canary. That would be, us.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades.