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Stephen Mulkey
»Photographed in Cedar Key, where scientists have linked tree deaths to sea-level rise, UF's Stephen Mulkey, science adviser to the Century Commission, says that the outlook regarding climate change "is far from hopeless. There's immense economic growth available to Florida through development of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficient transportation."

Across Europe these days, debate rages over how nations and states should prepare for a changing climate, particularly rising sea levels that will test waterfront cities from Venice to Amsterdam. Governments and insurance companies alike have started telling residents there that they'll have to make more drastic lifestyle changes than just switching to efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars. Serious questions about whether citizens can keep building homes on islands and near lowlands are the order of the day.

In the U.S., the discussion has been less urgent. Only this year have Americans begun dropping the question mark from their conversations about global warming, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressing in its latest five-year report that global warming is "unequivocal" and "very likely" man-made. The panel, representing 600 scientists in more than 100 countries, estimated in its February report a 3.5- to 8- degree increase in average surface temperatures, and a 7- to 23-inch sea-level rise, by 2100. Faster-than-expected melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica could mean much higher seas.

Florida, with its already-hot summers and 1,400-mile coastline, clearly has a lot to lose in a world of warming temperatures and rising oceans. Early signs of global warming in the state include drought and increased forest fires, eroding shorelines, dying coral reefs, saltwater intrusion into inland freshwater aquifers and dying trees in low-lying areas such as Cedar Key, says Stephen Mulkey, director of special projects at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Florida and science adviser to the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, which is charged with focusing longterm on Florida's essential interests.

According to a report to the Century Commission by the Virginia-based Institute for Alternative Futures, Florida has lagged as states from California to Texas to Maine have forged policies that now include greenhouse gas emission targets; carbon caps or offset requirements for power plants; climate-action plans; regional climate initiatives; greenhouse-gas reporting and registries; and state green-building standards. Given the state's vulnerability, "it is striking that Florida is not a leader of states responding to climate change," Mulkey says.

But whether because of political shifts or the handwriting on the seawalls, Florida finally appears to be taking climate change more seriously. The Century Commission, the Cabinet, Florida's new Energy Commission, the Senate's utility and natural resources committees and Gov. Charlie Crist all seem to be putting global warming on their agendas in meaningful ways. The Natural Resources Defense Council's Susan Glickman told the St. Petersburg Times that between last year and now, "it feels like 10 years have passed in terms of level of interest and understanding."

The Legislature is considering steps this session toward what Mulkey and other scientists say is the most important first step: Cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming. Proposals include forced emissions reductions and approval of up to $100-million in alternative energy funding. (Driving the discussion as much as climate change: Curtailing Florida's dependence on foreign oil.)

Perhaps most interesting, the Century Commission is pushing the idea that Florida not only mitigate the impacts of climate change, but become a model for how to adapt. "We really believe this is a place where Florida can become a national leader," says Steve Seibert, executive director of the commission.

Terry Tamminen, climate change adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who met with the commission and Crist in February, suggests Florida could lead the way in areas such as:

» Demonstrating the potential for carbon sequestration -- the idea of storing CO2 long-term underground to reduce its buildup in the atmosphere -- on state-owned lands and in saline aquifers. Scientists say underground geologic formations could store trillions of tons of CO2, and some believe this is the most promising possibility for reducing emissions. But research is needed to make sure the carbon stays put and doesn't cause problems underground;

» Developing response plans for impacts to marine ecosystems such as dying coral reefs;

» Taking the lead role in building a greenhouse gas trading system for the Southeastern U.S.;

» Research and development. Governors from five Western states agreed last month to begin working together to reduce greenhouse gases, saying their region has suffered some of the worst of global warming with recent droughts and severe wildfires. Florida, having suffered through droughts and wildfires as well as severe weather that may be related to climate change, needs a much greater effort to quantify and begin mapping impacts, Mulkey says. Particularly urgent: Mapping precisely how the seas will rise. Another Century Commission project, under way among the state, UF and Florida State University, may be the vehicle. The project is known as CLIP: Critical Lands/Waters Identification Project.

"We need more data," Mulkey says, "and we need it quickly."