Climate Change Worries Drive South Florida 51st State Plan

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When a region wants to break away from its state or from the U.S.—whether we're talking about Texas, Vermont, or the former Confederate states—it's usually because of government, politics, and money. But for the city of South Miami, which earlier this month passed a resolution to separate southern from northern Florida, the main concern is climate change.

North and South Florida have had their differences for decades, says Walter Harris, vice mayor of South Miami. South Florida is largely urban and leans left, he says, whereas the north—where the capital, Tallahassee, is located—is mostly rural and much more conservative.

These long-standing political divisions are further fueled by an economic imbalance: according to the resolution for independence, 69 percent of Florida's 22 billion dollars of tax revenue comes from the 24 counties in the southern part of the state.

But the recent acceleration of climate change is what drove Harris, who put forward the resolution for independence earlier this month, to action.

The Everglades are in danger of drowning, Harris says, as is a pair of aging nuclear reactors toward the very southern tip of Florida, which is situated fewer than five feet above sea level. He notes that more than 2.5 million pounds of nuclear waste are buried at the site.

Further complicating matters, Harris says, is the fact that much of southern Florida is built on limestone. This means that a rising sea level affects more than just the coastal areas, as water rises up through the permeable bedrock and affects drainage inland.

But Harris says Tallahassee won't do what needs to be done to address these problems. "We need to be able to deal with this situation with a government that recognizes that we're not North Florida," he says.

Harris has a particular bone to pick with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who he says won't pay attention to Floridians' concerns about the climate. "This is a reality, even though our present governor doesn't think so," Harris says. "Other than the governor of this state, it's an issue that everyone recognizes." Scott is currently in a tight, ugly race against former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who is now running as a Democrat.

Reached for comment, the governor's spokesman pointed to an comment Scott made at a gubernatorial debate Tuesday night. Although Scott refuses to acknowledge that climate change is man-made, he said that he spent $350 million to address sea level rise in the Miami area, and mentioned other large spending packages aimed at protecting Florida's coral reefs and springs.

Gov. Scott's office did not comment on Southern Florida's moves toward independence.

Secession is an uphill battle, and the vice mayor knows it. "I'm called Don Quixote about the whole thing," he says. "But I believe it will happen because, basically, it has to. This is unprecedented in man's existence."

Economic and political divisions "would be reason enough" to split, says Harris, "but now you add the reality of global warming." The rising sea level is of particular concern. Where the northern part of the state is on average 120 feet above sea level, much of the southern portion averages 15 feet above sea level, the resolution reads.

The city's mayor, Philip Stoddard, is on board. He told the Sun Sentinel he's been pro-secession for 15 years, but never put forward a resolution.

"The world is watching us," Harris says. And when it comes to the consequences of a rising sea, "right now, we're ground zero in the United States."

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