There's hope for climate change in Florida says environmentalist

09/26/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: environment, water, global warming, climate change, Stetson, estuaries, John Kostyak


John Kostyak, head of the National Wildlife Federation, talks to law students about environmental policy.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Studies show that parts of South Florida have already seen 9 inches of sea level rise with another one to two feet predicted by 2060. The head of the National Wildlife Federation, John Kostyack, spoke to students at Stetson University College of Law Thursday about what has been done to preserve sensitive areas and habitats as well as what still needs to be done.

Kostyack is a legal advocate of Endangered Species Act policy and works to protect communities from intensified flooding as a result of climate change.

"This cost of a climate change adaptation is so enormous the idea that any one small poor country is going to get themselves out of the box of climate change is a ridiculous notion in my mind. In fact the notion that any individual by themselves could really make a difference on this, acting alone is absurd, right?"

In an era of financially strapped governmental bodies, funding for restoration projects is difficult to find. Kostyack says those efforts can be more sustainable by looking at what’s called “Green Infrastructure.”

"A large part of our coasts were actually surrounded by oysteries, historically, and they are some of the best ways of wave energy, the impact of coastal storms. Coastal wetlands and dunes, replanting vegetated dunes, these are all some fairly low tech, inexpensive ways to protect communities from floods and storms."

But the norm across the country, he says, is to build so-called “Gray Infrastructure.”

"If you put up a sea wall or you put up any kind of structure along a river and push the water away, where is it going to go? It's going to go to your neighbors, and so it's really not a question of protecting a community, sometimes it's somebody protecting themselves at the expense of their community."

But Kostyack also focuses on the money side of environmental activism. He works to change policies to take subsidies away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is the governmental body that runs the national flood insurance program. Kostyack says the agency is not actuarially sound because they don’t set flood insurance rates high enough in areas prone to flooding.

"Loss of wildlife gets people a little bit pissed off. Stealing their money and raising their taxes really pisses people off."

Such policy could put a burden on homeowners in flood-prone areas. That’s why Kostyack wants to reform the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to include some grant opportunities for those individuals who may not be able to afford increased flood insurance rates.

"By the way, I'm not talking about new construction, I'm talking about people who've been living in flood plains for many years are getting hit with these rate increases that they can't afford. We need to have some kind of way of helping them out. Distinguishing them from what I would consider to be the more egregious cases of unfair tapping into our taxpayer dollars, which is these second, third vacation homes that are getting this subsidy and people who keep on rebuilding in the same place that gets hit by repetitive floods over and over again. That's utter stupidity."

Kostyack’s recommended reform would also include creating disaster plans in local and state governments. There have been some improvements to policies over the years to encourage environmentally sound decision making by governments.

"On the sort of non-mandatory part of the program called a community rating system, essentially a voluntary program, you get extra credits for entering in habitat conservation plans. There is halting acknowledgement of this land use connection and there are communities that can now benefit from really being pro-active about endangered species."

Locally, legal teams had some success in a lawsuit against FEMA aimed at protecting the Key Deer. Kostyak said, because FEMA subsidized infrastructure built on environmentally sensitive lands and those in high flood areas, it endangered not just the Key Deer, but eight other species as well. As a result of the litigation, FEMA had to make some changes to their policies.

"By issuing that flood insurance they were encouraging development in the habitat of the endangered Key Deer and as a result of facilitating that development you are essentially carrying out an action that has an impact on a listed species. Because you are having an impact on a listed species with your program you have to do a consultation with the expert wildlife agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service."

Florida is currently in the midst of a lengthy legal battle with Georgia over water consumption that is strangling flows into Apalachicola Bay and suffocating the area’s seafood industry. David White, director of the Gulf of Mexico restoration campaign, says sometimes it takes an emergency situation to jerk elected officials into action. He adds other estuaries in Florida are suffering as a result of poor infrastructure choices in the past.

"Tamiami Trail which runs a highway, runs from Tamiami to Miami, acts as a dam and a barrier to sending that water south where it used to go into Everglades National Park, into Florida Bay, which is starving Florida Bay from fresh water and turning it more from an estuary into a lagoon, a salty lagoon.

Plans are under way to use funds from the BP oil spill lawsuit money to raise Tamiami trail and regain some of the water flow into the Everglades. That decision is subject to review by Governor Rick Scott and a committee charged with coming up with a list of restoration projects. Friday, officials in Stokholm are expected to release a report highlighting how much carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are effecting global warming.

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