Friday, January 4, 2013

Women leaders "widening the circle" on climate change in South Florida

You might have thought that with all the bad news on climate change recently – faster ice sheet melting, and no breakthroughs in Doha – the mood at the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Leadership Summit this December would have been rather gloomy. After all, South Florida has topped lists of the world’s most vulnerable places to sea level rise. To be sure, the nearly 300 participants gathered – county and municipal staff, planners, activists, and scientists – were clear on the challenges we face. But even with this sense of urgency the mood of the summit was more “can do” than hand-wringing. The atmosphere felt more upbeat than beat-down. For one of the thorniest issues of our day, that seemed remarkable.


Signs of progress included the quick adoption of the Climate Action Plan by two members of the Regional Climate Compact, formed in 2009 by four southeastern Florida counties to coordinate planning and advocacy on climate change. The municipalities of Boynton Beach, Coconut Creek and Miami Beach reported on actions being implemented to adapt to higher sea level and to reduce greenhouse gasses. Former HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Simms congratulated the Compact for stepping up and showing leadership on climate change, the first major region in the country to do so, and urged South Florida to keep progress moving as fast as possible as an example for other regions to follow.

But something else that stood out at the summit was the key role that women have played in both leading and supporting the work of the Compact. This aspect of the regional Climate Compact process has gone relatively unremarked but was hard to miss during these two days. While generally women are still a minority of elected officials, at the summit half of the current and former elected officials represented were women, as were half of the presenters and speakers. Another indication was the leadership of Broward County, the first county to adopt the Action Plan, which did so with a majority of women on the commission (5 out of 9). Also, Broward County's staff of women in Natural Resources Planning and Management department, including two with PhD's, have provided key support for the Compact process. They, along with dozens more women in the other counties and municipalities, at the state and federal levels, and in local and national non-profit groups have created momentum for climate change planning over the last few years when other priorities like the economy and fiscal issues have gotten most of the attention.

One session in particular highlighted the leadership of local women elected officials. When former Palm Beach commissioner Karen Marcus spoke on "Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: How Local Governments are Leading Us Forward to a Sustainable Future,” she invited two others she has worked closely with to share the stage -- former Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson and current Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs. The leadership of these three women was crucial in establishing the Compact, setting goals and bringing resources. Both Republican and Democrat, they worked together to move the Compact’s agenda on the state level as well with the passage of the Adaptation Action Areas legislation, even becoming known as the “green girls” in Tallahassee.

The way that many of the women involved with the Compact described their work may provide a clue to the Compact's success so far in bringing together a diverse and fragmented region to plan for climate change. Jacobs for example described how the four counties had previously seen each other as competitors, but have "built relationships and trust.” However “we can’t be the only ones,” she said, “we need kindred spirits around the country." Ft. Lauderdale Assistant City Manager and Compact Steering Committee member Susan Torriente echoed these sentiments in her description of the approach of the Compact and its summits, which she calles “widening the circle.” She began by saying that they have “a small core team with a lot of love, but it’s nice to look out and see the circle widening. We need to keep widening it.”

The increasing attendance at the annual summits and continued progress on the Compact’s agenda seem to indicate this approach is working. Much has been made of the difficulty of dealing with uncertainty and divergent political views on climate change. But it could be that the "widening the circle" approach works to include a range of views-- from those who are urgently calling for CO2 emissions reductions to slow the dramatically worsening climate situation, to those who are pragmatically concerned with the everyday realities of managing infrastructure needs, whatever the cause of climate change. The different perspectives are all heard, but within the context of building relationships and moving the agenda forward together. At the summits and meetings people are networking and finding where their interests converge and they can work together. And even if they can’t work together, at the very least, they are listening to each other.

The apparent lack of conflict and the progress the Southeast Florida region has made has caught the attention of federal officials and national advocacy groups. Representatives from the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House, all repeated they had been watching the Compact's work and were eager to learn from what the region is doing. Coming from Washington, where getting traction on climate change has been nearly impossible, one can see how the Compact's progress feels like reason for hope.

How far will the “widening the circle” approach take us? Like much else with climate change, we don't yet know. There are still many more who need to be included, notably particularly socially vulnerable groups such as the elderly, low-income residents, and children. But for now, it seems that building relationships and trust, and providing ways for those who want to join the circle to get involved, are moving southeast Florida’s adaptation to climate change forward. For that, we can be thankful we have courageous local leaders, with many women among them.

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