24 Jun 2020 Hurricane Irma: Southwest Florida’s Wakeup Call on Climate Change
With all the pressing attention generated by the COVID-19 health crisis, a pre-existing and equally alarming challenge to Southwest Florida’s future is on the rise. While it may not strike with the lethal quickness of the pandemic, its threat as a global crisis has been gathering for years like storm clouds over the Gulf.
It’s a threat to the region’s environmental, health and economic sustainability, but that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg – one on which striking numbers of Southwest Floridians have planted a metaphorical yellow flag of caution: climate change.
Earlier this year, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida released the results of the first-ever comprehensive survey of Southwest Floridians regarding their attitudes on a changing climate. Hurricane Irma’s place among the growing frequency of major storms was identified as a turning point, generating widespread support among residents for local government and civic action on climate solutions.
Residents drew a strong connection between their personal health, the region’s economic health, and local climate impacts – including rising sea levels, stronger storms, and warmer water with increasing algae blooms.
Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida was a response to that milestone survey. Launched in 2019, it’s a regional partnership between the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Collier County, FGCU and the national EcoAmerica organization. The goal is to build awareness through climate education, protect natural resources, and engage residents, businesses and civic institutions in support of climate solutions.
A key is to bring about collective impact through committed individual action. “It starts with education and instilling in people a belief they can make a difference,” says Dr. Ana Puszkin-Chevlin, the regional director of Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida who earned a Ph.D. in urban planning. “By educating and empowering individuals and institutions with knowledge and a way to achieve positive climate outcomes, you begin to shift behaviors and change the present course.”
That present course has been temporarily unsettled by the recent past: just as the nonprofit organization was beginning to get operational traction back in March, the pandemic brought an abrupt halt to planned “normal” operations.
One of the bedrock outreach initiatives disrupted was SWFL Climate Ambassadors, a program designed to prepare local leaders and residents to learn and talk knowledgeably about climate challenges and solutions with their community, and to be role models for climate action. Typically, efforts would have been in-person meetings in small group settings or larger assemblies, so Dr. Puzshkin-Chevlin and her team re-wrote the curriculum for a pivot from on-land to online as they completed training for 60 community members in the first Climate Ambassador cohort.
“People are using Zoom and are on their social media all day long,” Dr. Puzshkin-Chevlin notes, “so, we decided to train the ambassadors to harness that, to start modeling their commitment to climate via those platforms, particularly social media, because they can reach a much larger audience than the one they could otherwise have met in–person.”
She emphasizes that Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida is not an advocacy group that champions specific climate policies; rather, the organization seeks to educate residents about how they can make a climate difference in their everyday lives and nurture community engagement around climate literacy to help generate the necessary political will to take positive action on a larger scale.
While COVID-19 may have momentarily unmoored the region from the dock of normalcy during these tossed times, Dr. Puzshkin-Chevlin says the support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been a safe harbor in the COVID-19 storm.
“The fact that the foundation has kept the grant steady and made a commitment for three years is enormously helpful. We’re able to continue focusing on how best to move forward instead of just trying to figure out how to survive.”
As the region anticipates a return to a “new” normal that’s still hard to define, Growing Climate Solutions: Path to Positive Southwest Florida continues to chart a definite course to climate outcomes that bolster the region’s future.