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‘It is a community issue’

By Staff | Apr 26, 2019

Southwest Floridians believe the time is now to conquer climate change.

“We believe we have an issue with water, and climate change is here in Southwest Florida,” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Collier County. ” and we are all just saying we can’t sit back here and do nothing.”

Organizations from Lee and Collier counties are teaming up to form a three-year partnership to help address the region’s changing environment.

The Community Foundation of Collier County, Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Florida Gulf Coast University and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida joined forces to align resources to address these time-sensitive issues.

“Look at the strengthening storms we’re seeing, look at the flooding we’re seeing, look at what’s happening with red tide and blue-green algae,” Connolly-Keesler said.

“The whole premise is we really need to spend time to educate the community on what climate change is doing to Southwest Florida. And that we can all be part of the solution.”

The partnership was spearheaded by the Conservancy and an outgrowth of climate change survey results released in February.

In late 2018, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida partnered with the Community Foundation of Collier County and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to hire a national climate leadership organization, ecoAmerica, to design and execute a survey of the five-county area.

“The results were very clear. Southwest Florida residents believe now is the time to take action on this issue,” Connolly-Keesler said. “Collective action means we are more powerful when we work together within and across sectors.”

According to the February study, seven in 10 Southwest Florida residents are concerned about the changing climate and the majority says that extreme weather events have been a factor.

“We know positive change starts locally, making a Southwest Florida-focused partnership extremely relevant,” said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Founda-tion. “The survey results illustrated that the changing climate knows no boundaries and impacts all who live, work and play in the region. Building personal connection to and collective leadership around the issue will empower action and sustain our quality of life.”

Leaders from each organization recently met to determine four primary goals for the initiative.

The main goals are to empower community members and leaders to initiate change; build climate legacy to understand the root causes of the changing climate and support initiatives to address the problems and adapt to be more resilient to future impacts; ensure a prosperous and healthy community, and to protect natural assets such as wetlands, dunes, mangroves and the shoreline.

“The university is highly involved in the health of Southwest Florida’s waterways and its impacts on the surrounding ecosystems, our economy and the people who rely on water for life and leisure,” said Robert Gregerson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at FGCU. “With an interdisciplinary approach, we’re addressing local issues with global consequences. This partnership allows us to expand our efforts.”

In 2017, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida put together a task force to look at how the changing climate impacted the organization’s work to protect the region’s water, land, wildlife and future. President and CEO Rob Moher said they quickly realized this was much more than an environmental issue.

“It is a community issue,” he said. “Hurricane Irma was a wake-up call that a changing climate impacts storm intensity, floods and fire events, which, in turn, impacts human health, our economy and the quality of life for all in Southwest Florida.”

The founding group, Growing Climate Solutions Path to Positive Southwest Florida, will work to build a coalition of residents across key community sectors, including health, education, faith, business and the environment.

“These are people’s livelihoods,” Connolly-Keesler said. “How do you make something happen in the community? You have to create huge awareness amongst a five region area about what climate change is doing in the environment.”

Moher said one of the next steps for the partnership is to hire a community engagement coordinator to oversee education and outreach efforts to engage more participants.

“A broad, multi-year, initiative as proposed has a much better chance of systematically reaching thousands of residents with our message of community resiliency from multiple perspective and sectors,” he said.

Local solutions may range from improved teacher training opportunities, Moher said, to local businesses adapting their business model to take advantage of new technology that has additional green benefits, to individuals or communities who are motivated to make a change and initiate more solar deployment on their rooftops.

“There are so many simple steps that can be taken to strengthen our ability to adapt to a changing climate and its impacts.”

Since February, $840,000 has been donated toward a fundraising goal of $1.2 million.

Moher said one of the most pressing issues right now is protecting our natural infrastructure such as mangroves and wetlands.

“Mangroves took the brunt of the storm with Hurricane Irma,” he said. “Can you imagine the devastation if we didn’t have that natural barrier to protect us? By preserving wetlands we are able to better control flooding when major rain events do occur.”

Some other areas of concern include sea level rise, flooding, red tide and blue-green algae.

“The algae issue wasn’t going on five years ago like it is today,” Connolly-Keesler said. “The things we’ve had happen in the past seem to be bigger and more of an issue today.

“Why would we wait until it’s so bad that it’s caused massive damage in Southwest Florida before we talk about those solutions that we can put in place now?”