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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

Pinellas County's resilience plan doesn't go far enough, according to a climate advocate

Aerial shot of of land surrounded by blue-green water and blue sky with white clouds.
Pinellas County
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Courtesy
Pinellas is Florida’s most densely populated county with nearly 600 miles of coastline, natural habitats and beach communities.

"It's a place that's highly traveled to. It's a big destination. We're also highly vulnerable, and there's a lot of risk at stake," said Hank Hodde with Pinellas County.

Residents in Pinellas County may soon see raised roads and upgraded infrastructure under a new resilience plan, but one climate activist doesn’t think the county's plan goes far enough.

Pinellas is in “a very valuable and visible area of the country,” said Hank Hodde, the county's sustainability and resilience program administrator.

"It's a place that's highly traveled to. It's a big destination. We're also highly vulnerable, and there's a lot of risk at stake… I think a lot of us felt that this past year when Hurricane Ian had its eyes on us for a moment," he said.

Hurricane Preparations

Pinellas used data and resident surveys to create 56 climate resiliency initiatives over a 10-year timeline.

As part of the lengthy plan, Pinellas is focusing on emergency response, like hardening hurricane shelters. The county is actively working with the school board to put mitigation practices in place at school shelters, such as increasing the wind load of their buildings.

Hodde also discussed increasing the integrity of the county’s water and wastewater utility systems, like the capacity of pipes and pumps.

“We know what our historical and existing vulnerabilities are to hazards and disasters, and we're also trying to incorporate future impacts, future disasters, and other types of events, like a large tidal event, for instance,” he said.

Click here to view the 2023 Resilient Pinellas Action Plan

The county already had some projects and programs in place for things like flooding and wind, but Hodde said they wanted a unifying document that brings all the ideas together.

"We spend money every single day investing in the community and building infrastructure, and what we're trying to do is make infrastructure stronger and last longer. I think those are tangible things that the community's gonna see to make us more resilient," he said.

Renewable Energy

The county also wants to reduce its energy use, while incorporating more renewable energy.

But Brooke Ward with the non-governmental group, Food & Water Watch, said she's disappointed in the plan because it doesn't address the root of the problem.

"Any action plan that does not explicitly phase out costly, dirty fossil fuels, is no climate plan at all," she said.

"What we really need to see them doing is committing to passing policies, and other types of initiatives that will move the county away from dirty fossil fuels that are the number one contributor to greenhouse gases, and to offer programming that will help to transition the community as a whole to a clean and renewable future."

Greenhouse gases trap heat, accelerating the warming of the planet and its waters, so not only is water expanding, but glaciers are melting, leading to rising seas.

Some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters can be electric utilities that use fossil fuels to generate energy. Electric bills have also been going up due to the volatility of fossil fuel costs.

Pinellas' plan doesn’t outright say that electric utilities using fossil fuels stand in the way of the county getting to net-zero emissions, like the city of Tampa's recent plan does; however, it says renewable energy could help reduce the electricity sector’s emissions by approximately 81%.

The county also has a goal to increase its clean, renewable energy generation by partnering with Duke Energy Florida and Solar United Neighbors.

Preemption Laws

The Florida Legislature recently passed preemption laws limiting local governments’ ability to regulate certain fuel sources used by utilities. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a number of those bills into law.

“But the preemption laws do not stop community or county-wide choices that are being made for how the county uses its own resources. And the county can make active decisions to move their own operations off of fossil fuels,” Ward said.

“I do think that this plan leans in that direction, but doesn't take the bold policy steps necessary to actually make it a reality.”

Hank Hodde said this resilience plan is not a regulatory document — it’s "an administrative plan under the county administrator."

Pinellas expects to reevaluate its plan in the next four-to-five years to make any adjustments.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.