Where are we now, as a coastal community?

By: Benjamin Gunden, Clearwater High School

Intern to Sustainable Development Efforts, UNA USA Tampa Bay Chapter

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Sometimes I think about what my home may be like some day. I find myself aloof in an image of paddling down streets, the pavement lurking yards below water, with only rooftops visible at eye’s level. It may be an extreme image, but it comes to mind ironically as I help my father build beautiful homes along the coast, which may someday be abandoned to an increasingly concrete issue: climate change. I, as someone who grew up between the two masses of water that are the Gulf and the Atlantic, cannot help but think of extreme images as the severity of this issue becomes more and more evident. The images in my head of streets as reefs and homes as sunken relics worsen as our nation’s negligence resonates. As we all must know, Florida is a state surrounded by water, and it is a state very low to sea level. A significant portion of Florida’s economy is tourism, and a bulk of that tourism is coastal-based. Most of the wealth in our state comes from areas that are predicted to be the first to perish in the wake of severe flooding. These are the beaches, resorts, downtown areas, and ecological zones found amongst places like Miami, Tampa, Saint Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, and many more of the state’s economic hubs situated along the coasts. It is within the interest of every Floridian to preserve our coastlines to the greatest extent possible.  And so, as Floridians, we must ask ourselves, without our coasts, what would Florida be?

This negligence towards climate change afflicts so many. At times, many of us have turned away from this elusive thing that seems natural and inevitable, in conscious or subconscious hopes that the threat of it will perish so long as it is ignored. Yet, the scientific community desperately cautions against this. Climate change is continuously ratified to be a very real issue of impending catastrophe. For decades, the consequences of humanity’s iron boot have blatantly presented themselves to be addressed, a challenge to our virtue as a race, but how have we responded? As Floridians, we have improved in some ways. Our recycling rates are higher than ever, with Pinellas county leading the state in 2015 with a reported 89% of waste recycled (according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection). However, a large abundance of this percentage is owed to the recycling of construction and demolition debris, which means there is more work to be done in terms of how much citizens recycle, themselves. In any case, Pinellas is far ahead of the rest of the state, which reported an overall rate of only 54% of waste recycled.

The fact that Pinellas County has made such achievements, in terms of recycling, is a reflection of what increased levels of sustainability awareness can do. Larger recycling cans were spread throughout the city of Clearwater, for example, in 2013. The old containers held a mere 18 gallons of waste, while the new ones hold 96 gallons. This move allowed residents to recycle more goods than before, which has undoubtedly helped increase the recycling rate. With that being said, a great limitation to the single-strain recycling program in Clearwater is how all of the waste recycled must be transported to a private processing facility in Tampa. As of 2015, the department had plans to initiate the development of its own processing facility.

The type of program found in Clearwater, and the trend of recycling of Pinellas county in general, serves as an example for the rest of the state to follow. The rate of 89% shows that increased recycling rates are perfectly achievable for Floridians, and so there is reason to believe that our state can improve its impact on the coastal environment step by step, starting with awareness, and ending with the near-elimination of practices within our state that contribute to the overall pandemic of climate change. If Florida, as a state, can set a powerful example, more states will follow, and thus our entire country can set an example for the rest of the world, just as other countries have, themselves. This is the extent of which an individual can affect their community and a community may affect the world. Progress starts in small steps, which means the steps our Chapter has begun to take should be outlined as well.

As mentioned above, the process starts in awareness, and since the root of awareness lies in education, we, UNA Tampa Bay, have initiated the pursuit of helping Tampa Bay Area high schools build programs that tackle sustainability issues, such as recycling, researching and spreading awareness about climate change, and developing new ways to maintain and improve the environmental status quo of their surroundings. The foundation of these programs will be the supplementation of volunteer hours that students can put towards the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship. With this scholarship in mind, students will have an impactful opportunity to make a change in their community, learn and implement leadership skills, and make moves that work towards securing their educational future. This initiative is in its infancy, which means the startup process has sometimes been challenging and slow. The members of UNA Tampa Bay involved with this initiative have been working towards building relationships with schools and local businesses to establish a network that puts essential resources in the hands of students so that they may build programs in their schools that are suitable to their own realms of study, and constructive to their education. UNA Tampa Bay intends to launch this program during the academic year of 2017-18, following the UNA national convention.

By striving to address climate change, an issue that many consider to be the most important of all global issues, the Tampa Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association is continuing to work towards a Tampa Bay Area that upholds the values of the United Nations. These values are those that champion the preservation of the environment, human rights, equality, and peace. These are values that must be pursued passionately by not just the members of our organization, but by all who call Tampa Bay home.

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