Scientists, engineers gather for 2022 SWFL Climate Summit in Fort Myers

Published: April 7, 2022 5:42 AM EDT
Updated: April 7, 2022 6:17 PM EDT

Scientists, lawyers and engineers gathered at the 2022 Southwest Florida Climate Summit in downtown Fort Myers on Thursday to learn more about how to protect our beautiful area and wildlife.

The purpose of the summit is to inform and engage community members on what they can do to be better prepared for future events like hurricanes, sea-level rise and climate change.

Jennifer Hecker, the executive director for Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership, says some of the topics that will be discussed at the summit include the science behind water and wetland impacts, and how people can make those wetlands and water resources more resilient. She hopes community members leave the summit knowing how they can prepare themselves, their families and communities for the impacts of climate change.

What you see on the left in the photo above is Naples in 1940. On right, the same city in 2021. A lot has happened in those 81 years. Chief among them, a lot of people moved to the area.

“We estimate there’s about 1.2 million people that live in the lower west coast region. This was projected to increase about 36% between 2020 to 2045,” said a presenter for the South Florida Water Management District.

All those people need water. The South Florida Water Management District put a presentation together to show how Southwest Florida could attack the effects of climate change on our drinking water and what we can do to protect it.

“This is happening right now. So there is some urgency, we need to double down and really get serious,” said Hecker.

“That responsibility falls within the local folks, water management districts and the state,” said a presenter for the South Florida Water Management District.

“You know better than most that restoration is essential to preserve Southwest Florida’s drinking water and improve our state’s climate resilience,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Rubio opened the 2022 climate summit by telling everyone in attendance, and participating on zoom, that he is on top of the issue. He said he is working on several ideas with members of congress.

“We start out with a lot of work to do. I look forward to continuing this work side by side with you to ensure that Florida waters ecosystems and communities remain strong for generations to come,” said Rubio.

Senator Rubio said his bill to restore coral reefs passed through the committee. The measure would allocate more money toward coral restoration, which will help improve the climate resilience of Florida’s coastal communities.

“This is happening right now,” Hecker said. “So, there is some urgency; we need to double down and really get serious about doing these investments right now to reduce the level of impacts that we are seeing already occurring and going to continue to occur in our communities.”

One of the presenters at the SWFL Climate Summit says more than 1,000 people move to Florida each day. The more people who move here, the more land that gets developed, and that can lead to things being built in areas critical to connecting wildlife habitats.

Joshua Daskin, the director of conservation at Archbold Biological Station, says it all boils down to building thoughtfully. He says planning ahead and using visions like the Florida Wildlife Corridor gives leaders an opportunity to get ahead of the game. At the summit, Daskin will give a presentation on how the Florida Wildlife Corridor is essential to wildlife resiliency, on plans for preservation and on being realistic about future development.

“Yeah, I think it would be naive to say that development is not going to happen or can be stopped,” Daskin said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily required to have the sort of green infrastructure and the habitat needed by wildlife in Florida. What is needed, again, is to use careful planning and scientific data, which is available to plan where people should develop.”

Our climate is changing, but what does that mean for us in Southwest Florida?

“It’s going to impact our lives, how it’s going to impact our environment, and how it’s going to impact our quality of life here in Southwest Florida,” said Hecker.

Preserving our drinking water is one of the many challenges we face. Especially when Southwest Florida’s growing so fast, but that is not the only issue. Daskin said we must also protect our land and wildlife.

“This means not building in places that are most critical to connecting wildlife habitats. It means not building in the most sensitive, rare ecosystems. It means building thoughtfully in places that are maybe already somewhat disturbed or closer to existing cities, and clustering our development,” said Daskin.

In the meantime, it’s up to the community to listen. “We’re giving these citizens the information they need to get engaged on this,” said Hecker.

The goal of the climate summit is to convince people to take action.

On Friday, the climate summit will focus on the people and how some experts say climate change is going to impact our neighborhoods.

The summit kicked off at 9 a.m. on Thursday and runs until Friday at 4:30 p.m. You can watch it online or attend it in person at the Collaboratory, located at 2031 Jackson St. in downtown Fort Myers. Visit the summit website for details on registration and more.