How will Tampa's next mayor tackle climate change?

The seven candidates running for mayor have a variety of answers ranging from forming a task force to becoming the cutting-edge city for combating rising seas and severe storms.
The Tampa mayoral candidates at a forum at Blake High School this week. From left: Jane Castor, Harry Cohen, Dick Greco Jr., Topher Morrison, David Straz, Mike Suarez and Ed Turanchik. [Photo by Charlie Frago]
The Tampa mayoral candidates at a forum at Blake High School this week. From left: Jane Castor, Harry Cohen, Dick Greco Jr., Topher Morrison, David Straz, Mike Suarez and Ed Turanchik. [Photo by Charlie Frago]
Published February 10
Updated February 10

TAMPA— Transportation and affordable housing have dominated Tampa’s mayoral race so far. In forum after forum, in every corner of the city, neighborhood groups and civic organizations have peppered the seven candidates on how they would dissolve gridlock and slow gentrification’s roll.

Climate change, surprisingly, has been a second-tier topic. Despite numerous studies that say Tampa is at high risk for flooding and rising sea levels, the problem is mentioned infrequently at forums, when it’s mentioned at all.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg has plunged ahead with a systemic plan to combat climate change, recently winning a grant of technical assistance from the foundation of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, environmental advocates says Tampa has been sluggish in its response to what they see as an existential threat.

“As much as I appreciate potholes, water main breaks and baseball stadiums, this is a topic that has been given short shrift,” said Kent Bailey, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tampa Bay Group, which is planning a Feb. 20 forum on environmental issues at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor campus.

“Tampa is extremely vulnerable to climate change,’’ Bailey said. “We should be leading the nation. Instead we seem to be dragging our feet.”

Although it hasn’t been a high-profile issue, the candidates have staked out positions ranging from former police Chief Jane Castor’s promise to install a sustainability officer in her administration to retired banker David Straz’s vow to create a task force of interested citizens to work with his administration.

City Council member Harry Cohen was the first candidate to make resiliency a talking point at several forums in early January, driving home that the city’s vulnerability could eventually lower its bond agency ratings, making borrowing more costly.

“Taxpayers are going to be paying the bill and that is the cruelest tax that can be imposed on the citizens. It means that people will be paying the same amount of money and getting less,” Cohen said at a Jan. 16 forum hosted by the Downtown Partnership.

Cohen has advocated higher seawalls, raised roadways and planting mangroves. including around MacDill Air Force Base. When Congress looks at another round of base closing, he said, they’ll take resiliency into account.

“They’ll be looking at which cities are taking the steps to protect their assets,” Cohen said at a Jan. 15 forum at Armature Works.

Small business consultant Topher Morrison has touted his support of a pledge to make the city run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Morrison also released a “Green City” plan that included pledging to plant 100,000 trees to help soak up water and reduce flooding.

“We cannot out-engineer Mother Nature, but we can cooperate with her,” Morrison has said at recent forums, explaining his tree proposal will increase green space needed to absorb heavy rains.

Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, also an early supporter of the 100 percent clean energy pledge, frequently mentions his Sierra Club organizing bona fides at forums. He has been endorsed by many local environmentalists.

“It’s an existential threat to Tampa. Clearly,” Turanchik said at a Tampa Bay Business Journal forum last week. Turanchik said he’ll be a strong advocate for deregulating the energy market to encourage the move toward solar, wind and other forms of sustainable energy.

City Council member Mike Suarez said there is no one solution to the threat.

“We’re behind the curve, because of the amount of money we’ve put into it,” Suarez said at the forum, adding he’d make it a priority as mayor.

An idea floated by Suarez at several forums is to reduce the city’s vehicle fleet, using rental cars as needed and converting what remains to natural gas or electric-powered vehicles.

Retired Judge Dick Greco Jr. focused on the next generation.

“It starts with education, We need to have children learn how to save our environment,” said at a South Tampa forum on Jan. 30.

Although not directly related to carbon emissions, Greco Jr. praised the city’s plan to convert highly-treated wastewater to drinking water to reduce nitrogen flowing into the bay.

Straz, who said at the South Tampa forum that he supports the 100 percent clean energy pledge, recently deferred to Cohen’s approach.

“Being a man of very few words, I agree with Harry,” Straz said at the Feb. 5 forum.

Aside from hiring a sustainability advisor, Castor stresses her experience as police chief visiting areas around the state wrecked by hurricanes. Disaster recovery is an important part of resiliency, she has said at several forums. And major storms will damage the most prepared city.

Since the city hasn’t done much yet to become more resilient, Cohen said, it’s not wedded to existing technology and can innovate.

“We can then export our expertise,” he said. “We can be pioneers.”

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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