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From heat-tolerant cattle to racial inequality, Gainesville leaders search for solutions at climate change summit

David Moore trudges through knee-high water in his neighborhood, the Hills of Santa Fe, on Thursday, July 8, 2021, a day after Tropical Storm Elsa drenched the northwest Gainesville area. (Thomas Weber/Fresh Take Florida)
David Moore trudges through knee-high water in his neighborhood, the Hills of Santa Fe, on Thursday, July 8, 2021, a day after Tropical Storm Elsa drenched the northwest Gainesville area. (Thomas Weber/Fresh Take Florida)

While climate change is a global challenge, Alachua County residents also have a role to play. About 70 people spent part of their weekend at a Gainesville church to talk about climate threats and responses, with recent extreme weather events like Hurricane Idalia fresh on their minds.

Jacqueline Patterson, longtime director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program (the group sponsoring this event), travels the country to teach about the effects of climate change—especially on marginalized communities.

“Local, front-line communities are the ones who know the solutions, and we need to make sure the folks who know the solutions are making the decisions,” Patterson said.

She showed videos of global activists trying to make change in their own neighborhoods, a group she calls 'front-line communities'. One followed Ugandans who fought deforestation and another that documented teens in Texas who blocked the construction of an incinerator in their community.

“The same stories that people are telling in Uganda are the same stories that people are telling here,” she said. “It’s always talking about negative impacts and devastation, but we have to remember the beauty that has to be preserved.”

Of course, it’s not just the environment that’s negatively impacted, she stressed.

Patterson spoke of a parallel of exploiting in the environment in areas mainly populated by people of color. She gave an example of how large petrochemical plants are often built in Black and brown neighborhoods.

“This is the very basis of our capitalist economy: The first commodities that were traded on the market were people,” Patterson said. “It’s not just about how we treated the people, but the environment in this extractive way.”

A self-described introvert, she nonetheless engaged the room as she received a barrage of applause and a steady queue of audience questions. In attendance were community leaders including the mayors of Hawthorne and Micanopy, Jacquelyn Randall and Jiana Williams, as well as the Chief Climate Officer of Gainesville, Dan Zhu.

Next to the podium, Alachua County officials discussed the worst-case scenarios in the county’s new Vulnerability Analysis report, and how they’re moving to avoid those outcomes.

Potential for severe flooding in the county was part of what prompted the Vulnerability Analysis. County Environmental Protection Department Director Stephen Hofstetter pointed out how the county will need to adapt land use to accommodate rising flood levels in the decades to come.

Using a high-resolution flood map, Hofstetter demonstrated how a storm like Hurricane Irma could produce enough rainfall to completely flood Interstate-75 by 2070.

“We actually aren’t expecting an overall increase in annual rainfall,” he said. “But the unfortunate side is that we’ll have stronger storms putting more water on the ground and potentially longer droughts in between.”

Hofstetter said he remains confident the county will have conserved enough land by 2070 to act as a natural defense against intense floods. While there are neighborhoods constructed decades ago in former floodplains, like the Hills of Santa Fe in west Gainesville, the county has managed to conserve about 30% of its land as a buffer, officials said.

Another issue of regional consequence is the impact on agriculture, said John Nix, chair of the Alachua County Citizen Climate Advisory Committee.

By the end of the century, the county could see 100 days of extremely hot weather per year, Nix said. That heat will put a strain on staple crops like corn, hay and snap beans.

“We’ll have to adapt our plants and animals to survive in a drought,” Nix said. “We ourselves have to adjust to our environment so that we can still maintain a good quality of life.”

Gainesville saw record heat and humidity for most of August, according to the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, including 12 days in which the heat index reached 110 Fahrenheit.

Nix raises cattle, and has adapted to hotter weather by switching to the more heat tolerant Brangus breed. He also champions the development of heat-resistant seeds by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Once the speakers concluded their final thoughts, the audience was encouraged to gather in breakout rooms in the back of the church to discuss ideas on topics like energy and agriculture.

Each speaker ended with their own call to action, and while all agreed the effects of climate change are bleak, they all ended on a message of determination and hope.

“Just like going to church, we stem from each other; we gather strength to keep fighting the good fight for each other,” Nix said.

Jack is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing