Warming Trends: Smelly Beaches in Florida Deterred Tourists, Plus the Dearth of Climate Change in Pop Culture and Threats to the Colorado River

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A sign warning of a no swim advisory warns visitors at Lido Beach on Aug. 26, 2018 in Sarasota, Florida. Credit: Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A sign warning of a no swim advisory warns visitors at Lido Beach on Aug. 26, 2018 in Sarasota, Florida. Credit: Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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ECONOMY

Florida’s Red Tide Event Impacted Airbnb Rentals

Millions of tourists flock to Florida every year to enjoy the state’s warm weather and lush beaches. But in 2018, a year-long red tide event made beaches smelly and unsafe in much of southwest Florida. 

That struck the state’s tourism industry, a new study found by looking at data from the vacation rental company Airbnb. Researchers from the University of Florida found that during high concentrations of red tide bacteria, Airbnb properties in these affected locations collectively saw a loss of 345 reservation days, leading to $70 million in losses for Airbnb properties during the prolonged red tide. 

Red tides are a type of algal bloom that happens every year off the west coast of Florida, but they vary in severity. The blooms, often fueled by nutrients discharged into the water by human activities, can lead to mass fish die-offs and increased populations of bacteria harmful to human health. Climate change is expected to make red tides worse in Florida.

“Because of climate change, they are assuming different shapes, they are becoming more intense, in the sense that they are more dangerous,” said study lead author João-Pedro Ferreira, an economist at the University of Florida. “And also they are covering more areas, and they are staying in the coastal areas of Florida for longer than before.”

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The study also found that red tide events had an impact on the larger Florida economy, estimating more than $300 million in lost sales revenue and nearly 2,900 lost jobs from establishments that serve tourists like bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Ferreira said Florida communities that rely on tourism would be wise to offer more alternative attractions for visitors that don’t involve going out on the water or to the beach. 

“This would make the area more resilient from an economic point of view,” said Ferreira. “But the effort I think that we all have to make is to basically try to mitigate the impact that our human activities have on nature.”

CULTURE

There’s Barely a Whisper About Climate on Scripted TV

In a season 5 episode of the CBS political drama “Madam Secretary,” an unseasonable super typhoon decimates a fictional small island nation. The lead character, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, tries to convince the small nation’s leader to gather the survivors and abandon what remains of the island. He refuses and insists she instead help the country rebuild, saying the island “wouldn’t be in this mess if not for the U.S. spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” 

Climate change dominates the plotline of this particular episode, but for the vast majority of movies and TV shows, climate change is rarely if ever mentioned, although audience surveys show that there is interest in climate content in entertainment media. 

Just 2.8 percent of scripted shows and films produced between 2016 and 2020 mentioned at least one of 36 climate change-related keywords, according to a new analysis of over 37,000 scripts conducted by the University of Southern California Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project and commissioned by Good Energy, a consultancy dedicated to getting climate change mentioned in 50 percent of movies and shows by 2025.

“Madam Secretary” alone had 94 mentions of climate change, partly because of its typhoon episode in season 5. The political drama accounted for nearly 20 percent of the mentions in all broadcast TV shows. Streaming platforms and cable networks also were analyzed, with mentions of climate change keywords appearing in shows like Showtime’s “Shameless” and “Billions” and Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet.”

The analysis also found that most mentions of the fossil fuel industry and extreme weather events were not accompanied with context about how these topics relate to climate change. 

A survey of 2,000 audience members who reported being at least somewhat concerned about climate change showed that nearly three quarters learn about social issues from fictional entertainment at least occasionally, and nearly half want to see climate change themes in fictional entertainment. 

So how can filmmakers begin to incorporate climate change into their stories? Good Energy has some ideas. In conjunction with this analysis, they released a playbook for screenwriters with tips like dropping climate change into casual conversations between characters and having characters adopt climate-friendly habits and making them seem more sexy and less quirky.

SCIENCE

The Colorado River Is the Nation’s Most Threatened Waterway

The nation’s rivers face an onslaught of threats, from climate change-induced droughts and floods to pollution and dams harming the river’s biodiversity. This week, the conservation organization American Rivers released its annual list of the top 10 most threatened rivers in the country, each of which is at a turning point that could determine its recovery.

Topping the list is the Colorado River, which runs through the Southwest, providing water for 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland. Droughts made worse by climate change and overallocation of water have led the river to dry up long before it reaches the ocean. In its report, American Rivers said that the billions of dollars made available through the infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress has created an “unparalleled opportunity” to invest in the river’s recovery and prepare for a warming future.

The Mississippi River was on the list for the first time since 2011, ranked at No. 6. The nation’s second-longest river is seeing increased pollution from agricultural runoff and industry and has seen loss of habitat like wetlands due to increased development, leading to increased flooding as climate change drives increased precipitation in the region. The American Rivers report calls for increased federal funding toward restoring the river to protect human health and the environment.

Other waterways on the list include the No. 2 Snake River in the Pacific Northwest, where warming waters and hydroelectric dams threaten salmon populations sacred to native tribes in the region. No. 3 on the list is the Mobile River in Alabama, a biodiversity haven that is being polluted with coal ash leaking from a pond next to a coal-fired power plant.

The report goes into various solutions for each of the rivers on its list, but American Rivers president Tom Kiernan said that the biggest thing that people can do is contact decision makers, from members of Congress to local council members, to voice their concerns about rivers. 

“Seventy percent of Americans get their drinking water from their nearby river,” Kiernan said. “These rivers sustain us from a clean water perspective. So having people speak up on behalf of these rivers is also having them speak up on behalf of getting clean water often from their faucet in their house.”

CULTURE

The Making of a Revolution Generation

Millennials are a generation staring down the barrel of climate change. Compounded with other social and economic injustices, a new film argues that the generation born between 1980 and 2000 must rise to the current challenge of its time, like how generations past had to take on the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil War and the American Revolution.

The film, “Revolution Generation,” features interviews with actors, activists and politicians and draws a line through history to our current moment, where young people around the world are widely turning to activism to protect their own futures. 

The film was directed by husband and wife duo Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, who have created over a dozen environmental films together. Inside Climate News recently discussed “Revolution Generation” with the directors. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

How does “Revolution Generation” compare to your past films?

Rebecca: We’ve kind of learned to steer clear of politics for the most part with our environmental films, because it can be very polarizing, and we really want our films to reach a lot of people and also be used as an educational tool. And so with this film, we really sort of broke from tradition of trying to not incorporate politics and we just dove in fully.

Josh: It’s not political in the sense that it’s advocating for any party at all. It’s not. It’s advocating for young people to think broadly and think strategically and think long term and think on an outcomes basis. Because we tend to be so reactionary in this country. When people go “politics,” it’s like, “Oh, my God, which side are you on?” Well, we haven’t even talked about the issue yet. Like, talk about climate. Then let’s talk about having a reasonable, intelligent response to that. 

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What are the millennial stereotypes that your film is trying to counter?

Rebecca: The whole idea that they’re lazy, self entitled narcissists. You know, that’s one perspective, but you have a group of people who’ve been constantly infused with fear around their future. It seems pretty dire to be a young person. It can feel extraordinarily paralyzing. And think honestly, it’s just a misunderstanding of a group of people.

How does climate change fit into your story about millennial activism

Josh: The ultimate test of our species is how we deal with climate change. Because it’s the only horizontal we’ve ever encountered. It will affect every human. Even the humans that manage to get to Mars. Like they still need stuff from Earth. And if climate change is wreaking havoc here, it makes things difficult for everyone. So it’s also an opportunity for everybody to participate. The big consciousness shift is like, ‘Oh, climate change is out there somewhere. It’s about, shutting down coal factories,” and, to some degree, all of that is true, it is out there and it is about those things. But I think the film encourages a more personal approach, where we’re like, “What can I do? What can I do as an individual? I now see from these other people how powerful I can be. Let me do some investigation.” Maybe that person won’t plant trees. Maybe they’ll create an organization or maybe they’ll join an organization. But it’s opening up the dialogue and it’s opening up people’s eyes and minds to the [idea that] one person can make a huge difference. They can lead a revolution when it comes to climate change. 

SCIENCE

A New Tool for Tracking Kelp

Off the coast of Oregon, California and Baja California, underwater forests of kelp create a three-dimensional ecosystem that provides a lush canopy cover, generates a rich base to the food chain and supports an abundant diversity of marine life. 

As warming ocean waters threaten kelp forests, scientists have created a long-term monitoring tool useful for studying changes in these key ocean ecosystems. 

A map hosted at KelpWatch.org contains nearly 40 years of data on kelp forest cover off the west coast of North America collected from satellite imagery. The tool was built by scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Nature Conservancy, the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Santa Barbara. The kelp stretches from the ocean floor to the surface, where the plants absorb sunlight and reflect infrared light that’s detected and recorded by the satellites. 

The tool is available for scientists to explore and download data that before was challenging and time consuming to compile, said Tom Bell, an assistant scientist at Woods Hole.

Kelp relies on cold water to grow, Bell said, and marine heat waves can wreak havoc on kelp forests, like a 2014 event known as “the blob” which led to widespread collapse of kelp forests off the northern coast of California. This data will help understand how these incidents of decline  fit into the larger historical context. 

“We’ve got a really good historical baseline of what kelp looked like in the ‘80s, what kelp looked like in the ‘90s and early 2000s, as well as today, and we can understand the natural dynamics,” Bell said. “So if there’s some declines happening over the past decade or so, we can put those declines in context with how variable that system has been over the last 40 years.”