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Extreme Drought Hits South Florida

Climate
Extreme Drought Hits South Florida

While the drought in California grabs headlines across the country, other places around the U.S. and the world are experiencing brutal droughts. It's well known that much of the Western U.S. is in some level of a drought—parts of Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana are all experiencing severe to exceptional drought. But little attention has been paid to the drought gripping South Florida.

Much of South Florida is in severe to extreme drought. Photo credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

While it has not been languishing for four years like the state of California, South Florida is in the midst of a severe to extreme drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. And South Florida happens to be home to a whole lot of people—the drought there is affecting more than 5.5 million.

South Florida's tropical savanna climate has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is considered to be roughly from November to April and makes up for about 25 percent of yearly rainfall. That means three-quarters of South Florida's rainfall arrives between May and October, and to date, many areas are recording 10 to 16 inches below normal with North Perry Airport recording a whopping 20 inches below normal as of Aug. 20. Rainfall that low has resulted in the driest wet season on record for North Perry along with Fort Lauderdale and Tamiami. And almost every other area in South Florida is having one of its driest wet seasons on record.

In addition to a lack of rainfall, "fresh water usage has been a big factor" in South Florida's drought, reports The Washington Post. "Agricultural irrigation, commercial and residential needs place demands on the region’s fresh water supply, both in lakes and in the subterranean aquifers," said The Post.

Far too much of the freshwater that is available is polluted from farm runoff. The South Florida Water Management District board applauded farmers earlier this month for reducing phosphorus pollution again this year, but environmentalists were quick to point out that due to water quality restrictions the water could not go to the southern Everglades, where the water is desperately needed.

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“That’s a huge improvement from where they were, but that’s not in compliance,” Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who successfully sued the state to clean up water supplies, told The Miami Herald. “That’s a little like saying we were driving at 140 mph and now we’re driving at 100. That’s great, but more is possible and more is necessary. They aren’t taking responsibility.”

Additionally, the state of Lake Okeechobee, a major source of freshwater for the region, has many concerned. The lake is the largest in the southeastern U.S. but it's average depth is only 9 feet, and its surface level is still 1.5 feet below normal for this time of the year. Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay are getting saltier because of saltwater intrusion, which could bring more salt into the Biscayne Aquifer—where most of South Florida gets its drinking water.

To add to South Florida's woes, they've experienced a number of brush fires recently due to the exceptionally dry conditions—more than 2,000 fires have burned 72,000 acres. The southern areas of South Florida continue to be at moderate to high risk for wildfires.

It remains unclear whether there is relief in sight. There's an equal chance of above or below normal rainfall across South Florida from September through November, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Generally, Memorial Day weekend through July 4 are the wettest six weeks of the year for South Florida. Early July through mid-August is hotter and often drier. Late August through October is characterized by highly variable rainfall mainly due to tropical activity and cold fronts.

A couple tropical storms could make up a huge portion of the deficit, but the storms are no guarantee, and they could inundate an area with rainfall over a day or two, resulting in intense flooding and runoff—just ask Texas and Oklahoma about that. This does not allow the underground aquifers to recharge. Unfortunately, as seen by this tweet, not all Floridians are even aware that there is a drought going on right now.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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