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Hurricane-weary Floridians ask: What U.N. climate talks?

Exterior of Steamers Clam Bar and Grill with person on the roof, holding a sign
Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post
Getty Images
Roof repair at Steamers Clam Bar and Grill. Cleanup efforts commenced in Cedar Key, Fla. on Thursday, August 31, 2023 a day after Hurricane Idalia passed through the area.

Three months after Idalia, many here are more preoccupied with recovery than COP28.

For this island fishing village along Florida’s Gulf Coast, Hurricane Idalia wrought some of its worst damage not on land but offshore.

Generations of residents of this area have derived their livelihoods from the water, which has remained relatively pristine thanks to several federal and state preserves lining the Nature Coast, as this region is called. As Idalia churned toward the area in late August, Cedar Key was home to a robust clamming community, part of a $53 million industry in the state.

Idalia was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in this part of the state since 1896. The category 3 hurricane came ashore in Florida’s sparsely populated Big Bend region, so-named for how the peninsula meets the panhandle here, packing winds near 120 mph. Preliminary insured losses in the state are estimated at more than $9.6 billion.

In Cedar Key, the hurricane thrust forth a nearly 7-foot storm surge, touching most aspects of life on the island, although the deluge was nothing compared with the rip current Idalia unleashed on the offshore beds of clam farmers like Timothy Solano.

The rush of water forced broken trees and other debris through the delicate beds, tearing them apart. For months afterward Solano and other farmers would search the water by boat for their missing clams. Solano believes his business alone lost some 9.5 million of the mollusks, up to 40 percent of what the business normally would harvest during the following eight to 12 months.

Man in short standing next to a wall
Amy Green
Inside Climate News
The floodwater at Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms was hip deep, although Idalia’s damage to the clam crop itself was far worse, Timothy Solano said.

The hardship is the latest challenge for the family-owned business. For the last two summers the clams have suffered in unusually warm water, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit this past summer. Before that there was an outbreak of red tide, a species of algae that is toxic.

“We see the water rising,” said Solano, part-owner of Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms. “We see it every year. We see the higher tides.”

Yet even as Solano and other Cedar Key residents grapple with the impacts of the changing climate, the global COP28 talks beginning Thursday in Dubai feel more than half a world away.

The talks, convened annually by the United Nations, are aimed at stemming human-caused emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The talks also are intended to address how nations should divide up the costs of impacts like hotter temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes. Nearly 200 countries, including the United States, will participate in the talks, which conclude Dec. 12. But Solano is more concerned about problems right in front of him.

“It feels irrelevant to me. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” Solano said. “I don’t know what they can do for us.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.