The American Recovery Act will send federal aid to Florida’s state government but also directly to cities and counties. Credit: Jonathan Warren/EyeEm
Florida Republicans belatedly acknowledging climate change and its harm to the state are looking ‘greener’ than they have in decades, but critics say it takes more than an awakening to make up for long-term environmental neglect.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said in his State of the State address Tuesday that he is taking a “bold approach to protecting our natural resources.”
But he made no mention of converting the state to clean, renewable energy or reducing greenhouse gases which continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and accelerate climate changes in Florida and worldwide.
On Monday, leaders of Sierra Club of Florida issued DeSantis a ‘D’ grade for his work on environmental protection and sustainability. They and others are calling for dramatic changes to make the future more liveable for young people inheriting a climate in peril.
One of those young people is a 20-year-old marine science major who says climate change is putting her south Florida coastal home at risk of being submerged forever.
“I think it’s great that climate change is being talked about … but what I’m seeing thus far is just talk,” said Delaney Reynolds, University of Miami student and lead plaintiff in a pending 2018 lawsuit filed by eight Florida children , teens and young adults demanding that Florida protect them from climate change. She visited the capital city last week to raise awareness about the young people’s lawsuit and their fears about the future.
”The youth are saying our future is at stake. Our climate is indeed in crisis,” said Frank Jackalone, president of Sierra Florida at a press conference in the Capitol. “There are solutions. There are things we can do.”
Cause vs. symptoms
Jackalone called for urgent action on behalf of clean air, clean water and land conservation that aids the first two. He cited good work underway by 40 Florida mayors who have pledged to convert their cities to 100-percent clean, renewable energy, and by Florida counties working feverishly to contend with sea-level rise, intensified rainstorms, and hurricanes of historic proportions such as Irma and Michael that struck Florida and near-misses by Maria and Dorian that devastated nearby Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
Reynolds and her seven young colleagues are suing Florida because they believe the government’s fossil-fuel-based energy policy is degrading the climate. They want Florida to eliminate the cause of the problem, not just ease the symptoms.
“It’s coming from our energy system,” said Andrea Rodgers, a Seattle-based attorney with Our Children’s Trust, representing Reynolds and other children in climate-change lawsuits, when she spoke in Tallahassee last week.
“Clean energy — that is one of the gaping holes in Gov. DeSantis’ budget,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice. “Our reliance on fossil fuel is feeding the crisis.”
Gov. DeSantis and other top state leaders have not touched the issue of withdrawing Florida from its dependence on fossil fuels, chiefly oil. Environmentalists say that’s because Florida’s utility companies, which heavily use those fuels, wield massive political power that blocks clean-energy policies.
Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the clock is running down on time left to avert climate disaster.
“We have this window. We’ve got to stop the damage while we can,” she said. “It’s one thing to deal with one to three feet of sea-level rise. It’s quite another to deal with three to six feet.”
Better than the last governor
Even with a ‘D’ grade from the Sierra Club, DeSantis did more for the environment in just a few days than his GOP predecessor Rick Scott, now a U.S. Senator, accomplished in eight years, Jackalone said. That was a very low bar to clear, he said, but it is a positive change.
Many environment and sustainability advocates concur, including Florida Conservation Voters, Earthjustice, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Friends of the Everglades, but they still uniformly say that better than nothing is not nearly enough.
The governor significantly increased funding for the Florida Forever land-conservation program and Everglades restoration, created a task force with funding to tackle blue-green algae pollution, and created a Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Security – where Sen. Tom Lee, its chairman, became perhaps the first Republican in a decade to publicly discuss climate change in the Florida Capitol.
Further, DeSantis created an executive position of Chief Resilience Officer last summer, and Lee’s committee is sponsoring 2020 legislation to create a Statewide Office of Resiliency.
The stated mission of the CRO and the resiliency office are to take stock of the threat of sea-level rise and to bolster Florida systems to resist it. How they may go about it, and who will pay for it, has not been explained.
The Florida Phoenix attempted four times in the last three months to interview CRO Julia Nesheiwat but she did not agree to it. Nesheiwat has visited sites around the state, including hurricane-ravaged Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, but has made few public statements.
Lee said Florida Republicans are at last addressing climate change because young Republicans, unlike their elders, believe the scientific evidence that it poses a real threat to their futures.
“There is a younger generation of conservatives in this state that aren’t so much in denial,” said Lee, who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties. He told reporters in October than Gov. DeSantis’ approach is “a paradigm shift” away from GOP climate-deniers such as former Gov. Scott and President Donald Trump.
Lee said resilience efforts to resist sea-level rise may include armoring coastlines, elevating roadways and installing more pumping stations in areas where flooding inundates neighborhoods, overwhelms sewer systems and contaminates water supplies.
All good, says Reynolds, but reacting to the symptoms doesn’t solve the problem.
“Resilience doesn’t stop the burning of fossil fuel,” she said. “You don’t need to be a scientist to understand these realities.”
Rain boots in the Capitol
Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami-Dade has been wearing rain boots in the Capitol for three years – emblazoned with #ActOnClimateFL – to illustrate his dire concern about sea-level rise caused by climate change. He said Republicans such as DeSantis and Lee are on the right track, and he wants to support their efforts, but he believes more drastic measures are necessary.
Rodriguez is sponsoring legislation, SB 178, to prevent state-financed construction of certain projects in coastal areas without assessing the likely impacts of sea-level rise. It would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to create and enforce rules for conducting the studies, which could have far-reaching implications for development in at-risk areas.
“For me, that would be transformational,” Rodriguez said. It would implement sea-level rise modeling and would “signal to insurers and bankers” that Florida is getting real about addressing threats posed by rising seas.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez is passionate about the state developing a Climate Health Report to identify the many ways that climate change affects Floridians’ health – including toxic algae, immigration of tropical diseases and contaminated air and water.
“Health is the most critical way that people will experience climate change,” Rodriguez said.
Hoping to at least curtail Florida’s emissions of greenhouse gases, he and other lawmakers have filed legislation to promote use of clean energy, such as electric vehicles and solar power, but they will only be small steps.
“This is still a fossil-fuel state,” Rodriguez said. “I’m optimistic that we can do some things, but we can only move the needle a tiny bit.”
Stop the denials
Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, is sponsoring a resolution to simply declare once and for all that climate science is true and climate change is real.
“We have to stop the denials and explain to our constituents what is happening,” Stewart said. “So much is riding on us.”
As evidence of climate change in Florida, she cited not only sea-level rise but widespread destruction of Florida’s coral reefs, waterways choked with toxic algae and red tide, and infiltration of creatures and diseases not native to Florida.
In the House, Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to convert Florida to clean, renewable energy, and to block preemption bills by which the state bans local governments from enacting their own programs to protect the environment. She believes those efforts face an uphill battle in the House, the most conservative of the two legislative chambers.
Solar power and other renewable energy sources constitute only 3 percent of Florida’s energy usage, compared with 15 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“We need Gov. DeSantis and legislative leaders to implement policies that reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels and build the clean energy future we need,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters in a response to the State of the State speech Tuesday.
“The health of our children and the future of our state depend on the actions taken over the next sixty days. Bold leadership is needed now.”
Scientists worldwide say greenhouse gas emissions still accumulating in the atmosphere are on track to trigger cataclysmic climate damage beyond the atmospheric disasters already making daily headlines.
The eight young adults and children (identified by only their first names) who are suing state leaders over climate change say they have come to understand that change is hard, especially when it comes to money, power and politics. But they say the future existence of Florida, the “Land of Flowers,” and their very lives hang in the balance.
“I absolutely love where I live,” said 12-year-old plaintiff Levi, who lives on a barrier island on Florida’s southeast coast. “I do things to help because we need to. … We need bigger change.”
Fourteen-year-old Isaac lives on a family farm near Gainesville, where he says climate changes have caused atypical flooding and an outbreak of livestock parasites. He said he wishes he and his friends didn’t find it necessary to file a lawsuit against their state leaders.
“I wish our government had our best interests in mind,” Isaac said.
Sen. Stewart said it may take another election or two to get climate-change deniers out of political power so green changes can take place.
“I’m not seeing a real change of heart here,” she said. “We’ll need to bring in a new crop of younger people being elected into the system with a better understanding of what’s really going on.”
Reynolds, the 20-year-old plaintiff, said she will be voting for the first time this fall.
“I am super excited,” she said. “We are going to force a change.”
Update: An earlier version of the story included a misspelling of the name of Tania Galloni, managing attorney at the Florida office of Earthjustice.
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