FL Legislature 2021: Lawmakers will address symptoms of climate change, but what about causes?

By: - February 17, 2021 7:00 am

The American Recovery Act will send federal aid to Florida’s state government but also directly to cities and counties. Credit: Jonathan Warren/EyeEm

As climate-change denial gradually fades, Republicans leading all three branches of government in Florida face a reckoning: How will the state pay for damage climate change already has wrought and how bad will things get if leaders don’t address the causes?

Environmentalists and scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades, but Florida Republicans only recently acknowledged climate change at the Capitol level, creating a Senate committee last year to address sea-level rise and naming a chief resilience officer to lead the charge.

By the end of the year, both the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Lee, and CRO Julia Nesheiwat, had resigned and were not replaced.

Now, powerful sectors such as automobile makers, major corporations, and the military are helping make the case that climate change is causing big problems that require treatment of symptoms and a cure for the cause.

Florida has done little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, though scientific organizations consider Florida ground zero for feeling the brunt of coastal and inland flooding, extreme heat, and dangerous storms.

Scientists rank Miami, the Florida Keys, and Tampa Bay as being at high risk of chronic, severe flooding.

Catastrophic damage

Ahead of the 2021 legislative session in March, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing his state budget proposals, including big spending on environmental programs and projects to armor Florida cities routinely experiencing flooding due to rising seas and torrential rain events.

The Legislature will be building the 2021-22 state budget over the next two months, and Republican committee chairs are already holding hearings on how to address chronic flooding of streets and neighborhoods.

Democrats welcome financial assistance in armoring Florida communities against flooding and in curbing blue-green algae, red tide, fouling of springs, and coral disease caused by water pollution.

But they also are demanding that Republicans who for so long denied climate change not be so slow in addressing it.

Scientists around the world, including ones with the World Meteorological Organization and at the Florida Climate Institute, warn that failing to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions within a decade will cause catastrophic damage, including loss of the planet’s ice sheets, warming of its oceans, and collapse of traditional weather conditions.

In Florida, that means, flooding would get worse, heat would continue to rise, hurricanes would continue to intensify, and health conditions would continue to deteriorate.

“It’s more valuable for us to act, now, and to act in a very big way, right now,” said Rep. Omari Hardy, a Palm Beach County Democrat, in a state legislative hearing about climate-induced flooding. “With each passing year, with each passing legislative session, the stakes get much higher if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do.”

Consequences 

Republicans in the House and the Senate have held pre-session committee hearings to learn about sea level rise, among other issues, but none so far has introduced legislation to convert Florida to a clean-energy economy on a grand scale.

The governor’s proposed budget calls for $250 million this year and a total of $1 billion over the next four years to provide “resilience” grants to municipalities fighting sea-level rise and torrential inland rain storms.

Rep. Jim Mooney, a Republican who represents Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade, said there is no denying the reality of sea-level rise, and that the Keys are preparing for the worst.

“The reality of it is, we are ground zero. We’re not going to stop sea-level rise, but we can learn to deal with it in an effective way,” Mooney said.

Rebecca O’Hara, senior legislative advocate with the Florida League of Cities, said the league is thrilled with the governor’s proposal, which would help cities undertake risk assessments and planning, and is encouraged that Republican lawmakers are addressing climate-induced flooding.

“We are encouraged by the Legislature’s new interest in sea-level rise,” she said. “I also recognize a good number of citizens and elected officials have strong opinions on addressing the causes,” O’Hara told the Phoenix.

O’Hara said the league also wants the state to engage in more partnerships with cities to provide technical assistance, coordination and other support.

The heart of the problem

Rep. Anna Eskamani and Sen. Lori Berman, both Democrats, want the Legislature to convert the state to clean, renewable energy, to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution driving sea level rise, severe weather, extreme heat and increasing dangerous hurricanes.

Similar legislation in past years has not even gotten hearings, but the lawmakers hope the increasingly unavoidable evidence of environmental degradation will gain them more support.

Eskamani represents part of Orange County in the House; Berman, part of Palm Beach County in the Senate. They recently held a press conference along with supporters to talk to about their proposals.

Those proposals instruct the state Office of Energy, housed in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, to develop a statewide plan for converting fully to clean energy by 2040 and achieving net zero carbon pollution emissions by 2050. The energy office already has a plan to build on.

They expect the plan would include converting the state fleet to electric vehicles, expanding the network of public EV-charging stations around the state, and creating incentives to convert power plants from coal and oil to clean energy sources.

Similar legislation in past years has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Capitol, but Berman and Eskamani say they hope Florida’s increasingly obvious vulnerability to climate change and President Joe Biden’s emphasis on climate protection at the national level may diminish resistance.

Pam McVety, a scientist who worked in state government environmental protection for 30 years, helped former Gov. Charlie Crist write such a plan in 2008. Crist assembled a team of scientists, including McVety, and other experts to map out Florida’s defense against the foreseeable impacts of climate change. Headway on the plan halted when former Gov. Rick Scott took office.

What can be done?

“Florida is in really, really, really serious trouble at this point,” McVety said.

She said the state must cut its dependence on fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas and employ clean energy that is renewable, non-polluting, and more affordable. She said she feels more hopeful this year, with Biden in the White House, Democrats in control of Congress, and young Republicans calling for more green action in the GOP.

Pepper Uchino, president of the Florida Beach and Shore Preservation Association, told lawmakers during a recent committee hearing that money spent on beach renourishment, wetlands protection, and restoration of coral reefs yields incalculable returns in protecting valuable coastal property and natural resources that make Florida a world-class tourist destination.

Asked to comment on whether it is urgent this year for lawmakers to act on climate change, Uchino said it is, given that Florida’s peninsula has the nation’s longest coastline other than Alaska and depends so much on tourism and agriculture – both inextricably tied to a healthy environment.

Uchino said it was hard to avoid giving an answer that sounds dramatic.

“It truly is an existential question. It’s not hyperbole to say that there is no other state that has more to lose over this issue than the state of Florida,” Uchino said.

“You are sitting at the precipice of what Florida’s going to look like in 100 years, here with the decisions you make, now. It’s an incredible responsibility. It’s an awesome responsibility.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]

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