DeSantis wants to deal with Florida’s sea level rise without ‘left-wing stuff’

Governor pushes money for ‘infrastructure’ for low-lying state, but warns against restrictions on fossil fuels

December 16, 2021 7:00 am

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in Oldsmar, flanked (from left) by DEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton, Chief Resilience Officer Wes Brooks, and state Rep. Chris Latvala. Credit: Governor’s Facebook page. Dec. 7, 2021.

Boy howdy, I sure love laughing along with a good comedy. The best ones aren’t merely machines for delivering joke after joke. From “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Barney Miller” to “Bob’s Burgers” and “Schitt’s Creek,” the best ones exploit the foibles of their characters to produce hilarious situations.

I particularly enjoy the shows where one character is trying to insist on one thing while doing the opposite, putting them in a bind. A good example is the classic show about Sheriff Andy Taylor claiming he loooooves Aunt Bee’s pickles when he knows they’re actually horrible, so he’s trying to get rid of them any way he can.

That’s why I felt a big smile creep across my face the other day when Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference to unveil his proposed budget for fixing Florida’s environmental woes.

“Uh-oh!” I said to myself. “Pickle time!”

To fully appreciate what happened, you have to remember our governor did not get elected because he displayed such a remarkable expertise in how Florida’s government works. He was a congressman from Jacksonville for five years and had no prior experience in local or state government.

Gov. Ron DeSantis participated in a Fox News panel discussion on April 29, 2021, with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, left, and Laura Ingraham. Source: Screenshot/Fox News

No, he was elected in 2018 because he sounded good talking about national and international issues on Fox News. As a result, he drew the endorsement of a certain Tang-faced Palm Beach club owner. That was good enough for him to win the race against a Black Democratic candidate by the staggeringly thin margin of 0.41 percentage points.

At his press conference in Oldsmar last week, DeSantis emphasized how much of the taxpayers’ millions the state was going to spend on “resilience.” That’s a politician code word for coping with the symptoms of climate change, but not doing anything about what’s causing it.

It’s like repeatedly filling a widening pothole but never resurfacing the road. Still, he did all right talking about that, although DeSantis couldn’t keep his numbers straight ($270 million for 76 projects or $276 million for 70 projects) and seemed as allergic as Rick Scott to speaking the words “climate change.”

Instead, he kept talking about “infrastructure” to provide “resilience” against all that rising water – in other words, pumps and pipes and so forth.

The problem came when a reporter asked him what he was doing to combat the causes of climate change, rather than just spend money over and over treating its symptoms. DeSantis’ genial tone changed.

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways,” he snapped. “We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”

He delivered this ridiculous response with all the passion of Andy Taylor bragging on Aunt Bee’s awful pickles, which tasted so bad Barney called them “kerosene cucumbers.”

Reader, I howled.

I asked the governor’s office to explain what sort of “left-wing stuff” he meant. His multiple well-paid spokespeople did not even acknowledge receiving the request. Perhaps they were too busy struggling to find the right words to praise the sublime taste of his kerosene-flavored rhetoric.

The governor himself hinted that the “left-wing stuff” he’s talking about is anything that restricts the fossil fuel industry – you know, folks like BP who 11 years ago sent gooey globs of oil to taint our pristine Panhandle beaches.

He asserted that efforts to restrict the oil companies — their emissions and their destructive drilling habits – is what’s driven up gas prices lately. Actually, gas prices have gone up because our gas-guzzlers’ demand is now outpacing the supply from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. That’s a fact of life that even a Yale and Harvard Law grad should know. But he blew straight past it.

“We need to make sure people are able to have affordable energy,” DeSantis said. “The root cause of the high gas prices is anti-energy policies.”

That whole statement had a strong whiff of pickle juice to it. It sounded especially foul in a state where hardly anyone supports offshore drilling, because we’ve seen the ravages of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But our governor had to swallow that bad pickle, or else he’d no longer be Fox-worthy.

A different flavor of “discrimination”

Let me tell you the truth about this particular jar of “kerosene cucumbers” and where it came from.

Climate-induced weather disasters include record wildfires in the West, record-setting heat waves and droughts, and aggressive hurricanes. Here, smoke plumes and hurricane clouds are visible at once. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

People in Florida know climate change is real. We see it happening all around us. Even as some of our politicians avoid using the words, our nights are becoming warmer. Hurricanes are stronger. And all along our coastline, the water is lapping higher and higher, toppling palm trees and inundating highways. One Key Largo neighborhood had brackish floodwaters pooling in its streets for 90 days straight.

Even though he avoided the term “climate change” in Oldsmar just like his boss, the new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Shawn Hamilton, correctly called our extremely flat peninsular state “Ground Zero for the impact of sea level rise.”

Because the water’s creeping higher, that means when hurricanes slam into us, the storm surge goes further inland. This is not just an ecological disaster but an economic one. And for now, the only way some government agencies can think of to deal with this is by building expensive “infrastructure.”

For instance, after Hurricane Irma left Miami’s streets looking like the canals of Venice, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it could stop that – with a $6 billion seawall 20 feet high.

That’s the reality we’re all dealing with here, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue of “left-wing” versus “right-wing.” Climate change is a dire threat to all of us in Florida. Anyone who refuses to see that is dumber than Gomer Pyle and Roland Schitt put together. But the folks running Fox are not interested in reality, as they and their pundits have repeatedly proven.

Fox gets big ratings by stoking outrage — providing political analysis that’s as deep as a bumper sticker where the debate winner isn’t the smartest thinker but the loudest voice. We’ve seen it with their reports on the alleged “war” on Christmas that never existed (unless you count Melania Trump’s nightmarish holiday decorating scheme), the “antifa” actors behind Jan. 6 (except the hundreds who’ve been arrested are Trump fans) and those dangerous “migrant caravans” that turned out to be pushed along by climate change driving farmers off their land.

The governor, you may recall, dispatched Florida law enforcement personnel to the Texas border to “help” stop immigration problems there while he appeared on Fox to talk about it. Cost to the Florida taxpayers for his publicity stunt: More than $1.6 million, which Texas said it would not repay.

Recently the Big Fox Outrage Machine has been cranking out rants about “critical race theory.” As a result, legislation passed in at least six states – one of them Florida, where the push was led by none other than DeSantis – to ban the teaching of this theory because it makes white people feel uncomfortable to think about how privileged they are compared to other races.

Even though nobody in Florida is teaching it, the governor attacked critical race theory again this week, calling it “pernicious.”

But that’s so 15 minutes ago! The outrage machine has moved on.

The new thing to be outraged about is corporate and government discrimination against those poor, defenseless fossil fuel giants. The New Republic dubbed it “critical energy theory.”

Yes, that’s right, people are using the word “discrimination” in relation to oil and gas companies. In other words, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels because we want to stop climate change is just as bad as telling Black people they can’t drink for the same water fountains as white people. Horrors!

One influential group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is even pushing
legislation that would ban any “discrimination” against these multi-billion-dollar multinational
corporations. It’s sort of like condemning David for throwing stones at Goliath.

Lest you think this is just too silly to ever get passed, bear in mind what happened with our fine Legislature, purveyors of plenty of bad pickles over the years. Legislators recently blocked Florida local governments from trying to end their reliance on natural gas as a way to cut their emissions.

They did so after a Tampa council member proposed a non-binding resolution to block any new fossil fuel installations from being built there, including pipelines and other facilities. “State Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, immediately introduced two bills,” the Miami Herald recently reported. “The one written by utility lawyers that blocked cities from banning natural gas hookups, and another that stopped cities from restricting any type of ‘energy infrastructure’ in the city.”

Stop peddling those nasty pickles

One other thing that made me smile about the governor’s press conference was its location: Oldsmar, a low-lying town at the top of Tampa Bay.

I used to cover Oldsmar, so I know a few things about the place. It was founded by Ransom E. Olds, whose fortune came from starting two car companies, Reo and Oldsmobile. His tried to persuade his Michigan auto plant employees to buy lots there. They avoided it in droves.

He needed investors to keep the place going. He spent $100,000 to drill an oil well there but hit nothing but water. Someone – maybe not Olds, but someone working for him – would go out to the fake well and pour real oil into it so it would appear to be something other than a dry hole.

Such chicanery is par for the course with oil companies. ExxonMobil and the rest have spent decades denying climate change was real when they knew very well it was.

Olds abandoned his namesake city after the 1921 hurricane hit the Tampa Bay area – the last one to do so. The storm surge was so high it all but wiped out every building in Oldsmar. With a higher sea level, can you imagine how much higher the surge would be today?

One other thing about Oldsmar is that, at least when I was covering it in the 1980s, the politics could be really rough. One of the best putdowns I ever heard came from a council member who said of the mayor, “I’d like to buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.”

I often think of that phrase when listening to Gov. DeSantis. When he speaks, the governor exudes tremendous confidence, even as his speech is the rhetorical equivalent of praising Aunt Bee’s pickles. In Oldsmar, facing a friendly crowd, he even drew several rounds of applause.

They’re apparently fine with the taste of those pickles he’s serving. The rest of us, though, know a batch of kerosene cucumbers when we smell them.

Unlike the folks booking guests on Fox, or the ones running BP and those other big oil companies, we’re the ones witnessing the impact of climate change here. We’re also the ones who vote in Florida, which means we control DeSantis’ political future, if any.

It’s time someone let DeSantis know: Governor, those pickles you’re pushing regarding climate change are just plain nasty. And unlike Aunt Bee’s awful cucumber concoction, this really isn’t funny.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.