Flooding in Florida: House plan omits efforts to get to root of water woes

Dems push for clean-energy solutions; GOP majority votes them down

By: - March 2, 2022 7:00 am

Sunny-day flooding caused by higher sea level along Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One day after an international scientific panel warned that climate change has begun causing “irreversible” damage to the planet and its forms of life, the Florida House of Representatives refused Tuesday to add clean-energy solutions to its legislative plan to defend the state against climate-induced sea-level rise and flooding.

The House also advanced a net-metering bill that will make rooftop solar more expensive over time, in support of conventional utility companies which trade mostly in oil and gas.

Fans of rooftop solar and solar businesses in Florida demonstrate against net-metering bills at the Historic Florida Capitol on Feb. 8. Credit: Tim Hyde

Democrats offered myriad amendments to the bills in support of clean energy, but the GOP majority defeated them.

“My concern here is we’re just recklessly passing a bill on assertions … not based on the facts,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, who supported an amendment to HB 741 to study how users of rooftop solar and users of conventional utilities can co-exist. Scores of solar advocates have lobbied against HB 741 this session, arguing it would discourage rooftop installations and put solar businesses in Florida out of work.

New warning from climate scientists

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-sanctioned consortium comprising 270 scientists in 67 nations, reported Monday how climate change is damaging human and natural ecosystems across the world – some to the point of being unrecoverable. The panel’s report last August described what is causing the change and warned that humankind’s opportunity to stop or even slow the damage is quickly closing.

“It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems,” the report says, in part. “To avoid mounting losses, urgent action is required to adapt to climate change. At the same time, it is essential to make rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to keep the maximum number of adaptation options open.”

That said, The New York Times reported that “members of the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Monday questioned the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, suggesting that the justices could deal a sharp blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change.”

In addition, “Climate change was mentioned only in passing and only to buttress the point that an executive agency should not be allowed to tackle so large an issue without express congressional authorization,” the Times wrote. “A ruling against the E.P.A. would severely cut back on its ability to regulate the energy sector, limiting it to measures like emission controls at individual power plants and, absent legislation, ruling out more ambitious approaches like a cap-and-trade system at a time when experts are issuing increasingly dire warnings about the quickening pace of global warming.”

FL Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, a Miami-Dade Democrat, defends her sea-level rise bill from efforts to expand it. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Florida, a peninsula with 1,350 miles of coastlines and millions of acres of low-lying inland regions vulnerable to flooding, is widely considered a Ground Zero for vulnerability to sea-level rise and flooding caused by altered weather patterns, as well as intensifying heat, fires and storms.

Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, a Miami-Dade County Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 7053, which includes plans to help Florida communities and state highways better survive coastal and inland flooding, such as building at higher elevations, armoring wastewater systems that fail when flooded, and fighting saltwater intrusion into water supplies and structures.

She rebuffed an amendment to her bill that would have put a price tag on those projects into the future as conditions worsen. She also fended off an amendment to require the state’s new chief resilience officer to identify remedies that address root causes of climate change – essentially, halting air pollution – including conversion from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Cabrera said her bill calls for practical measures that reflect “what we can fix today, what we can fix tomorrow” to address the immediate fallout of rising seas and changing weather. She called the proposed amendments, which failed, efforts to “politicize” the subject.

Rising seas will increasingly flood coastal areas due to greenhouse gases already emitted and more to come, according to NOAA and its partner agencies. Credit: NOAA

“It doesn’t resolve real issues. I refuse to politicize this issue,” she said.

Rep. Ben Diamond, a Pinellas Democrat who tried to amend Cabrera’s bill, said he was “disappointed” that Cabrera would frame the role of clean energy in the problem of flooding as a political issue. He said the reality of flooding is not a partisan issue, and he noted he even refrained from using the term “climate change” in his amendment, to avoid triggering Florida conservatives who do not utter those words.

Ready or not

Instead, Diamond said, on behalf of all Floridians, the state should tackle not only the fallout but the causes of worsening flooding, rising heat, and intensifying storms. His home region and other municipalities have tried to implement clean-energy policies to fight climate change locally by reducing use of conventional fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its report Monday and in prior reports, says such actions are urgently needed locally and around the world to fend off catastrophic consequences. Still, the Legislature last session banned local ordinances that exclude conventional fossil fuels – oil and gas — which dominate Florida’s energy grid.

“There’s two sides to this problem: There’s protecting our communities and making our communities more resilient to the issues of flooding and sea level rise, but then there’s also stopping the causes of those problems in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of reducing our carbon emissions,” Diamond said, asking if the bill does the latter. Cabrera said it does not.

Diamond’s amendment would have defined the duties of the new chief resilience office as head of a new Statewide Office of Resilience housed in the governor’s office to include research and planning on how Florida will mitigate impacts and reduce root causes of flooding and sea-level rise.

Fl Rep. Ben Diamond attempts to amend Rep. Cabrera’s sea-level rise bill. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

“This is the very first time we are creating this office in state statute, and we need to provide to this new state officer, who reports to the governor, as to what we are expecting our chief resiliency officer to work on,” Diamond said. “I think this office has to have a broader charge, members, of what resilience truly means if we want to save our state from the worst effects of climate change.”

His second amendment would require the Office of Resilience to quantify future costs of grappling with sea-level rise and flooding.

“The costs of this problem for the state of Florida are staggering. Let’s get our arms around those costs,” Diamond said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orange County Democrat, backed Diamond, saying Floridians inevitably will be forced to pay the bills for climate-induced damages whether they are prepared for them or not. “If we don’t solve the climate crisis … it’s going to get more expensive and disastrous, especially for marginalized communities,” she said.

Both of Diamond’s amendments to HB 7053 were defeated, No one but the sponsor spoke in support of Cabrera’s bill.

HB 7053 now advances to a final hearing in the House in coming days. A companion bill, Senate Bill 1940, is pending in a vote in the Senate.

House Bill 741 also advanced to a final hearing after a series of Democratic amendments were voted down. A similar net-metering bill, Senate Bill 1024, is advancing in the Senate.

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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.