Fla. of­fi­cials now take cli­mate se­ri­ously

Grow­ing shift sig­nals a new prag­ma­tism in Repub­li­can ranks

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Bob­caina Cal­van

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE, Fla. — Since tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary, Florida’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor has ap­pointed a sci­ence of­fi­cer, es­tab­lished a cli­mate change czar and pledged to spend bil­lions of dol­lars to re­store the Ever­glades and com­bat the pol­lu­tants that spawn blue­green al­gae and red tides.

A top Repub­li­can law­maker in the state, mean­while, re­cently stood on the House floor and im­plored his party “to stop be­ing afraid of words like ‘cli­mate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’ ”

While Pres­i­dent Donald Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ject the ur­gency of the threat, lead­ing Repub­li­cans in Florida and other states find them­selves un­der po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to ad­dress the im­me­di­ate ef­fects of cli­mate change. As a re­sult, these lead­ers are chang­ing their mes­sage, and in some cases their poli­cies, to ac­knowl­edge cli­mate sci­ence and dis­cuss mit­i­ga­tion, even as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­misses both.

In the South­east, where Repub­li­cans in South Carolina and Ge­or­gia con­trol the leg­is­la­ture or oc­cupy the gov­er­nor’s man­sion, the GOP is ac­knowl­edg­ing, even if be­grudg­ingly, sea level rise and the grow­ing threat from in­ten­si­fy­ing hur­ri­canes.

Nowhere is the break from Trump clearer than in Florida, his adopted home state, where Gov. Ron DeSan­tis is a close ally and where Repub­li­cans are sound­ing the alarm about the harm ris­ing oceans pose to coastal com­mu­ni­ties.

With its 1,350 miles of coast­line, Florida faces some of the stark­est risks from ris­ing oceans. Higher global tem­per­a­tures bring ex­treme weather con­di­tions, in­clud­ing more in­tense and de­struc­tive hur­ri­canes. Mi­ami and other cities could find them­selves sub­merged as glaciers melt into the oceans.

While it’s hardly the dra­matic call to ac­tion that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and sci­en­tist say is needed, the shift sig­nals a new prag­ma­tism among Repub­li­cans, es­pe­cially in states where con­stituents are grap­pling with the con­se­quences of a warm­ing planet.

“This isn’t about the next elec­tion. This is about the next sev­eral decades and what our en­vi­ron­ment is go­ing to look like for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” said GOP state Rep. Chris Sprowls. At 35, he is poised to lead Florida’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives next fall. His district north­west of Tampa lies along the Gulf Coast.

“We shouldn’t fall into the same trap on the en­vi­ron­ment, where we al­low the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion to dic­tate and ham­string us from ac­com­plish­ing prac­ti­cal goals that truly pro­tect our wa­ter and make our state beau­ti­ful for decades to come,” Sprowls said in an in­ter­view. “We’re play­ing the long game here.”

Still, there is po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion. The new mes­sag­ing comes as Democrats saw suc­cess in 2018 run­ning on a prom­ise to com­bat cli­mate change and ham­mer­ing Repub­li­cans as the party of de­niers.

The White House de­clined to com­ment.

Forty-six per­cent of Florida midterm vot­ers said they were very con­cerned about cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to AP VoteCast, a sur­vey of more than 3,700 midterm vot­ers in Florida. Among Florida in­de­pen­dents, 51% ex­pressed great con­cern, slightly higher than in­de­pen­dents na­tion­ally.

The state’s ris­ing pop­u­la­tion is push­ing de­vel­op­ment and as­phalt deeper into once-ru­ral ar­eas. Fer­til­iz­ers, pes­ti­cides and other chem­i­cals are flow­ing into creeks, rivers, lakes and even­tu­ally into the wa­ters that sur­round the Florida Penin­sula, fur­ther dam­ag­ing co­ral reefs and put­ting sen­si­tive ocean life at risk.

One sign of Repub­li­cans’ shift is former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. sen­a­tor. Many en­vi­ron­men­tal groups ac­cuse him of mostly ig­nor­ing the is­sue dur­ing his eight years in Tal­la­has­see. In Fe­bru­ary, Scott ac­knowl­edged in an opin­ion piece that cli­mate change “is real and re­quires real so­lu­tions.”

More re­cently, U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., joined the Se­nate Cli­mate So­lu­tions Cau­cus, a bi­par­ti­san group launched in Oc­to­ber.

Even Repub­li­can fire­brand U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a fierce ally of the pres­i­dent, has es­poused cleaner en­ergy.

“I think that more of my col­leagues need to re­al­ize that the sci­ence of global warm­ing is ir­refutable,” Gaetz said last spring while of­fer­ing his “Green Real Deal,” a counterpoi­nt to the “Green New Deal” backed by some Democrats.

While Trump has dis­cour­aged fed­eral agen­cies from pri­or­i­tiz­ing prepa­ra­tion for changes, DeSan­tis has cast him­self as Florida’s en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist-in-chief.

Two days af­ter tak­ing of­fice, the new gov­er­nor pledged to in­vest $2.5 bil­lion dur­ing his four-year term — a bil­lion dol­lar in­crease from his pre­de­ces­sor’s fi­nal four years in of­fice — to pro­tect wa­ter re­sources and help re­store the Ever­glades, the largest ecosys­tem restora­tion pro­ject in the United States. He is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der mo­bi­liz­ing ac­tion against al­gae blooms and the pol­lu­tants that taint the state’s lakes, wa­ter­ways and coast­lines.

Florida’s en­vi­ron­ment — its beaches, swamps, woods and abun­dant sun­shine — is a fun­da­men­tal pil­lar of the state econ­omy, gen­er­at­ing bil­lions in tourism and agri­cul­ture dol­lars, said Noah Valen­stein, the sec­re­tary of Florida’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

“What you see in Florida is an in­de­pen­dent streak, a be­lief that the en­vi­ron­ment is im­por­tant,” Valen­stein said. “We as a state have de­ter­mined that this is a top is­sue, and we’re go­ing to take that on.”

The con­ver­sa­tion in Florida may be shift­ing, but ac­tion isn’t mov­ing fast enough, and pol­icy dis­cus­sions are not broad enough for crit­ics.

Land con­ser­va­tion groups note that while DeSan­tis talks about con­ser­va­tion, he also sup­ports 340 miles of new toll roads that could per­ma­nently al­ter some of the state’s most pris­tine land­scapes. These groups want DeSan­tis to boost fund­ing for Florida For­ever, the state’s land preser­va­tion pro­gram, which is pro­jected to get $100 mil­lion in­stead of the $300 mil­lion that had been his­tor­i­cally al­lo­cated.

“Even though he has now talked about cli­mate change for the first time, it’s all about mit­i­ga­tion,” said Sierra Club Florida di­rec­tor Frank Jack­alone. He wants the gov­er­nor to em­phat­i­cally say “cli­mate change is caused by all the pol­lu­tion we have in the at­mos­phere and that we need to do some­thing about it.”

Mit­i­ga­tion projects, in­clud­ing sea walls, only ad­dress the symp­toms of cli­mate change, Jack­alone said, but do lit­tle to com­bat the causes — the con­tin­ued reliance on fos­sil fu­els that pro­duce green­house gases and the es­ca­lat­ing de­for­esta­tion of the planet.

WILFREDO LEE/AP

Then-GOP can­di­date for Florida gov­er­nor Ron DeSan­tis gets off an air­boat af­ter tour­ing the Ever­glades in 2018.

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