Greenhouse gases get attention as Florida fights climate change

But Gov. DeSantis says the state isn't 'doing any left-wing stuff ... we're a flood prone state. We do have storms.'

SUNNY ISLES BEACH, Fla. - Condo buildings sit near the ocean on February 16, 2022 in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. A new report released by climate scientists shows that sea levels along coastlines in the United States will rise about one foot by 2050, with larger increases on the East and Gulf coasts.

SUNNY ISLES BEACH, Fla. - Condo buildings sit near the ocean on February 16, 2022 in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. A new report released by climate scientists shows that sea levels along coastlines in the United States will rise about one foot by 2050, with larger increases on the East and Gulf coasts. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Florida expands its resilience efforts, with more than $1 billion poured into fortifying coastal communities and infrastructure against rising seas, conservationists push for the approach to include attacking the greenhouse gasses linked to climate change.

A mostly taboo topic to the GOP until a few years ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, have highlighted resiliency efforts and – with the help of federal stimulus money – the accompanying spending to shore up structures and roads near water.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines resilience as the "ability to withstand and recover rapidly from deliberate attacks, accidents, natural disasters, as well as unconventional stresses, shocks and threats to our economy and democratic system."

DeSantis has repeatedly said that the state needs to “get ahead of the risks,” which means building strong infrastructure to protect property and lives as the population continues to grow. At the May 3 event, DeSantis said the planning grants are an “important part of what we're doing.” But he has also dismissed arguments for going after sources of climate change when the topic has turned to cutting emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“What I 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,” DeSantis replied to reporters in Oldsmar in December. “We're not doing any left-wing stuff. What we're doing, though, is just reacting to the fact that, OK, we're a flood prone state. We do have storms.”

Jonathan Scott Webber, legislative and political director for Florida Conservation Voters, counters that DeSantis and legislative leaders want to treat the symptom but not the cause: The burning of fossil fuels. "It's like throwing good money after bad," he told City & State Florida. "We cannot adapt our way out of climate change. We know that 99% or more of all scientists agree that humans have a direct link to rising temperatures. This is a scientific problem with a scientific solution."

Recently, DeSantis awarded nearly $20 million to help local governments develop or update 98 inland and coastal resiliency projects. Those actions have drawn praise from conservationists. But they also say more can be done, pointing to a need for the Chief Resilience Office – moved from the Department of Environmental Protection to a more permanent location in the Executive Office of the Governor – to eventually do more than provide protections for “gray” infrastructure, which includes bridges, wastewater and stormwater systems.

“To ignore climate change mitigation in the context of sea level rise is a little like leaving the faucet running while trying to stop your bathtub from overflowing. The water will just continue to rise,” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Emily Gorman said.

Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker, director of Florida conservation for the Ocean Conservancy, wants the office to include conserving and restoring sea grasses, coral reefs, wetland, and mangrove habitats as part of the fortification efforts. “This ‘blue green’ infrastructure provides important buffering services that protect our coasts from worsening sea level rise, and beyond that they are important carbon sinks that have mitigating effects against the changing climate that is driving a rising sea,” Brooker said. 

The resiliency office, created through legislation signed into law by DeSantis on May 3 (HB 7053), requires an action plan for the state highway system, a prioritized list of projects that would include costs and timelines, and a database that would identify such things as medical centers, utilities, emergency-operations centers and airports that would be threatened by rising sea levels. The law also creates the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation within the University of South Florida College of Marine Science to help incorporate sea level rise projections into future state projects.

The effort expands upon a 2021 law that directed the Department of Environmental Protection to develop an annual statewide flooding and sea-level rise resilience plan and to create the Resilient Florida Grant Program for cities and counties. While Democrats unsuccessfully pushed to include provisions addressing climate change that causes rising seas, don’t expect state Chief Resilience Officer Wesley Brooks, an appointee of DeSantis, and the office to immediately veer too far from the assigned mission.

Brooks pointed to the design and construction of local and regional resilience projects funded in the state budget that begins July 1 during a grant awarding event on May 3 in Fort Myers Beach. “That’s the work that folks are going to see and experience in their neighborhoods, on their commutes, or while recreating in amazing places,” Brooks said. 

Sea level rise in South Florida? Close to a foot in less than 30 years

A multi-agency report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in February projects that seas around South Florida will rise about 11 inches by 2050. While not as bad as forecast in 2017, when the agency had seas going up 17 inches by 2040, the new increase remains equal to the rise in sea-level over the past 100 years.

“This new data on sea rise is the latest reconfirmation that our climate crisis ⁠– as the President has said ⁠– is blinking ‘code red,’” said National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy in a release with the report. “We must redouble our efforts to cut the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change while, at the same time, help our coastal communities become more resilient in the face of rising seas.”

As low-lying areas of South Florida could face more “sunny day” flood events, the Sea Level Rise Technical Report also indicates climate changes threaten thousands of coastal homes, along with billions of dollars in property value. Higher sea levels also could impact human health by breaching septic tanks and have less resistance from dunes and natural barriers in pushing water ashore during hurricanes.

Brooker said he understands the emphasis placed by the Legislature in addressing the immediate needs and hopes the resilience office ties together the disparate issues spread across the state into “a cohesive, coherent, unified approach for Florida on the threats being posed by a changing climate.”

“But as the climate continues to change, and as Florida continues to grow, we need common-sense investments in and an emphasis on mitigation – Florida can have a tremendous impact on mitigating against a changing climate,” Brooker said.

Jim Turner is a reporter with the News Service of Florida. 

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