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Ron DeSantis Pushes Coastal 'Resilience' While Doing Little To Tackle Climate Change

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media about the cruise industry during a press conference at PortMiami in April. DeSantis faces criticism for failing to do all he could on Florida's biggest environmental threat: climate change.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media about the cruise industry during a press conference at PortMiami in April. DeSantis faces criticism for failing to do all he could on Florida's biggest environmental threat: climate change.

Brick by brick, the stucco shell of a new flood-resilient public works building is taking shape blocks from the beach, the most visible sign yet of a small community's enormous task staving off the rising sea.

"This is actually the highest point in the city," Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker said, adding that right next door to the new public works building will be a new fire station.

It's a close-knit community established by rocket scientists south of Kennedy Space Center, on a low-slung barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River Lagoon.

By 2040, community leaders expect significant impacts associated with climate change. Already flooding is a problem, and beach-front homes perch precariously atop a sand dune left exposed after a series of storms and hurricanes washed away a sea wall.

The needs are great, and in Gov. Ron DeSantis, Barker sees a potential ally.

"At least he talks about climate change as actually being real, so that's good," she said. "And he's putting money toward it so that's encouraging."

But Barker also feels DeSantis is doing only part of the job.

"We desperately need to grow up as a state and realize that we need to get our emissions down," Barker said.

Since his election in November 2018, DeSantis is making good on some of his environmental promises, including what he likes to call "resilience," a new buzzword for climate adaptation. But as the governor prepares for a reelection bid in 2022, and is seen as a potential Republican frontrunner for the presidency in 2024, DeSantis faces criticism for failing to do all he could on Florida's biggest environmental threat: climate change.

Some of his critics acknowledge that the $1 billion Resilient Florida plan he announced in January could be a first step toward helping some communities pay for adaptation. But critics also point out that DeSantis has done almost nothing to put Florida on a path to scaling back the state's heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

"I would give him probably a C-minus," said former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who served from 2007 to 2011, and now represents St. Petersburg in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat.

Crist still gets plaudits from environmentalists for his administration's climate initiatives, including a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions and an executive order that was intended to put the state on a path to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. But those were basically abandoned by Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican now serving in the U.S. Senate.

Crist, who switched parties and this week announced he is running for governor in 2022, said DeSantis should be "encouraging renewables such as wind energy, solar energy, and particularly solar. I mean, my goodness, we're the Sunshine State."

DeSantis' press office declined to make the governor available for an interview and did not respond to written questions.

In comments at two press conferences earlier this year, the governor cited his support for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on water projects and Everglades restoration as evidence of his environmental credentials, while promising to double down on funding for coastal resilience.

Florida needs "to tackle the challenges posed by flooding, intensified storm events [and] sea level rise," he said. "When you look at how an insurance market would view property insurance, and to see that Florida is leading and trying to get ahead of some of these impacts, we think it'll be a very smart thing to do."

Lawmakers have had their own ideas on how to handle climate threats, and have passed two bills that, when taken together, are similar to DeSantis' Resilient Florida proposal.

"It's not exactly as he said he wanted it, but it's close," said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters. "These are policies that need to happen. It would have been better if they happened 20 years ago."

"I am not a global warming person"

In his 2018 campaign, DeSantis appealed directly to supporters of former President Donald Trump, such as in this ad where he tells one of his children to "build the wall" with toy blocks. The environment was a major issue in that election.

Residents were grappling with a toxic red tide and blue-green algae crisis that made beaches and waterways unsafe, and left marine-life belly-up.

In recent years Floridians have also experienced deadly, devastating consequences of back-to-back major hurricanes.

All the while, advocates were highlighting likely links between the state's environmental woes and global warming.

Florida's climate challenges are among the biggest in the country. Beyond those related to hurricanes intensified by climate change, they include sea level rise, extreme heat, drought and increasing health threats from mosquito-borne diseases.

By its own numbers, the DeSantis administration predicts that with sea level rise, $26 billion in residential property statewide will be at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.

But in 2018, DeSantis let voters know that he had clear limits when it came to climate change.

"I am not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists," DeSantis told reporters at one 2018 campaign stop. "I am not a global warming person. I don't want that label on me."

Early plaudits from environmentalists

Once in office, DeSantis won early plaudits for directives aimed at cleaning up water and helping Florida adapt to climate change. He appointed the first state resilience officer and the first chief scientist, and ordered Florida's Department of Environmental Protection to make sure its decisions were based on the best available science.

In 2019, they approved of DeSantis' order to his environmental regulators to oppose fracking, but he since has failed to get his Republican colleagues in the legislature to pass a statewide fracking ban, something he advocated for during his campaign. The state's oil and gas industry does not currently use fracking as a drilling method, but environmentalists are worried it might start doing so, resulting in water pollution.

Environmental groups also praised DeSantis in 2020 when the governor announced the state was backing a plan to buy 20,000 acres of the Everglades to prevent oil development there.

And they did the same when DeSantis backed spending $166 million in settlement money Florida received from Volkswagen on electric vehicle charging stations and cleaner electric buses. The money, part of a larger $14.7 billion settlement, came after the German automaker was caught lying about its cars' diesel emissions.

"Everyone was optimistic," said Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "I kept hearing an opening on climate."

Two years later, though, Glickman and other advocates are assessing DeSantis' climate record much like this: He's done more than previous Governor Scott, but that's not saying much.

DeSantis quietly replaced his chief science officer in March with Mark Rains, a professor, and chair and director of the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida. But he never has replaced his chief resilience officer after she left for the Trump administration after only a few months in the position.

"Missing in action" on renewables

In many ways, it's what DeSantis hasn't done that defines his climate record. He has chosen not to use his bully pulpit to advocate for a clean-energy future, like his Democratic Party counterparts in the Southeast states of North Carolina and Virginia, or like the mayors of Orlando and Tampa.

DeSantis has also been "missing in action" in debate over bills this year in the Florida legislature that would undermine local government efforts to transition to clean energy, said Webber, with the Florida Conservation Voters group.

One such bill, that has passed the House and Senate and awaits DeSantis' consideration, would ban local governments from restricting fuel sources. The oil and gas industry has supported such measures around the country. They aim to block the push by climate activists to ban natural gas hook-ups in new buildings, and electrify them instead to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, electrification only reduces emissions if it's powered by renewable energy. But Florida has no requirement that utilities provide a certain amount of that. Solar power accounts for only about 2.5% of the electricity produced by utilities, while they rely on fossil fuels for about 84%.

When DeSantis had a chance to appoint someone to the state's powerful Florida Public Service Commission, a regulatory body with a big say in state energy policy, he chose the Florida chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group known for its support of fossil fuels.

"We are very frustrated by the messaging, and the lack of acknowledgement of the root of the problem of all these issues," said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of The CLEO Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on climate science education.

"We need to acknowledge the warming temperatures and the rising seas are a result of our warming climate," she said. "We cannot adapt our way out of it. We need to aggressively tackle mitigation."

"What places can we not save?"

In Satellite Beach, Courtney Barker, the city manager who welcomes the governor's help with adapting to climate change, also wants to see him tackle the emissions side of the equation.

Besides moving the public works building and fire station to higher ground, the community is fortifying its system of flood control. Barker said the community needs more funding opportunities from the state.

"We're looking for assistance in helping us engineer our way out of it," she said.

Marine and climate scientist Jeff Chanton, of Florida State University, thinks there's too much emphasis on sea walls, which can cause beach erosion and destroy tidal zones vital to marine life, including crabs and turtles.

"An ideal governor would try to lessen the impacts of growth in this state, especially along our coastlines," he said.

Before her departure, Julia Nesheiwat, DeSantis' chief resilience officer, characterized the state's infrastructure as "outdated" in a report, and called its resilience strategy "disjointed."

For Thomas Ruppert, an attorney and coastal planning specialist with Florida Sea Grant, DeSantis' emphasis on hardening infrastructure ignores that — for some communities — the investments will be futile in staving off the inevitable.

"Ultimately, what we really need is to start talking seriously [about] what places can we not save? And what is an exit strategy? Because we have no idea," Ruppert said.

Barker hopes it doesn't come to that in Satellite Beach, where she grew up.

"It's personal to all of us, because I think everyone can look at their own hometown, and you can't imagine being anywhere else."

This story is a collaboration between Inside Climate News and WMFE Orlando, a member of ICN's National Reporting Network-Southeast.

Copyright 2021 WMFE