Climate Change in Florida Is Forcing a Response From Republican Politicians
By Elizabeth Djinis
Florida has long been known as an environmental contradiction. It's mostly a peninsula at risk from the severe impacts of climate change, including rising seas, warming temperatures, and worsening extreme-weather events; yet it's also a state governed by Republican leaders who have refused to even publicly utter the words "climate change."
When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was elected in 2018, he appeared to be the archetypal Republican, proudly touting his endorsement from then-president Donald Trump. But DeSantis's immediate actions on the environment surprised even die-hard Democrats. In his first year, he hired the state's first chief resilience officer and recommended that more than $625 million be allocated to restoration of the Florida Everglades and protecting the state's water resources.
Some Republican strategists say DeSantis has paved the way for a Florida legislature that is finally open to acting on climate change. The governor's proposed state budget for 2021-2022 allocates $1 billion over four years for resiliency efforts in response to sea level rise, storm events, and localized flooding, and $25 million to offset harmful algal blooms and red tide.
At the same time, state leaders like Florida's House speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate president Wilton Simpson are proposing a sweeping infrastructure package that would specifically designate consistent funds to mitigating sea level rise and flooding. It's a stunning acceptance of a problem that, for too long, Republicans refused to even admit.
But many of Florida's young climate activists say the focus is misplaced. Sure, it's great that Republicans have finally recognized the threat posed by the climate crisis, but they are more concerned with dealing with the consequences than the causes. And Republicans are still reticent to use the term "climate change," preferring the more palatable "resiliency," which emphasizes bracing to withstand the impacts of climate change rather than enacting policies that could actually reduce carbon emissions.
"It's gotten to the point in Florida where politicians really can't ignore climate change and the cost of not investing in resilient infrastructure, because sea level rise is going to destroy our tourism industry," says Mary-Elizabeth Estrada, 24, a climate organizer with the environmental nonprofit the CLEO Institute. "But a lot of the time it's still money-centered as opposed to 'how can we help the people?' It's
National GOP media strategist Adam Goodman, who splits his time between Washington, DC, and the Tampa Bay area, says DeSantis has opened the door for other Florida Republicans to follow in his footsteps. GOP leaders took note of the Florida governor's popularity jump after he proposed allocating money to protect coastlines and preserve natural resources. Party leaders began to view environmental protections as a core Florida message rather than a partisan issue, Goodman tells Teen Vogue.
They have also keenly realized the alternative: Not acting on the environment could have severe economic consequences for the state and threaten the party's dominance of state politics. "Republicans are learning that if they become more sensitive to the environment and climate change, they can then go back in the campaign process and policy process to some of their bread-and-butter conservative economics and careful growth policies," Goodman explains. "If they don't check this box, especially in a state like Florida, they are going to have a much more difficult time putting into play a conventional Republican agenda."
Part of the impetus lies in experience. Florida Republicans, like all Floridians, are already experiencing climate change, whether it's firsthand or through the perspectives of their constituents. Estrada has lobbied Democrats and Republicans on climate policy through her nonprofit roles, and she's talked to legislators who mention increased flooding and rising tides in their own neighborhoods. "When it impacts you, I think that's when you start to realize that this really is a problem," Estrada says.
So far, Florida Republicans seem to be picking and choosing what climate issues they're willing to engage on. Proposed legislation in the Florida Senate, for example, would bar local governments from restricting the types of energy production, like electricity or natural gas, that get supplied to customers by a utility company. Another bill would have given the state broad oversight on energy infrastructure regulation, prohibiting local governments from taking regulatory action on existing or new energy infrastructure; it has since been amended to apply only to gas stations and their related transportation infrastructure.
These moves are particularly unnerving because youth climate activists say much of Florida's environmental progress has been made at the local level. Numerous Florida cities, including St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Gainesville, have taken the Sierra Club's "Ready for 100" pledge to use 100% clean and renewable energy no later than 2050.
"In coastal communities like the Tampa Bay area and the Miami Beach area, there we do see elected officials on a local level who seem to really care and make big steps and move toward solar energy," says Catarina Fernandez, a 20-year-old activist working as a fellow with Our Climate and studying the environment and society at Florida State University.
While youth activists tend to focus on national issues, buoyed by proposals like the Green New Deal and dynamic national representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there's so much more potential to get things done on the local level, according to Estrada. "People should realize the importance of local elections. That's where you can really get stuff done," she says. "On the local level, you can actually talk to city council members and your local state legislators."
Even Florida Republican policies that appear positive on their face — like Sprowls and Simpson's plan to allocate recurring funding toward the effects of sea level rise and flooding — have a hidden underbelly. That money would come from a state trust fund that uses documentary stamp tax revenue from real estate transactions to fund affordable housing. The state has routinely tapped that fund to address various crises, and the Republicans' proposal would also crystallize a policy wherein the funds meant mainly for affordable housing would be shared with those for sea level rise mitigation and wastewater grants.
This puts activists in a terrible position, pitting the housing justice movement against the environmental movement, Fernandez says. "That's a fight nobody asked for," she says. "I want climate resiliency measures, but do I want that at the expense of some of the most vulnerable communities here in Florida? No, not in a million years."
Ultimately, young climate activists have had to take a pragmatic look at the limitations of what can be accomplished through policy. Fernandez says it is not the "end-all, be-all." "If you're living in a conservative state like Florida, it can be really hard to get that stuff off the ground," she says. "You're not really going to get policy changes unless you have the people behind you, and the way to get people behind you is by educating them and connecting with them and tapping them into these issues."
Elizabeth Djinis is a writer and journalist based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her work has been published by Poynter, The Dallas Morning News, The Tampa Bay Times, The Penny Hoarder and Sarasota Magazine, among others. Follow her on Twitter.
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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