MELBOURNE, Fla.—For most of his 15 years, Levi Draheim led a beachy life on a barrier island on Florida’s east coast, swimming, surfing and sailing in the near-shore waves. He dreamed of someday becoming a marine biologist. But Levi’s world is changing.
Warming temperatures led to widespread Sargassum seaweed and harmful algae blooms in the Atlantic Ocean and 156-mile Indian River Lagoon, which together encircle the island. The seaweed and algae blooms have left beaches stinking with rotting seaweed and dead marine life. In the Indian River Lagoon the algae blooms have caused an extensive loss of seagrass, most notably leading to an unprecedented die-off of manatees, which starved without enough seagrass to eat. Some days Levi wore a mask at the beach to guard against the smell.
Warming temperatures also have contributed to more frequent and damaging storms, and in 2017 a series of storms including Hurricane Irma, which wrought billions of dollars in damage across the state, caused flood waters to rise 18 inches in Levi’s front yard. His family had to fortify the home with sandbags to prevent further damage. After Levi’s mother became pregnant with his now 2-year-old half-sister Juniper, a curious toddler with sparse blonde hair and big brown eyes, the family decided it was time to abandon the island life and move to the mainland.
“It’s kind of disappointing not being able to live on the barrier island anymore, because there’s so much fun stuff that I could do. Most of my friends, they live on the barrier island,” said Levi, now in Melbourne, Florida. “It’s a mix of disappointment and also frustration, frustration with leaders.”
When Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced a plan earlier this year aimed at putting the state on a path toward cleaner energy, behind the plan were some 200 young Floridians, all under the age of 25. Levi was the youngest. The young Floridians had found something in the state statutes, with help from Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group, that Florida leaders, including Fried, apparently had overlooked: that the statutes required Fried’s department to set goals for enhancing renewable energy use in the state. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the state’s Office of Energy.
Florida is among the most vulnerable states to climate change and yet until now has lacked any real plan to address the main cause behind warming temperatures and wean the state from fossil fuels. Fried, a Democrat, is running against Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in this year’s gubernatorial race, and she has railed against the governor for his inaction on the issue. DeSantis has focused instead on resilience projects, saying he is “not a global warming person.”
The young Floridians filed a petition for rulemaking in January admonishing the state leaders and especially Fried for ignoring the statutory mandate. The petition called on the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Fried to set goals for moving Florida toward 100 percent clean energy by 2050. After Fried announced a proposed rule in April for implementing the goals, Levi felt proud about holding elected leaders accountable but felt they were capable of more.
“I’m glad that they’re doing something instead of not doing anything. But still, I feel like they could have done better,” said Levi about the rule, which is expected to be finalized Aug. 9. “Like with a parent, they know that their kid just ran this race and placed fairly decently. They placed third. But they knew that their kid has the potential to do more. I guess it’s, in some ways, it’s sort of like that. Because I know that there’s more that they can do. But I’m glad that they did their best, and I’m glad they did something.”
Florida’s New Goals Call for 100 Percent Renewable Energy by 2050
Nationwide nearly half of states, along with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have goals for moving toward 100 percent clean energy by midcentury, a benchmark scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The Biden administration is aiming for 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. In Florida leaders have been hostile in recent years toward such goals, leaving some local governments to step in with goals of their own, although in 2021 the Legislature struck back with a measure effectively banning most local goals.
Florida’s new goals call on utilities to move toward 40 percent clean energy by 2030, 63 percent by 2035, 82 percent by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. The goals are the same as those proposed by the young Floridians in their petition for rulemaking. The petition’s goals are based on a study by Evolved Energy Research, a consulting firm that has conducted similar studies for other states.
The young Floridians’ 121-page petition relies on state policy dating back some 15 years to when former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, was in office. The Crist administration produced an Energy & Climate Change Action Plan and also set emission reduction targets that, although they now are very out-of-date, remain in effect, according to the petition, because the executive order setting the goals never was repealed or rescinded. Crist, now a Democratic congressman representing the Tampa area, also is running against Fried and DeSantis in the gubernatorial race. Crist and Fried will face off this month in the Florida primary for the Democratic nomination, and one likely will go up against DeSantis in November.
“We read the law, literally. You just read the law,” said Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney at Our Children’s Trust, which filed the petition on behalf of the young Floridians including Levi. “When we saw that, that was a mandatory duty that had not been fulfilled, that’s when we came up with a strategy to file the petition for rulemaking.”
The Crist administration’s clean energy goals effectively were abandoned in 2011 when his successor former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and now U.S. senator, took office. Scott transformed Florida policy on the environment and climate, most notably banning the words “climate change” from state agencies, making him a punchline of late-night comedians.
Since DeSantis took office in 2019 he has strived to make the environment a priority of his administration. The governor, a potential front-runner for the GOP nomination in the 2024 presidential race, has put millions of dollars toward the Everglades and other treasured and troubled waterways but has faced criticism for not doing more about Florida’s biggest environmental threat: climate change. The young Floridians contend in their petition the state is not on track to meet even the Crist administration’s very outdated renewable energy goals and that emissions have been on a statistically significant positive upward trajectory since 2009. The petition especially singles out Fried and her department.
“As of 2020, renewable energy accounted for merely 4.3 percent of Florida’s overall electricity generation,” the petition states. “This lack of renewable energy development is due to the Commissioner’s and the Department’s sanctioning of the public utilities’ historic failure to develop and increase the use of renewable energy resources at the pace required by law and by the best available science.”
‘I Have a Light Inside Me’
Now on the mainland, Levi lives in a tidy, ranch-style home with his mother, stepfather, half-sister Juniper and dog Basil, a Staffordshire terrier and Treeing Walker Coonhound mix with one brown eye and one blue eye. His mom, Leigh-Ann Draheim, raises Juniper, homeschools Levi and works at the family’s church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard in West Melbourne. Stepdad James Kilby is a professional photographer and tends the family’s elaborate home garden, aimed at protecting fragile local waters from harmful lawn fertilizers and also sustaining the family. At the moment he is raising fruits, vegetables and herbs, with plans for more.
Levi is an affable teen with a bright smile and hair that usually he wears in a “giant Afro,” which he describes as a “big part of who I am,” although when we meet his hair is closely shorn. He is an accomplished unicycler and spends his spare time sailing in the Indian River Lagoon and also volunteering at the Brevard Zoo. He now dreams of becoming a search-and-rescue dog handler, because he loves animals and helping people.
“My mom says that, I don’t know how she usually describes it, that I have a light inside me,” he said with his mom beside him at the kitchen table. Works of art adorn the walls throughout the home, colorful eclectic paintings collected from local artists. Many, like one of a fish skeleton and blue-and-green Earth, share a common theme of the environment and climate.
“I don’t know what that means exactly,” Levi continued about the light inside him, “but my mom says I have a light inside of me that helps me be a better person.”
Leigh-Ann stepped in to help clarify.
“He’s always had this really good energy about him that people are drawn to,” she said. “Even when he was very little people would talk to him at the grocery store or at the library or whatever. He just had this sort of energy about him. So I think when he fell into this role I think it was a good thing for him, because people are, for whatever reason, interested in Levi.”
Levi got involved with Our Children’s Trust through his church and in 2015 was among 21 young plaintiffs from across the country to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration challenging the federal government’s fossil fuel energy system. At about 8 years old Levi was the youngest. The plaintiffs contended the system violated their constitutional rights to freedom, life, liberty and property. The Trump administration later was substituted for the Obama administration. In 2020 an appeals court judge threw out the case.
Levi attended all the court hearings in Eugene, Oregon, and also traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk with congressional leaders about the lawsuit and cause behind it. His mom always chaperoned. Over time the other plaintiffs became like siblings for Levi, but the hardest part was sitting still through the hearings and meetings, his mom recalled.
“He would sit there frustrated going, ‘Don’t you see what’s happening? There’s hurricanes. We’ve had to evacuate my house,’” she said. “He didn’t understand all the legal stuff. He just understood that his environment was being affected, and that’s what he cared about.”
In 2018 Levi joined another lawsuit with other young Floridians against the Scott administration challenging the state’s energy system. The DeSantis administration later was substituted for the Scott administration. In 2021 an appeals court judge dismissed that case, too, but the young Floridians were not ready to give up. The attorneys went back to the statutes and discovered the mandate involving the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and renewable energy goals, said Rodgers, the senior litigation attorney at Our Children’s Trust.
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For Florida climate change means hotter temperatures, rising seas and more frequent and damaging storms. By 2045 the DeSantis administration predicts some $26 billion in residential property statewide will face chronic flooding. The young Floridians in the lawsuit have faced these impacts in diverse ways. One young woman lives in the Florida Keys. A teenage girl is a Seminole Indian whose heritage includes the Everglades. A teenage boy lives on a Gainesville farm.
Levi has found his involvement in the litigation rewarding but also frustrating, in a Republican-led state where leaders have taken next to no action on climate change for about a decade. He lives in a county that favored former President Donald Trump in 2020. Most of his friends have been supportive, but a few do not get it. Some do not understand the problem, he said. One friend asked why not speak up about “bigger” issues, like racism and homophobia. Levi said he feels a unique responsibility about climate change as a person of color. He points out low-income communities and communities of color often are more vulnerable to impacts.
“African-American people sometimes, most of the time we don’t live in as safe, or as strong a neighborhood,” said Levi. “Or if we do, then it’s in the area that is more greatly affected than some other people that may have better opportunities.”
Natural Gas Remains Florida’s Primary Energy Source
Among Florida’s leading energy providers—Florida Power & Light Co., Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co.—all have made strides in recent years toward cleaner energy, especially solar. FP&L parent company NextEra Energy, Inc., announced a plan recently for eliminating carbon emissions completely from its operations by 2045, which some clean energy advocates have cheered as game-changing. Nonetheless natural gas remains the state’s primary energy source at 73 percent in 2020, double the national average, the young Floridians say in their petition.
“At these rates of increase, renewable energy production will not equal natural gas energy production until the year 2140,” the petition states. “Taking five generations just to achieve parity between natural gas and renewable energy use represents an abject failure to capitalize on Florida’s ‘significant solar potential.’”
It is not clear how compliant Florida utilities will be with the state’s new renewable energy goals, as the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services lacks the authority to enforce them. Instead the department will require utilities to submit their 10-year reports, which the department will review for compliance and forward to the governor, Legislature and Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities.
“The question will be: Is the Public Service Commission willing to hold the utilities accountable?” said Rodgers of Our Children’s Trust. “That’s yet to be seen, but that’s really how this should work.”
Others are less optimistic. Jonathan Webber, legislative and political director at Florida Conservation Voters, an advocacy group, said the utilities need more accountability.
“There are a lot of ways that we can transition from where we are now to the clean, renewable energy future we need,” he said. “But unfortunately the way it’s going is that’s going to be completely on the utilities’ terms to maximize profits, as opposed to helping Floridians.”
As for Levi, he has spent half his life at this point involved in climate litigation aimed at holding federal and state leaders accountable on fossil fuels. He said he would not have it any other way.
“If you were given an opportunity to stop an explosion that would kill everyone, and you’re given that opportunity to stop it…If you don’t take that opportunity and you survive, that’s something that will always be there, that you’ll always know that you didn’t do something that you could’ve done,” he said. “If you think about it that way, that if I didn’t, if I don’t, take action, then that will be something that will hang with me. I’ll know that I didn’t do something that I could have done.”