This article is the result of a partnership between Inside Climate News and WMFE Orlando, a member of ICN’s National Reporting Network-Southeast.
SATELLITE BEACH, Florida—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 this small community’s enormous task of staving off the rising sea.
“This is actually the highest point in the city,” said Courtney Barker, city manager, adding that right next door to the new public works building will be a new fire station.
Satellite Beach is a close-knit community established by rocket scientists south of Kennedy Space Center, on a low-slung barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and 156-mile 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 re-election 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 they 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, which were then basically abandoned by Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican now serving in the U.S. Senate.
“Florida deserves better and somebody who has a greater focus on the environment all the time instead of just some of the time,” said Crist, who is now a Democrat and is considering running for governor in 2022.
DeSantis, he said, should be doing “everything humanly possible” to protect the state’s environment and “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.
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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, and have sent them to the governor for his consideration.
“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’
With the backing of former President Donald Trump, and appeals directly to Trump supporters—like an ad featuring him telling one of his children to “build the wall” with toy blocks—DeSantis defeated a Republican frontrunner, Adam Putnam, in the 2018 primary. He went on to defeat Democrat Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor, in the general election. The environment was a major issue in that election.
Scott, with his deregulatory agenda, took the blame for a toxic red tide and blue-green algae crisis that made beaches and waterways unsafe and marine-life belly-up in 2018.
If that wasn’t enough, Floridians experienced deadly, devastating consequences of back-to-back major hurricanes—Irma in 2017 and Michael in 2018—along with near-misses by Matthew in 2016 and Dorian in 2019.
All the while, environmental 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. Florida is the most hurricane-prone state, and hurricanes are not only getting more powerful, they are bringing much more rainfall.
Sunny day flooding is a regular occurrence in some communities because of sea level rise. Some face several feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.
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 DeSantis in 2018 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.”
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.
“Everyone was optimistic,” said Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a regional nonprofit focused on a clean energy transition. “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 Scott, but that’s not saying much.
DeSantis quietly replaced his chief science officer, Thomas K. Frazer, the dean of College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, in March, but never has replaced his chief resilience officer, who left early last year for the Trump administration after only a few months in the position.
Frazer had little to say in public about climate change during his tenure. In an email on Tuesday, Frazer’s description of his work on climate mirrored DeSantis’ priority—adaptation. He said he worked on programs “to better prepare Floridians for the broad suite of impacts resulting from rising sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns and associated flooding.”
Mostly, he said, his focus was on water quality issues.
“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, policy and campaigns manager of The CLEO Institute, a climate science education and advocacy nonprofit with offices in Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee.
“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.”
For DeSantis, the Climate Bar Was Low
Crist, in contrast, had become something of a celebrity in climate circles.
He signed a 2008 bill that would have allowed Florida to set up a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions and an executive order that was intended put the state on path to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. But those and other efforts died during the Scott administration.
“Well, it is disappointing, to be completely honest,” Crist said of how his climate policies were either overturned or left to languish.
Crist was unable to follow through on his climate agenda because he left the governorship after one term to run for U.S. Senate in 2010, and was defeated as an Independent by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in the general election.
DeSantis caught a break by following Scott, said Republican Lee Constantine, the chairman of the Seminole County Commission and a former state senator who has worked on water and energy issues.
“The bar was so low from what the previous governor had done,” he said.
Constantine said he’s pleased DeSantis understands that climate change is affecting Florida and that he wants to help local governments pay for climate adaptation.
But he also said DeSantis and the Republican controlled state legislature “need to put in policies that make it easier to include in the mix alternative energy, including solar and wind.”
He said he expects more out of the governor as the 2022 election draws nearer.
“He’s a smart man,” Constantine said. “He recognizes that his best (poll) numbers coming into an election year” will be that he is “perceived as an environmental governor.”
‘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 a public 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. It raises a key question, Webber said: “Does he side with local governments and local people or our monopoly utilities?”
As a congressman for five years, DeSantis had a League of Conservation Voting record of just 2 percent, routinely voting against climate and clean energy bills or amendments favored by environmentalists. His reluctance to embrace emission reductions as governor comes as President Joe Biden has returned the United States to the Paris climate agreement, after Trump pulled the country out. The agreement has a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and capping warming at close to 1.5 degrees Celsius to limit the worst climate disruption.
Florida ranks fourth in the nation for installed solar energy capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, producing enough to power 781,000 homes.
But that is a drop in the bucket in a state that also ranks second behind Texas for electricity production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
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Solar power accounts for only about 2.5 percent of the electricity produced by utilities, while they rely on fossil fuels for about 84 percent of their electricity, roughly 77 percent for natural gas and 7 percent for coal, according to the EIA. Nuclear power accounts for about 13 percent.
The state has no requirements that utilities provide a certain percentage of their power through renewable energy.
Florida is also the third-worst of seven Southeastern states for energy efficiency savings, in a region that also lags behind the rest of the nation, according to a new report from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
DeSantis signed a bill to require state financed buildings to consider sea level rise that was introduced by former state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat from Miami.
But Rodríguez is nevertheless critical of the governor, saying DeSantis is only tackling the climate change problem everyone can see and cannot deny: flooding. “We are a fossil fuel state,” he said. “There is so much more he could be doing, and he’s not.”
DeSantis ordered his environmental regulators to oppose fracking, but he 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 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 $14.7 billion settlement, came after the German automaker was caught lying about its cars’ diesel emissions.
But he also signed legislation approving three new toll roads through sensitive wildlife habitat.
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 a state lawmaker, Michael La Rosa, who was Florida chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, with its reputation as a “bill mill” for conservative and deregulatory model legislation, and support for fossil fuels. DeSantis picked him over another lawmaker, Rep. Holly M. Raschein, who was seen by environmental advocates as being more sympathetic to clean energy and climate change.
“She was the more climate friendly,” said Scott Thomasson, a renewable energy advocate who closely watches the commission. “If DeSantis wanted to make a point, he could have picked Raschein.”
Too Much Emphasis on Sea Walls
In Satellite Beach, Courtney Barker, the city manager who welcomes the governor’s emphasis on helping communities adapt 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.
“There’s two strategies—either leave or engineer your way out of it,” she said. “We love our city. We do not want to have areas where we can’t, you know, occupy. And that’s where we’re looking for assistance in helping us engineer our way out of it.”
But even with the governor’s focus on adaptation, some experts are concerned the state is not on the right track under DeSantis’ leadership.
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, said marine and climate scientist Jeff Chanton, a professor at Florida State University.
“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.” She suggested resilience districts based on regional collaborations that already have evolved, like the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact and East Central Florida Resilience Collaborative.
Nesheiwat’s suggestion could be valuable, said Thomas Ruppert, an attorney and coastal planning specialist with the Florida Sea Grant, a research organization.
But DeSantis’ emphasis on hardening infrastructure continues to ignore that, for some communities, the investments will be futile in staving off the inevitable, he said.
“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. “And I think that is where we need the conversation.”
Barker said she hopes it doesn’t come to that in Satellite Beach, her hometown.
“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. And that’s how most people feel here.”