After eight years of Gov. Rick Scott degrading science and dismissing climate change, Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced he will appoint a chief science officer to deal with “current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.”
This welcome turnaround came just two days after DeSantis’ swearing-in, in an executive order that calls for $2.5 billion in Everglades restoration and water resource protections over the next four years, a $1 billion increase over the past four years.
The order also instructs the South Florida Water Management District to immediately start the next phase of the reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee. The governor addedlast week by demanding the resignations of the district’s nine board members who, in a surprise move after the election, gave sugar growers an extended lease on the public land meant for the reservoir.
The governor’s sweeping and refreshing order didn’t stop there. It also creates a task force on blue-green toxic algae, orders the new science officer to “coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis” on Florida’s environment, and creates an Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency charged with corralling scientific research and data “to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.”
This is a whole new tone for a governor’s office that until now, has essentially told Floridians we couldn’t afford to both create jobs and protect the environment.
Former Gov. Scott cut millions of dollars from water management district budgets, which meant shedding scientists, engineers and other experts. He slashed more than 200 water-monitoring stations. He sharply reduced the policing of polluters. And he rolled back growth-management laws and eliminated the state agency that oversaw them.
DeSantis’ enlightened order takes a giant step in the other direction.
Indeed, the order created something not mentioned in Thursday’s press release. Far down the list of Executive Order 19-12 — in the 26th of 27 paragraphs — the governor directs the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to:
“Create the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise by providing funding, technical assistance and coordination among state, regional and local entities.”
That’s right. The effects of “climate change” — that taboo phrase in the Scott administration — gets its own office in the DeSantis administration.
Make no mistake: this is a huge advance for Florida as the existential threat of sea-level rise becomes more and more apparent, no matter your views on the underlying cause. Our collaborative editorial-page project, The Invading Sea, has been arguing for months for state action to bolster localities organizing to help their regions prepare for the higher waters headed our way.
DeSantis did not talk about sea-level rise on the campaign trail, unlike his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum. And when asked about climate change, he questioned whether it’s man-made, adding that, in any case, it’s a problem beyond the capacity of state government to tackle.
But the former congressman from northeast Florida has surely noticed the more serious flooding that’s been occurring in Jacksonville, just as we in South Florida now see flooding on sunny days during autumn’s king tides.
By appointing a science officer and creating an office to ensure all agencies are on the same page on environmental matters, DeSantis has set the expectation that he will heed what science has to say – and not parrot the dodge used by Scott and other climate deniers, “Don’t ask me, I’m not a scientist.”
What scientists are predicting is that the sea will rise 2 feet, and maybe more, in the next 40 years. At 3 feet, barrier islands and low-lying communities will be largely uninhabitable. DeSantis is 40, the youngest Florida governor in a century. Our state will face enormous change — traumatic change — within his lifetime, and certainly in the lifetime of his two young children.
The new Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection isn’t the only big news that DeSantis’ team seemed to bury last week. The 27th and final paragraph of the executive order is for the DEP to “adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.”
This is another win for environmentalists who felt that the voter-approved Amendment 9 didn’t go far enough to protect the state’s shores from potential oil spills. It also puts a lid on any further legislative efforts to expand fracking in the Everglades.
At his inaugural, as he pledge to protect the environment, DeSantis spoke in the wartime cadence of Winston Churchill. (“We will fight toxic blue-green algae, we will fight discharges from Lake Okeechobee, we will fight red tide, we will fight for our fishermen, we will fight for our beaches…”) After years of denial, our state desperately needs such courage to prepare for the inevitability of sea-level rise.
Contrary to what DeSantis said on the campaign trail, state government can do quite a bit to diminish climate change and a looming future of ever-more intense hurricanes, flooding and coastal erosion. Under conscientious leadership, the state could slash carbon emissions and encourage alternate energy sources. The most important swing state in politics could wield enormous influence on national policy.
In his first few days, DeSantis is off to a bold, strong start on the environment. On the topic of sea-level rise, the proof will be in the follow-through. But our new governor has flipped a switch in Tallahassee and we’re excited to see the light.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.