By Rosemary O’Hara
The Republicans who run Florida don’t utter the words “climate change,” but that’s not to say they’re doing nothing to prepare our low-lying state for the water headed our way.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls deserves credit for making “resiliency” a priority the past two years and actually saying the words “sea level rise.” When his predecessor, Jose Oliva, was asked about sea level rise, he blamed Miami Beach’s sunny-day flooding on big buildings sinking the land.
Gov. Ron DeSantis never mentions “climate change” and equates “global warming” with “left-wing stuff.” But the words are no longer scrubbed from state websites, as they were under former Gov. Rick Scott. And DeSantis is poised to approve what in two years could be more than $1 billion in state and federal funds to address — as he prefers to call it — resilience, flooding and storm surge.
Broadly speaking, most members of the Republican-led Legislature now accept that climate change is real. But concerns about the economy keep them from addressing the accelerant that is causing the planet to warm and the oceans to rise — fossil fuel emissions. Carbon, in particular.
Because of rising carbon emissions, the world is on pace to warm as much as 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to a U.N. report released this week. That’s double the goal of the Paris Agreement. If it happens, the forecast is dire: blistering heat and drought, ferocious hurricanes and wildfires, devastating floods and sea level rise, and deadly mass migrations.
“There’s a locomotive coming down the track that’s hard to see,” says Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s resilience officer. “When you think about what the planet’s going to look like in 20, 30 years of climate change, it’s not just whether you can afford flood insurance. People aren’t going to have food and water and are going to be dying of dehydration.”
Tracking data shows that in the past century-plus, the sea has risen about 9 inches globally, but the rate of rise is accelerating because water expands as it warms. In Key West, the sea is projected to be 10 to 17 inches higher by 2040. Thirty years later, it’s projected to be 21 to 54 inches higher. By 2120: 40 to 136 inches higher. And those are the middle-ground projections from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a ground-breaking collaboration of more than 110 local governments trying to raise awareness and disrupt the trend lines.
Against that backdrop, here’s how climate issues fared in the 2022 Florida Legislature:
Focus on resilience: Florida lawmakers have woken to the threats of sea level rise these past two years. They’ve ordered an inventory of the state’s flooding vulnerabilities, authorized the development of a statewide resilience plan and created the Resilient Florida Grant Program to help local communities harden at-risk critical infrastructure, such as water systems, airports, medical centers and emergency operation centers. This year they lifted the annual $100 million cap they placed on the grant program last year.
Legislators also set aside for resiliency $1 billion of the $10 billion that Florida received in federal American Rescue Act dollars. The money will go to raise roads and seawalls, build higher dunes and deeper swales, improve stormwater and wastewater systems, and plant trees and harden government buildings. Some will also go to inland counties, which will help bridge the state’s political divide between coastal and inland counties over sea level rise.
The question is, what happens next year when Florida doesn’t get all those federal dollars? While we remain in line for Build Back Better federal infrastructure funds, the price tag for resiliency will reach tens of billions of dollars once communities finish their vulnerability studies. How will we pay for it?
The private sector is demanding a plan. They get it. They see the data. They know the insurance and reinsurance industries are pricing premiums in a community based on its government’s willingness to address climate impacts. So, too, is Moodys considering adjusting bond ratings based on a government’s action or inaction.
Republican lawmakers say they are addressing climate change, and are, indeed, working on resilience. But they remain focused on just one side of the coin: trying to adapt to what’s ahead. They refuse to address the underlying cause. Climate activist Susan Glickman compares it to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on towels for an overflowing sink — and never turning off the faucet.
If our red state were to start tackling the cause of climate change, so would the rest of nation. And if the U.S. did, so would the world.
Still no energy policy: Republican leaders show no willingness to develop a state energy policy. They cede that power to their top campaign contributors — the state’s investor-owned utilities.
This year, lawmakers refused to hear energy issues that called for:
* setting a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2055.
* creating tax credits for homeowners who install energy-efficient appliances. (A cleaner energy future starts with reducing demand and Florida ranks at the bottom for efficiency programs.)
* installing solar power on emergency shelters.
* removing the barriers for public schools to install solar and save on electric bills.
* requiring power companies to meet a certain percentage of the state’s energy needs through renewables, such as solar.
* tracking carbon emissions and requiring the state’s Chief Resilience Officer to recommend how to reduce them.
* reforming the PACE program to better help homeowners finance rooftop solar systems.
Worst of all: The legislature decimated the only renewable energy policy that Florida had going for it — the one that gives homeowners a financial incentive to install rooftop solar panels.
At the behest of Florida Power & Light, lawmakers agreed to phase out the provision that lets solar customers sell their excess energy back to the grid at retail rates. If the governor signs the bill, going solar will become more costly.
FPL argued that other customers were subsidizing the 1% of Floridians with rooftop solar, but the company couldn’t say how much the legislation would reduce everyone’s monthly bill. In other words, the amount is trifling.
Already, the Sunshine State significantly lags states like New Jersey and Maryland on rooftop solar and — absent action by DeSantis — Florida powerbrokers plan to keep it that way.
Power bills going up: Five months after power companies won record rate increases, two bills awaiting the governor’s signature would let them raise your bill even more because of higher natural gas prices. About 70% of Florida’s energy comes from natural gas, a fossil fuel. The path to energy security — and more affordable electricity — is not to rely on fossil fuels, but on what we can generate in our state.
Chief Resilience Officer: The legislature wants the position of Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) back in the governor’s office with clear roles and responsibilities, including the ability to convene state agencies and coordinate with local governments on the “flood vulnerability” of critical assets. The position has been floundering since it left the governor’s office and became an underling in the Department of Environmental Protection. It floundered in the governor’s office, too. The state needs someone able to navigate the politics of climate change and get things done. This position deserves the added muscle and support, and the governor should sign the bill.
Six inches from disaster: The 72-year-old flood control system that protects 11 million people in South Florida is failing and there is no funding or plan for repairs. Because of sea level rise, flood control gates are just 6 inches from topping out. Nineteen structures are expected to be obsolete within 13 years. Updates could cost $2 billion. President Biden’s budget gives the Army Corps of Engineers $500,000 a year for three years to begin developing a plan, which itself will cost $8 million and take three years. With time wasting, Republican Rep. Demi Busatta-Cabrera of Coral Gables and Democratic Rep. Robin Bartleman of Weston pushed a bill that requires an annual assessment be given the governor, House speaker and Senate president. “So no one can say, ‘I didn’t know about it,’” Bartleman said. Theirs was one of the first bills the legislature passed this year. It passed unanimously in both houses. Better yet, lawmakers added $2 million to kickstart planning.
Flooded roads: If the governor agrees with lawmakers that Florida Department of Transportation projects must now, finally, anticipate projected sea level rise, expect ripple effects on development. Sea level rise is making its effects known by flooding streets more and more days a year. Roads regularly covered by water don’t last nearly as long. DOT spends about 11% of the state budget and given that financial clout, its policies affect area development. This is a big step.
At-risk construction: Lawmakers refused, however, to require all state-funded construction projects — not just those in coastal areas — to similarly consider the risks of sea level rise. Broward Rep. Christine Hunchofsy tried to make it happen. She knows we’re seeing more inland flooding because our state has a porous limestone foundation that allows its groundwater table to rise along with the seas. But the Senate didn’t give her bill a second look.
Rosemary O’Hara is editor of The Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate. She previously was editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.