A Florida First: Republican-Led Legislature Passes Climate Change Bill

Mar 13, 2020

José Javier Rodríguez, a state senator from Miami, has finally achieved the slogan he’s borne on his rubber boots for three years — ActOnClimateFL.

For the first time in a decade, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature has passed a bill that explicitly acknowledges climate change’s threats to the state and aims to limit at least some impacts.

If Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, signs it into law, it would require state-financed buildings on the coast to take sea level rise into account before starting construction, a meaningful prospect in a state where more than three-quarters of its population live near the coast.

“It actually alters behavior in the real world. It’s not a study. It’s not a blue-ribbon panel,’’ said Rodríguez, a Democrat. “It requires planning for sea level rise, including storm impacts, when we’re using taxpayer dollars in the coastal building zone.”

While it was a significant step forward, it also was the only one. There wasn’t enough bipartisan support for a record number of other climate proposals.

Even a bill that would have made a permanent office for the governor’s signature climate change position, the chief resilience officer, faltered in the final days of the 2020 session. It did not help win support that the first person to ever hold the position in Florida, Julia Nesheiwat, left after six months for a job in the Trump administration. DeSantis has since signaled he isn’t sure if he’s going to replace her.

Still, in the most vulnerable state in the nation to the effects of sea level rise, a single bill addressing the impacts of climate change is a big deal after what advocates call a “lost decade” on climate action. But it barely scrapes the surface of the work the state has to do to keep its residents — and property values — afloat.

“Inaction for 30 years and hostility for the last decade means, frankly, anything more than sitting on your hands is an improvement,” Rodríguez said. “The bar is so incredibly low. Just speaking about climate is an improvement, and that cannot be the bar that we use.”

His new bill would do something some local governments and developers already do, check the future impact of sea level rise on a location before they begin construction. Without that study, no state money can be used. Rodríguez said staffers from Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection “enthusiastically” worked with him on the bill, and he hopes DeSantis will sign it into law.

“Over time, you’re altering how building happens. Not by changing the building codes but by changing best practices,” he said. “It sort of has the effect of raising the standard across the state.”

A BANNER YEAR FOR CLIMATE BILLS

Rodríguez, who has filed scores of climate-related bills every year he’s been in session, saw the rest of his proposals die in committees this year. Among the dead: bills to coordinate a statewide resiliency plan updated every four years, require an annual report on state health risks due to climate change and track how much the state is spending on climate adaptation.

But in 2020, he wasn’t alone. Lawmakers have filed more bills that mention climate change than any other year in the last decade, a Miami Herald analysis shows. This session saw five times more climate bills than in 2010, when then-Republican Charlie Crist was governor.

During Crist’s tenure, Florida was briefly a pioneer in handling climate change. Crist held a national summit in Miami, appointed a sea rise task force and set emission reduction goals. The state even signed a cap-and-trade bill into law in 2008.

Gov. Rick Scott was a different story. The cap-and-trade bill was amended out of existence, the task force’s recommendations were shelved and emissions goals ignored. Infamously, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found Scott had an unwritten ban on the phrases “climate change” and “global warming.”

Environmentalists have found more to like in DeSantis, who came out swinging against Big Sugar on the campaign trail and assembled an expert panel to recommend solutions to curb the impact of blue and green algae on the state’s water bodies. Florida Republicans, like Miami-Dade Rep. Vance Aloupis Jr., saw that as an invitation to talk more about climate change.

“When you have leadership at the top it emboldens you to act in the Legislature,” said Aloupis, who sponsored Rodríguez’s sea rise bill in the House. “I see this as a major sign that there’s an appetite for this issue.”

Another factor: Polling shows that climate is a hot topic for Florida voters, including more Republicans.

A new poll from Florida Atlantic University in January found that 86 percent of Floridians understand climate change is happening, including 81 percent of Republicans surveyed. Forty-four percent of Republicans also understand that climate change is largely caused by human activity, compared to 69 percent of Democrats.

Monroe County Republican Rep. Holly Raschein, who has been in office for eight years and is term-limited, said the difference in the climate change conversation this year has been “revolutionary.”

“Six years ago we wouldn’t even be hearing bills that had to do with this topic,” she said. “Now you’re seeing bills move their way through the process all the way to the finish line, and the ones that don’t get a meaningful amount of time in committee.”

Still, Raschein said, there’s a lot to be done — and fast. In her district, there’s a neighborhood that flooded for more than 90 days straight, and others where the annual king tides make roads impassable.

“I think that we’re playing a major game of catch-up,” she said.

CLIMATE ACTION AROUND THE NATION

Governors across the nation have responded to the mounting pressure for climate action with statewide plans to tackle climate change’s symptoms, like flooding and stronger hurricanes, as well as the cause by limiting emissions of greenhouse gasses.

In oil-reliant Louisiana, which faces similar coastal risks to Florida, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced his administration plans to cut emissions, albeit in an industry-friendly way.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown passed emissions reduction legislation Tuesday via executive order after Republican lawmakers crossed state lines to avoid a vote on a more comprehensive cap-and-trade bill, for the second year in a row.

Like most other Republican-led states, Florida doesn’t have a plan to address climate change. The chief resilience officer was tasked with coming up with a climate action plan, but she did not complete it before leaving office last month.

But in another sign that Florida is paying more attention to the issue, The New York Times found it was one of a few red states that even mentioned climate change in an application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal disaster mitigation aid. Florida called it a “key overarching challenge” in its request for $633 million, which would pay for anything from adding generators to important government buildings to elevating them.

The Keys has asked the state to set aside $150 million just for them, a nod toward the potential billion-dollar cost of saving the island chain.

Raschein, who represents the region, said while she “couldn’t be more thrilled” about the new bill that passed, there’s room for improvement in how the state addresses the issue.

“We’re hearing from our constituents, we’re hearing from our local governments that are looking for guidance,” she said. “We have such an opportunity to be a leader in this.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times