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Florida’s GOP Has A Change Of Heart About Climate Change

Ellis Rua
Associated Press
In this June 19, 2019 photo, 27-year-old Ben Honeycutt is shown walking his dog through a flooded Miami street cause by heavy rain. Some consider Miami the Ground Zero for any climate-related sea level rise in the U.S.

Florida’s Republican lawmakers are looking at new ways to address climate change in the state.  It’s part of a shift in policy when it comes to addressing environmental issues.  The sea change comes as younger republicans ditch old policies, which included not even using the words climate change.

Republican State Senator Tom Lee, from District 20 in the Tampa area, recently admitted state lawmakers have lost a decade in dealing with the effects of climate change and planning for rising seas. He and Democratic Senator José Javier Rodríguez from Miami joined The Florida Roundup to share their ideas for moving forward hen it comes to addressing the state’s climate challenges.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity

THE FLORIDA ROUNDUP: In your remarks this week, you said that you understood why the issue of sea level rise had not been discussed in the past. Why? Why hasn't it been discussed?

SENATOR TOM LEE:  I think, you know, politics in America has become hyper partisan. I've been around the legislature, first the Senate [in] the mid-90s, and it was a much different time here in our state. With the advent of social media and the echo chambers that have developed around that social media, people pick sides a lot more today than they think about policy.

I think that this is such a daunting undertaking, to get your head around the magnitude of implications associated with sea level rise, that there were people that didn't want to slow down long enough to do it. And there were other people that, when they slowed down long enough to do it, they questioned the potential they might have, the ability they would have to do anything about it, given the magnitude of it. Then there's a third group, I guess, that see that the consequences are so dramatic. If these predictions do bear out,  that it's just economically daunting. I mean, you have to be the Grim Reaper of reality in a world that isn't real fond of the Grim Reaper. That's why I use the term emotionally shut down, because I think I think you lose people at hello a lot times in the Republican conversation over this.

But I think over time what has happened is the evidence is just continued to mount. And the reality of the sea level rise is it is just hard for people to ignore. And if we can get away from the conversation about, you know, was Al Gore right, or who took the lead on this, or are we really going to be here in 12 years, we can start focusing prospectively on what are we going to do about this. 

What's your answer to those folks who think that willfully denying science because of partisanship was irresponsible?

LEE: That's the danger in looking back,  that there's nothing I can say. I will tell you, there's nothing I can say that is going to change the events in history.  We are where we are today.

I will tell you that while the politicians may have been spending their time focused on other things and have not been taking advantage of this last decade to advance policies in preparation for the future, there's been a lot of work and this came out during our committee done by the administration.  Which was kind of almost funny because, you know, the things we the politicians want to talk about were actually being ignored by the planners and engineers whose job it is to implement our five year work program in the Department of Transportation. The data they were using is not the same data that some of the environmental community is using or the scientists are using. But there was planning going on inside the Department of Transportation.

But I have a tendency to look more prospectively to think that, you know, these younger people are electing younger elected officials. Gov. DeSantis is 40 years old and he’s hired a resiliency officer who testified in our committee about this. The incoming speaker of the House is about the same age, and in his address at the Republican caucus when he was designated as the next speaker, he, too, pointed out that we need to deal with climate change.

José Javier Rodriguez, how significant is this conversation being led by Republican Senator Lee discussing sea level rise at an infrastructure committee meeting of a Senate committee?

SENATOR JOSÉ JAVIER RODRIGUEZ: I think it's significant. I would dispute that the climate change was not discussed. I think it was discussed. And I think that it is significant. I think that from my vantage point, you know, I've been wearing big black rubber rain boots. This is the third legislative session since I got elected. There's been a group of us trying to push and push and push. And I got frustrated because there were just even small incremental changes. Nothing was happening. So, you know, I started wearing these things and just, you know, really trying to meet with every element of our  state government, try to see where we could move the needle for transformative change on the issue of climate.

It is an issue that affects so many other aspects is not a topic that's separate. So I do think it's significant because it wasn't just talking about climate. We did end up talking also about the causes.  Which was, frankly, our energy policy. And I thought that it was a very open and good discussion. And I think that to be perfectly honest, my hope is that we can take aggressive and transformative policy action.

This legislative session coming up in early 2020, because, you know, for me, you know, the lost decade that Senator Lee describes sets the bar unbelievably low. I mean, I'll just be perfectly honest with you. It is not acceptable to heap praise on the incoming speaker of the House just for saying climate change. 

 But it's a big change from when even the chief emergency manager [was] unable to say climate change in front of a subcommittee.

RODRIGUEZ: True. It's so, Senator Lee is totally right. There was hostility for a decade to dealing with climate. And it’s also true that it wasn’t partisan 10 or 15 years ago. There were actually things that we were moving forward on.

Senator Rodriguez, that's why you wear the boots, to try to get people to pay attention to things like sunny day flooding? No part of this state will be untouched by these impacts.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. You know, you're absolutely right. One of the things about the sunny day flooding in the king tides, those of us who grew up in this community know, this never used to happen.  

As Senator Lee was talking about the emotional factor, the daunting. That's all true. And I think what's overcome that, is the fact that he is no longer deniable. And, you know, part of the way I look at it is it used to be a sort of environmental issue. Right? You know, climate change and something kind of distant. And as it's as it's gotten in our face more and more, it's clear that is also an economic issue. It is also an issue of our public health. It's becoming, if not already in many communities, a justice issue as well.

And so, you know, it's something that we can't deny. And as you say, you know, one of the things that we talked about last year and I think one of the reasons we were able to get some movement, although we weren't able to get that bill passed, was that, credit markets are watching us as a state. You know, these big insurance modeling companies, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland there, they have been watching us for a while and they're starting to send us signals that we don't get our act together.

It's going to hurt us. And when it hurts us, what we're talking about is local governments, local economies, pocketbooks, and property values. And I think people are getting that message and that is spurring people to action that normally otherwise would wouldn't want to tackle a problem, as Senator Lee describes, as daunting and as far reaching as far as making sure that we're prepared for the current and future.

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