‘Climate change’ finally enters Florida legislature’s lexicon



November 7, 2019 - 10:30 AM

There are signs that the Florida Legislature may finally be ready to discuss the climate crisis.

What we really need, however, is bipartisan action.

Our state’s climate scientists and local governments have made it abundantly clear that taking substantive action must be a priority. And it must be a priority now.

Yet it appears this is another issue on which the state’s Republican lawmakers continue to lag behind their constituents. According to a statewide survey released by Florida Atlantic University last week, more than two-thirds of Floridians say that climate change has them concerned about the well-being of future generations in Florida and do not feel government is doing enough to address the impacts.

The new survey also shows that nearly half of Floridians (47%) are willing to pay $10 a month to make the state’s infrastructure more resilient against weather hazards.

To properly respond, however, Republican lawmakers — who’ve controlled the Legislature for two decades — would have to take their heads out of the sand.

Denial was the dispiriting norm during the eight years of Gov. Rick Scott. Despite a wave of climate research warning of the existential threat to Florida’s 1,200 miles of valuable coastline — and communities — from rising sea levels, the term “climate change” was reportedly banned from the lexicon of state employees. County and municipal governments —such as those in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact — were left wanting for state leadership on resilience, adaptation and mitigation and had to grapple with the effects of climate change themselves.

But now that posture may be changing with a nudge from Democrats and a generational shift among Republicans.

“We lost a decade,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotossassa, last month during a Committee on Infrastructure and Security hearing. The committee chair began the 90-minute hearing with the words “sea level rise,” according to the Miami Herald. Lee acknowledged a “paradigm shift” and new political realities. “There’s a younger generation of conservatives in this state that aren’t as much in denial.”

That’s borne out by the FAU poll. Younger Floridians ages 18-49 are more likely to concur with the scientific consensus on climate change and its attribution to human activities (60%) than those ages 50-64 and 65 and over (51% and 52%, respectively). In addition, more than half of Floridians (56%) believe that climate change is real and it is largely caused by human activity, including 44% of Republicans.

Possibly count among those Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls. In his speech after, in September, being voted in as the next Florida House Speaker, he admonished his fellow Republicans for “being afraid of words like climate change and sea level rise.”

As he did in the last legislative session, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is giving a nod to addressing coastal resiliency in the 2020 session. And of course, Gov. Ron DeSantis this summer hired Julia Nesheiwat as the state’s first chief resilience officer to coordinate efforts with local governments on addressing climate issues.

To be sure, there is hope for legislative movement with some GOP members’ willingness to “talk” about sea level rise. But climate activists like state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, say, correctly, that talk doesn’t equate to action.

The freshman lawmaker has filed House Bill 97 that sets a goal of Florida fully using renewable energy by 2050. A companion bill (SB 256) has been filed in the Senate by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

Both Eskamani and Rodriguez sponsored similar legislation last session that went nowhere. “This has to happen now,” she told the Post Editorial Board, “because Florida is ground zero for sea level rise.”

They have the backing of Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has made a top priority reinvigorating her department’s long-dormant Office of Energy to help address climate challenges.

But this upcoming session, what Eskamani and Rodriguez really need are Republican co-sponsors on their bills.