At a rally in Collier County at the end of October, a day after he unveiled his “contract” with America, then-candidate Donald Trump rallied his supporters with talk of “crooked Hillary,” a rigged election system and the “real group of losers” running the country. Then, in the middle of 47-minute speech, he turned to a teleprompter and devoted just over a minute to Florida’s longest-running and most frustrating environmental conflict: Everglades restoration.
“A Trump administration will also work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades, which I just flew over. I just flew over and let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say I better have a good helicopter.”
The soon-to-be 45th president of the United States went on to assure the crowd that dwindling water supplies in Florida, where he owns three golf courses, would be protected.
“Our plan will also help you upgrade water and wastewater — and you know you have a huge problem with wastewater — so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution. We have to do it. We will also repair the Herbert Hoover dike in Lake Okeechobee, a lake I’m very familiar with.”
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To weary Floridians, he was far from the first politician to make such promises. Thirty years after Lawton Chiles vowed to clean up the marshes, the Everglades remain as threatened as ever, going from too wet to too dry, the coasts repeatedly hammered by algae outbreaks and Florida Bay slammed by massive seagrass die-offs. Water quality and quantity in the state face increasing pressure from sea rise and growing demand.
But Trump is the first developer to occupy the White House. Everglades restoration, the largest environmental project ever undertaken in the nation’s history, is essentially a giant infrastructure job. And many of the solutions to climate change in South Florida come down to construction: raising roads, fortifying coastlines and updating flood controls.
Could Trump finally be the solution?
This is water infrastructure. ... It costs billions and employs thousands of jobs, just like the infrastructure he’s talking about.
Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO
“This is water infrastructure,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “It costs billions and employs thousands of jobs, just like the infrastructure he’s talking about.”
But what Trump didn’t mention, and what alarms scientists and other environmental advocates, are broader policies on climate change and energy production that would derail the progress Florida has made to protect its fragile resources. Trump has vowed to slash environmental regulations, revive the sagging coal industry and increase drilling — moves that could make Everglades restoration a moot point. They worry Trump’s macro policies could undo his micro promises.
The Miami Herald asked scientists, policy analysts and government staffers — who combined have spent decades fighting to preserve Florida’s unique ecosystems — what a Trump presidency will mean for the state. Most expressed concern. Some are taking a wait-and-see position. Whatever comes, they’re expecting a bumpy, fossil-fueled ride.
Sea rise is probably Florida’s biggest challenge. The state is already battling its impacts — routine flooding from seasonal tides amplified by sea level rise, coral reefs and seagrass beds sickened by higher ocean temperatures and the risk of more intense hurricanes — so the issue is more than theoretical.
Miami Beach plans on spending about a half billion dollars on pumps over the coming years. Fort Lauderdale raised the height limit for new seawalls. Other South Florida governments have banded together in a regional compact to work together on coordinating infrastructure needs likely to cost billions. Even the National Hurricane Center, recognizing that most hurricane deaths are caused by flooding that will probably get worse, has started issuing storm-surge warnings.
Trump, on the other hand, has called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese and said he plans on pulling out of the Paris Agreement that committed the U.S. to reducing the nation’s greenhouse gases by up to 28 percent over the next decade.
He’s not alone in thinking it’s a hoax. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said last week he talks to Trump often — and could play a role in appointments — has danced around climate change. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, another state with a vulnerable coastline, is looking forward to “regulations we can roll back, whether it’s EPA-related, the overtime rules, Obamacare.”
Whether Trump means what he says remains to be seen. In 2009, he was among 55 CEOs and prominent people to back a full-page New York Times ad urging Obama and Congress to act on climate change, according to The Atlantic and Grist.
In one of his first moves, Trump chose Myron Ebell to lead the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency, infuriating climate advocates who collected 88,000 signatures on a Whitehouse.gov petition before it was removed Tuesday. Ebell works for a Libertarian think tank that pushes skepticism on climate change and is backed by the oil and coal industry.
Ebell, who personally called climate change a “silly” issue, wants to derail power plant regulations and has said Obama usurped his power in signing the Paris Agreement. He also called Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change “leftist drivel” and said the pope supports a liberation theology, repeating an unsubstantiated claim that the KGB started the movement to spread communism in South America.
His appointment suggests sweeping changes for the agency.
“The entire upper management of the EPA will be swept out. There is no doubt. That is a 99-percenter,” said a staff member who spoke on condition that he not be named. The agency declined to comment on changes.
If Trump derails attempts to curb carbon emissions, which have already caused an irreversible 10 inches of sea rise over the next 15 years, future work to deal with flooding in South Florida could become more costly. Scientists also worry much of the critical monitoring required to track problems tied to the spike in carbon emissions could be doomed.
“The state of the ocean, it’s an expensive enterprise,” said University of Miami climate scientist Ben Kirtman, a lead author on the U.N.’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment.
Kirtman, however, was hopeful that research would continue and, if framed as jobs-generating work, projects would move forward.
People can chose to deny the facts of climate change but when faced with the reality of having to respond to the challenges on the ground, the denial is thin.
University of Miami climate scientist Ben Kirtman
“People can chose to deny the facts of climate change but when faced with the reality of having to respond to the challenges on the ground, the denial is thin,” he said.
A regional coalition of county governments, universities and advocates that has sprung up in recent years to push the issue can also probably survive a Trump presidency, scientists say. But a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord sends a damaging message to the rest of the world.
“There’s been some level of hope that the federal government would play some role in helping to support the investments that we need in South Florida to adapt to sea level rise. I’m not as optimistic about that now,” said Tiffany Troxler, director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center.
Trump has also vowed to do away with Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emission, which Ebell called “the Costly Power Plan or the Skyrocketing Rates Power Plan,” even though the EPA projects an 8 percent drop in rates. Twenty-seven states, including Florida, are now fighting the plan in court.
Losing these two significant signs of progress in climate action will hurt the Everglades ecosystem eventually because we’re failing to reduce greenhouse gases.
Environmental lawyer Julie Dick
“No matter what happens in terms of the U.S.’s ability to pull out of the Paris Agreement and how the courts decide the Clean Power Plan, for all practical purposes they’re not going to be implemented in the Trump administration,” said Julie Dick, an environmental lawyer and former staff attorney at the Everglades Law Center. “Losing these two significant signs of progress in climate action will hurt the Everglades ecosystem eventually because we’re failing to reduce greenhouse gases.”
Trump was clear in his commitment to fix the marshes, which also have a well-placed advocate: billionaire hedge fund manager and passionate fly fisherman Paul Tudor Jones II, chief backer of the Everglades Foundation. The Foundation held several of its annual Palm Beach fundraisers at Trump’s Mar A Lago Club and in February Jones told Bloomberg News that he’d sent a package to Trump on Everglades efforts.
However, that doesn’t mean restoration won’t change.
In his speech, Trump vowed to finish repairs on Lake Okeechobee’s aging dike. Once the dike is finished, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will undertake a study to see if water levels can be raised, an idea supported by some members of the South Florida Water Management District governing board. This week, district executive director Pete Antonacci said in the past water levels were held much higher and were lowered simply to address safety, not environmental, concerns. But the Corps fashioned the rules to replicate the lake’s natural cycles. Environmental advocates say raising water could wipe out valuable habitat at the lake’s edges where, pre-dike, water was historically low.
Trump also appointed David Bernhardt to oversee the transition of the Interior Department. Bernhardt had been the department’s solicitor under the Bush administration but now represents drilling and mining interests fighting the government on endangered species protections and environmental regulations.
Still, Bernhardt knows how the agency operates.
Trump says he wants to do infrastructure. The Everglades is all about infrastructure.
Attorney Don Jodrey, a senior policy adviser who handled Everglades restoration for the Interior Department
“I don’t subscribe to the doom and gloom,” said attorney Don Jodrey, a senior policy adviser who handled Everglades restoration for the Interior Department during both Democratic and Republican administrations and is now teaching at Wake Forest University. “Trump says he wants to do infrastructure. The Everglades is all about infrastructure.”
With a weakened EPA, water quality enforcement could also change.
“Everybody is hoping for the best, but if we take Donald Trump at his word, what he’s been saying is incredibly troubling,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Florida office. “Right now he seems to be wanting to be a friend of business at the expense of the environment.”
When it comes to energy, Trump has promised to make the U.S. energy independent by easing regulations. In his first 100 days, he’s vowed to pave the way for drilling on federal lands by lifting restrictions. But in Florida, he faces stiff opposition. Activists bitterly opposed oil exploration in the state. This week, the state rejected a request to drill in the Everglades, finding that Kanter Oil failed to prove enough oil existed to warrant drilling. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, in a defeat to increase incentives to states that allow offshore drilling, also vowed to fight the new administration.
“If the new administration and if the oil industry wants to have a fight on this issue, well, they certainly have one,” Nelson said on the Senate floor this week. “This senator is going to continue to try to keep the oil rigs off the state of Florida with everything that I have.”
In his energy plan, Trump makes no mention of renewable sources like solar, a supply that pitted Florida advocates and utilities in a fierce fight over the last two years. In November, voters rejected a utility-backed amendment that would have made it more difficult for solar companies to operate in the state. Advocates say if the new president is sincere about creating jobs, renewable energy could be a big supplier.
“We need to be moving away from harmful fuels,” Galloni said. “We need to be making decisions based on fact, based on science, on reliable sources. We cannot be making decisions on conspiracy theories. We have evidence-based approaches to so many things and this? It’s Big Tobacco all over again. What, this caused cancer?”