Florida’s new Republican governor softly nudges the state forward on climate change

As a candidate, Ron DeSantis toed a line on climate change, promising to prioritize the environment and acknowledge the problems posed by sea rise without bowing to “the church of the global warming leftists.”

On Thursday, Florida’s newly anointed Republican governor put his words to action, announcing plans to open a new resiliency office as part of a sweeping environmental rollout that includes an extra $1 billion for Everglades restoration and water cleanup — without mention of climate change or carbon emissions.

In a state threatened by saltwater intrusion and suffering from red tide and toxic blue-green algae blooms, DeSantis’ green platform received bipartisan applause. He’s opposing fracking, creating a new office to integrate scientific research into the state’s environmental policies and pushing to quickly begin the process of cleansing the state’s distressed Lake Okeechobee.

For some environmentalists and Democrats, the proposal fell short of hopes. But even so, DeSantis still managed to exceed critics’ expectations by indicating that a state where former Gov. Rick Scott banned environmental regulators from using the phrase “climate change” is now willing to work to at least combat the symptoms of an existential problem.

“DeSantis has done more in two days than Scott did during his entire eight years in office,” said Laura Reynolds, an environmental consultant. “It’s a great surprise. I didn’t think he was going to acknowledge climate change at all.”

In some ways, DeSantis didn’t.

During three stops around the state Thursday, DeSantis never said the words “climate change,” and they weren’t included in his executive order. Nor were there any references to humans’ role in rising temperatures, which scientists project will cause several feet of sea rise before the end of the century and contribute to extreme weather events.

But by including a nod to rising seas and increased flooding as part of a platform intended to bring real-time solutions to existing problems, DeSantis seemingly put the state on a path it has largely avoided.

“This is a wonderful model for the Republicans to acknowledge this issue in a sober way without alarming people and without using it as an excuse to massively expand government,” said Carlos Curbelo, a two-term Republican congressman who introduced a carbon tax bill shortly before losing his Miami seat in November.

Nobody paying attention to DeSantis’ campaign or his six years in Congress as a conservative Republican would have expected anything nearing a carbon tax, anyway. On the trail, he dismissed climate “zealots” and shunned talk of capping energy usage — a third rail in Republican politics.

Still, even while praising the steps included in DeSantis’ executive order, Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone called the omission short-sighted. “If you’re building the sea walls and doing nothing about the cause [of sea rise], then you have to come back 10 years later to build a sea wall again.”

But Curbelo says DeSantis’ creation of a resiliency office and a chief science officer position are part of conservative America’s slow move toward addressing the issues posed by climate change. Noting that the federal government bears the true responsibility of curbing the carbon emissions that are increasing global temperatures, Curbelo said the creation of a state resiliency office gives the many South Florida communities trying to adapt to rising seas a partner in state government and represents an important step for Republicans across the country.

Administrators at the city of Miami, for example, were pleased to hear DeSantis’ announcement. The city has several areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, and multiple neighborhoods require expensive projects to drain and adapt existing roads and properties. Jane Gilbert, Miami’s own chief resilience officer, said the city has already started conversations with the state on investing in coastal green infrastructure. Having a sympathetic voice in the governor’s ear could certainly help.

“Florida is a leading indicator in terms of how the Republican Party is evolving on this issue,” Curbelo said. “And today, Gov. DeSantis courageously became a part of that evolution and he should be recognized for it. Florida will be better off thanks to his actions.”

DeSantis, who is 40 and has two children, told reporters Thursday that he’s trying to do what he can now in the time he has as governor to address the slew of environmental problems currently ailing the state. DeSantis’ press office did not respond to a question about the governor’s thoughts on whether climate change poses an urgent problem. But he did reflect a little Thursday in Bradenton on the pressing nature of the state’s challenges, and how important it is for his administration to leave the state better than how they inherited it.

“We only have a limited amount of time on this earth,” he said. “We’ve got to make the most of it.”

Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas contributed to this report.