The Florida Influencer Series

Florida Influencers: Tallahassee politicians are failing to protect Florida’s environment

More from the series

The Florida Influencers Series

This election year, the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald and El Nuevo Herald are driving a conversation on the important issues facing our state. We’ve assembled a panel of 50 influential Floridians to offer their views.

Tallahassee has failed to adequately address the increasing number of environmental problems facing Florida and the next class of elected officials must act far more aggressively to solve them.

That was the view expressed by an overwhelming majority of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 leading voices from around the state. In the latest survey, 68 percent of Influencers said they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with how well state lawmakers have handled climate and environmental issues, while just 8 percent said they were satisfied.

“Climate change will impact all earthlings, but we Floridians are at the epicenter of the impacts,” said Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean. “We have more to lose and we can be an exemplar to the nation. The governor and legislature need to provide leadership for dealing with it.”

The best way to do that, the Influencers said, was to put political interests aside and seek the advice of climate science experts to develop the most effective policies to protect Florida’s environment.

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“Listen to the climate scientists and hydrologists who have spent their entire careers studying the issue, rather than corporate special interest groups,” said Chris Caines, the executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative at Florida International University. “Scientists care about water quality; corporate interests are firstly concerned with profit, and care about community and water when convenient.”

“I’m not certain about specific means of addressing the issue, but the plans should be based on science and data, not political interests,” added Jacob Solomon, the president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Ahead of the November midterms, the Florida Influencers will share their ideas on how to solve the most pressing policy problems facing the state. Readers of the Miami Herald, Bradenton Herald and el Nuevo Herald identified the environment as one of the five issues most important to them this election year.

The Influencers agreed that there are an abundance of climate concerns lawmakers need to tackle, but there was little consensus on what should take priority. Asked to rate the importance of seven different proposals to address the state’s environmental challenges, helping cities deal with rising sea levels narrowly came out on top, with 64 percent rating the issue as “very important.”

Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent said banning oil drilling in coastal waters was “very important,” followed by addressing nitrogen and phosphorus discharges into water (58 percent), fully funding the state’s land preservation program (48 percent), banning fracking (43 percent), increasing funding for the Department of Environmental Protection (29 percent) and taxing coal and natural gas emissions (20 percent).

“We need Florida politicians to understand that, in Florida, the environment is sacred,” said Xavier Cortada, a Miami-based artist. “It is everything. Here, in a state surrounded by water, they can’t toy with politics.”

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“Hire or elect experts in key positions, not cronies or friends who are clueless,” advised Victoria Kasdan, the executive director of We Care Manatee. “Stop being in denial, this is real -- not reality TV.”

Some Influencers noted that many of the issues are intertwined. Tiffany Troxler, the director of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center, said new sources of funding would be necessary to address rising sea levels, pollution and land acquisition for conservation. She advised that the state develop a comprehensive readiness plan to address both the environmental and social problems caused by climate change.

“The health of Florida’s environment directly influences our state and local economies,” Troxler said. “Proactive management and funding to address these issues will safeguard Florida’s economy and quality of life for its residents.”

As for issues such as algae blooms in Florida’s lakes and the Everglades restoration project, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs said his school was prepared to help state officials out.

“The University of Florida is committed to playing a vital role in this effort through conducting and supporting the sound science needed to drive wise public policy,” Fuchs said. “Through research, we need to drill down into the causes and solutions through the advances in science, and determine the most effective actions to addressing environmental needs.”

Readers who weighed in using the “Your Voice” online tool were most concerned by the water quality on both coasts of the state. Many of the Influencers said the solution needed to start with addressing the toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake.

The Influencers argued the state government needed to increase investments in projects that limit the flow of phosphorus and nitrogen into the lake, as well as additional infrastructure for water storage and treatment, despite the steep costs.

“Lake Okeechobee has a direct and profound impact on the health of the state’s waters,” said Rhea Law, the chair of the Florida offices of the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. “These projects are expensive but crucial.”

Not all the action needs to come from Tallahassee, some Influencers suggested. Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida, said there was plenty that Floridians could do to help the environment, from not using fertilizer on their lawns to providing habitats for birds and pollinators.

“Change must begin with each of us,” Wraithmell said. “Elect candidates who will invest in our natural resources as good stewards of the public trust.”

The Influencers were once again asked how well they think candidates running for office in Florida are focusing on policy solutions. With the state’s primary elections just two weeks away, here’s how they responded:

  • Very well: 0 percent

  • Fairly well: 10 percent

  • Somewhat well: 45 percent

  • Slightly well: 37.5 percent

  • Not all well: 7.5 percent

  • Too early to say: 0 percent

This is the fifth of a series of surveys the Miami Herald and Bradenton Herald will conduct with 50 Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to Floridians. Look for the next report in two weeks when Influencers will talk about health care issues. Share your thoughts and questions about the state’s important policy challenges and solutions here.

For more reaction from our Influencers on gun issues, look for their quotes on Tuesday’s Opinion page.

George Haj contributed reporting.