The Invading Sea Project: New Florida governor must tackle sea-level rise and climate change

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Gov.-elect DeSantis’ plans to restore the Everglades should include climate change and sea level rise in the discussions.
Gov.-elect DeSantis’ plans to restore the Everglades should include climate change and sea level rise in the discussions. Andrea Merola / AP

After skimming along the Everglades on a campaign airboat tour with Broward County’s venerable “Alligator Ron” Bergeron in September, Ron DeSantis, gubernatorial candidate, vowed to halt the green algae that oozes into the state’s canals and rivers, study the cause of red tides plaguing the state’s beaches, continue Everglades restoration and bar fracking and drilling for oil offshore.

Back onshore, Bergeron, an avowed conservationist who once led the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, endorsed DeSantis, a three-term Republican congressman, and predicted the two men could work together on restoration.

But there was something notably absent that day: An acknowledgment by the candidate that human activities are contributing to rapidly changing climate patterns worldwide, causing untold damage in the form of more severe floods, fires and heat waves, as well as rising seas along the coastlines, including Florida’s.

As the state’s newly elected governor, DeSantis shouldn’t remain silent for long. On Friday, less than a month after his narrow victory over Andrew Gillum, 13 U.S. government agencies released an unsettling major scientific report that warns of grim economic consequences if nothing is done to curb global warming — a report President Trump is downplaying.

Among other things, the second volume of the National Climate Assessment assigned some very specific costs to the U.S. economy if nothing is done to abate climate change. A sampling: $118 billion from sea level rise; $32 billion in infrastructure damage by the end of the century and $141 billion from heat-related deaths.

The report’s authors urged that the United States and other countries quickly collaborate to establish a price tag on greenhouse emissions, impose regulations on greenhouse pollution and commit money for clean-energy research.

The federal analysis is the latest of a slew of scientific studies that portend major economic disruptions for millions of people who live not only along coastlines, but inland as well.

Before the federal government report, The Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the effect of chronic tidal flooding on U.S. coastal properties in the lower 48 states.

The group’s report found that by 2045, some 311,000 homes, worth $117.5 billion, could be jeopardized by chronic flooding. By 2100, the risk would extend to 2.4 million homes, worth approximately $912 billion. Of that figure, not surprisingly, Florida’s share would be 40 percent.

And the First Street Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit of scientists and technology experts, found that sea level rise since 1970 caused an additional 57,000 homes to be affected by Hurricane Irma’s storm surge.

It is commendable that Florida’s new governor is willing to commit time, money and attention to conservation. During the campaign, he characterized himself as a conservationist in the mold of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose breakaway Progressive Party, also known as the “Bull Moose” Party, championed conservation as a platform plank in the 1912 presidential election.

Decades later, conservation has done little to slow development in Florida. And that’s a critical point to note as the governor-elect heads toward his inauguration in January. Uncontrolled growth in Florida cannot continue unabated, given the environmental volatility facing the state today. And tighter, not diluted, regulatory enforcement must take precedence over aggressive development.

DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, now headed for the U.S. Senate, resisted accepting scientific conclusions pointing to climate change, though he has long boasted about his environmental credentials. While he budgeted $4 billion for environmental and water quality management for 2018-2019, prior expenditures failed to curb the red tides and algae blooms that have strangled state beaches and waterways. And during his tenure, he folded a growth-management agency into an economic development agency, cut staff for water management districts and shrank funding for the enforcement of anti-pollution laws.

Paul Owens, president of the 1000 Friends of Florida, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit that advocates sustainable communities and natural resource preservation, says the state needs to pay more attention to growth management instead of awaiting the environmental consequences of unbridled development.

“I think everything that’s happened for the last eight years calls for skepticism,” he told the Sun Sentinel on Monday. “I’m looking to be as positive as possible and see this as a potential new beginning. We need to see a renewed commitment to environmental enforcement. There has been a great decline over the last eight years.”

Owens is willing to give DeSantis a chance to show his intentions, which would be demonstrated in the form of the people he chooses to appoint to key environmental agencies. And climate change and sea level rise must be part of the conversation.

Earlier this year, the 1000 Friends compiled its own study of Florida’s environmental challenges called “Trouble in Paradise.”

“Florida’s next governor and incoming Legislature should establish the state as a leader,” the report said, “both by setting policy to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions to help eliminate the major cause of climate change, and by adapting our economy [particularly agriculture] and our communities so we can continue to thrive as our climate changes.”

It won’t be done unless the new governor steps out of the Roosevelt era and blazes a wider trail toward modern-day environmental preservation.

“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, go to InvadingSea.com