After eight years of Gov. Rick Scott degrading science and dismissing climate change, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday he will appoint a chief science officer to deal with “current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.”
This welcome turnaround came just two days after DeSantis’ swearing-in, in an executive order that also calls for $2.5 billion in Everglades restoration, creates a task force on blue-green toxic algae and instructs the South Florida Water Management District to immediately start the next phase of the reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.
In addition to the chief science officer’s remit to “coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis” on Florida’s environment, the order also creates an Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency charged with corralling scientific research and data “to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.”
This is whole new tone for a governor’s office that told Floridians, basically, that we couldn’t afford to both create jobs and protect the environment. Scott cut millions of dollars from water management district budgets, which meant shedding scientists, engineers and other experts; slashed more than 200 water-monitoring stations; sharply reduced policing of polluters; rolled back growth-management laws.
We hope that Thursday’s executive order is a step toward reversing that trend — and more.
Indeed, the order also created something else that Thursday’s press release does not mention. Far down the list of Executive Order 19-12 — in the 26th of 27 paragraphs — the governor directs the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to:
“Create the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise by providing funding, technical assistance and coordination among state, regional and local entities.”
That’s right. “Climate change,” that taboo phrase in the Scott administration, gets its own office in the DeSantis administration.
Make no mistake: This could be a huge advance for the state of Florida as the existential threat of sea-level rise becomes more and more apparent, no matter your views on the underlying cause. Our collaborative editorial-page project, “The Invading Sea,” has been arguing for months for action at the state level to bolster localities that are organizing to make their regions prepared and resilient for the higher waters.
DeSantis did not talk about sea-level rise on the campaign trail, unlike his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum. And when asked about climate change, he questioned whether it’s man-made, adding that, in any case, it’s a problem beyond the capacity of state government to tackle.
But the former congressman from northeast Florida has surely noticed the more serious flooding that’s been occurring in Jacksonville, just as we in South Florida now see floods even on sunny days during king tides.
By appointing a science officer and setting up an office to ensure that all agencies are on the same page on environmental matters, DeSantis has now set the expectation that he will heed what science has to say — and not parrot the dodge used by Scott and other climate deniers, “Don’t ask me, I’m not a scientist.”
What scientists are predicting is that the sea will rise 2 feet, and maybe more, in the next 40 years. At 3 feet, barrier islands and low-lying communities will be largely uninhabitable. DeSantis is 40, the youngest Florida governor in a century. We are talking about enormous change — traumatic change — occurring within his lifetime, and certainly in the lifetime of his two young children.
The new Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection isn’t the only big news that DeSantis’ team seemed to bury on Thursday. The 27th and final paragraph of the executive order is for the DEP to “adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.”
This is another win for environmentalists who felt that the voter-approved Amendment 9 didn’t go far enough to protect the state’s shores from potential oil spills. It also puts a lid on any further legislative efforts to expand fracking in the Everglades.
DeSantis spoke at his inaugural in the heroic wartime cadence of Winston Churchill as he pledged to protect the environment (“We will fight toxic blue-green algae, we will fight discharges from Lake Okeechobee, we will fight red tide, we will fight for our fishermen, we will fight for our beaches …”). After years of an administration embracing climate deniers, our state desperately needs that same courage when it comes to preparing for the inevitability of rising seas and the threat it poses.
As DeSantis said in his speech, “Our economic potential will be jeopardized if we do not solve the problems afflicting our environment and water resources.” Very true. But you can’t ask for more jeopardy than our low-lying peninsula going underwater.
Because, contrary to what DeSantis said on the campaign trail, state government can do quite a bit to diminish climate change and a looming future of ever-more intense hurricanes, flooding and coastal erosion. Under conscientious leadership, the state could slash carbon emissions and encourage alternate energy sources. The most important swing state in politics could wield enormous influence on national policy.
In just his first few days, DeSantis looks to be off to a bold, strong start on the environment. But on the topic of sea-level rise, the proof will be in the follow-through.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.