TALLAHASSEE, FL – Since taking office in January, Florida’s Republican governor has appointed a science officer, established a climate change czar and pledged to spend billions of dollars to restore the Everglades and combat the pollutants that spawn blue-green algae and red tides.
A top Republican lawmaker in the state, meanwhile, recently stood on the House floor and implored his party “to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’”
While President Donald Trump and his administration reject the urgency of the threat, leading Republicans in Florida and other states find themselves under political pressure to address the immediate impacts of climate change. As a result, these leaders are increasingly changing their message, and in some cases their policies, to acknowledge climate science and discuss mitigation, even as the Trump administration dismisses both.
In the Southeast, where Republicans in South Carolina and Georgia control the legislature or occupy the governor’s mansion, the GOP is acknowledging, even if begrudgingly, sea level rise and the growing threat from intensifying hurricanes.
Nowhere is the break from Trump’s path clearer than in Florida, his adopted home state, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is a close ally and where Republicans are sounding the alarm about the harm that rising oceans pose to coastal communities.
With its 1,350 miles of coastline, Florida faces some of the starkest risks from rising oceans. Higher global temperatures bring extreme weather conditions, including more intense and destructive hurricanes. Miami and other cities could find themselves submerged as glaciers melt into the oceans.
While it’s hardly the dramatic call to action that environmentalists and scientist say is needed, the shift signals a new pragmatism among many Republicans, especially in states where their constituents already are grappling with the consequences of a warming planet.
“This isn't about the next election. This is about the next several decades and what our environment is going to look like for our children and grandchildren,” said GOP state Rep. Chris Sprowls. At 35, he is poised to leads Florida’s House of Representatives next fall. His district northwest of Tampa lies along the Gulf Coast.
“We shouldn't fall into the same trap on the environment, where we allow the national conversation to dictate and hamstring us from accomplishing practical goals that truly protect our water and make our state beautiful for decades to come,” Sprowls said in an interview. “We're playing the long game here.”
Still, there is political motivation. The new messaging comes as Democrats saw success in 2018 running on a promise to combat climate change and hammering Republicans as the party of deniers.
The White House declined to comment.
Forty-six percent of Florida midterm voters said they were very concerned about climate change, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,700 midterm voters in Florida. Among Florida independents, 51% expressed great concern, slightly higher than independents nationally.
“Republicans have figured out that if you get caught crossways on the environment, you could very well lose an election. That’s how important the issue is to Floridians of all stripes,” said Susan MacManus, a former political science professor at the University of South Florida.
The state’s rising population is pushing development and asphalt deeper into once-rural areas. Fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals are flowing into creeks, rivers, lakes and eventually into the waters that surround the Florida peninsula, further damaging coral reefs and putting sensitive ocean life at risk.
One sign of Republicans’ shift is former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. Many environmental groups accuse him of mostly ignoring the issue during his eight years in Tallahassee. In February, Scott acknowledged in an opinion piece that climate change “is real and requires real solutions.”
More recently, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, a fledgling bipartisan group launched in October.
Even Republican firebrand U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a fierce ally of the president, has espoused cleaner energy.
“I think that more of my colleagues need to realize that the science of global warming is irrefutable,” Gaetz said last spring while offering his “Green Real Deal,” a counterpoint to the “Green New Deal” backed by some Democrats.
While Trump has discouraged federal agencies from prioritizing preparation for changes, DeSantis has cast himself as Florida’s environmentalist-in-chief.
Two days after taking office, the new governor pledged to invest $2.5 billion during his four-year term — a billion dollar increase from his predecessor’s final four years in office — to protect water resources and help restore the Everglades, the largest ecosystem restoration project in the United States. He issued an executive order mobilizing action against algae blooms and the pollutants that taint the state’s lakes, waterways and coastlines.
Thus far, the governor has gotten much of what he’s requested from the Republican-dominated Legislature, an indication of the political muscle he’s put behind his environmentalism.
Florida’s environment — its beaches, swamps, woods and abundant sunshine — is a fundamental pillar of the state economy, generating billions in tourism and agriculture dollars, said Noah Valenstein, the secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“What you see in Florida is an independent streak, a belief that the environment is important,” Valenstein said. “We as a state have determined that this is a top issue and we're going to take that on.”
The conversation in Florida may be shifting, but action isn’t moving fast enough and policy discussions are not broad enough for critics.
Land conservation groups note that while DeSantis talks about conservation, he also supports 340 miles of new toll roads that could permanently alter some of the state’s most pristine landscapes. These groups want DeSantis to boost funding for Florida Forever, the state’s land preservation program, which is projected to get $100 million instead of the $300 million that had been historically allocated.
“Even though he has now talked about climate change for the first time, it's all about mitigation,” said Sierra Club Florida director Frank Jackalone. He wants the governor to emphatically say that ``climate change is caused by all the pollution we have in the atmosphere and that we need to do something about it.”
Mitigation projects, including sea walls, only address the symptoms of climate change, Jackalone said, but do little to combat the root causes — namely the continued reliance on fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases and the escalating deforestation of the planet.
The only money that DeSantis is proposing for reduced carbon emissions is Florida’s $166 million slice from a $14.7 billion emissions settlement U.S. regulators reached with the European automaker Volkswagen. The money will be used to expand the state’s fleet of electric transit vehicles, install electric charging stations along major highways and cut diesel emissions.
Still, Florida derives three-quarters of its electricity by burning carbon-emitting natural gas — a cleaner alternative to sooty coal that still powers parts the state.
“It’s not enough to appoint a science officer and chief resilience officer, and it’s terrific that they’re going to the use the VW settlement money to help,” said Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “That’s a far cry from the bold action that we need if Florida really wants a future. We have to deploy clean energy solutions.”
But it’s a start, said state Rep. Ben Diamond, a Democrat who represents a Tampa-area district and who is giving the governor and other Republicans the benefit of his doubt
“We may come from different political parties, but we all recognize that this is the biggest and most immediate threat to Florida,” Diamond said. “It's time for us to get past this whole partisanness and make some real progress here.”
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.