TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — After years of mostly ignoring climate change, Florida lawmakers waded deeper into the matter on Tuesday , advancing a proposal that would create a statewide Office of Resiliency and establish a task force to begin looking into how best to protect the state's 1350 miles (2,173 kilometers) of coastline from rising oceans.
It's a marked change from just a few years ago, when the issue of climate change couldn't get any traction in Florida's Republican-run Capitol under then-Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. Senator.
But with Gov. Ron DeSantis exerting political muscle behind the effort, environmentalists see an opportunity to begin addressing the problem, even if they say the current legislative proposals fall short of a comprehensive response to climate change.
“We've seen bills that will help communities plan for rising sea levels — all of which is very, very important, and we need to do that — but without focusing on the cause of the problem, it just seems kind of lackluster. It's not addressing the full problem,” said Jonathan Scott Webber, the deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters.
The legislation considered Tuesday would establish an Office of Resiliency headed by the governor's chief “resilience officer,” who was appointed last summer as part of a broader effort to address the state's environmental challenges.
Last spring, DeSantis also appointed a chief science officer, a politically startling development given the clashes between scientists and climate change skeptics, including President Donald Trump, who once dismissed climate change as a “hoax” and continues to reject the urgency of the threat.
The president walked things back earlier this month when he told reporters that climate change was “a very serious subject" and that “nothing's a hoax about that.”
Despite the bipartisan support the Florida bill got Tuesday, there were residual politics. Rep. Rick Roth, a Republican whose community of West Palm Beach in South Florida could become flooded by rising waters, called the proposal a “prudent first step." But he took issue with Webber's assertion that the proposal did not go far enough.
“We don't need to jump to hyperbole and emotional conclusions before we really have the data,” said Roth, a member of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. “We really need to get the data. We really need to be responsible on how we're going to spend dollars."
The effort could remain politically fraught, even within the proposed task force. Environmentalists want the panel to represent the broad interests affected by climate change.
Indeed, the key challenge facing the task force is reaching a consensus on how to go about its work and drafting recommendations. A primary concern of the body, which is supposed to be impaneled by August, is to come up with scientific information that other state agencies and communities can use to bring consistency to the effort against sea-level rise.
So far, Florida Republicans are taking a more pragmatic approach by focusing their attention on defending coastal communities from rising oceans. According to a legislative analysis, Florida could lose more than $300 billion in property value — nearly a third of the $1 trillion that could be lost nationwide by the end of the century.
A new report by the analytical firm Jupiter Intelligence underscores the urgency in finding solutions for the problem. In Miami-Dade County, the percentage of vulnerable oceanfront properties affected by extreme flooding will rise in Miami-Dade County from 5% in 2019 to 98% by 2050.
The economic impact could be substantial. The state's beaches generate billions of dollars in tourism. Warmer oceans could also affect the health of the reefs that harbor marine life.
Higher global temperatures are causing glaciers to melt into the oceans and producing extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes that are more intense and destructive than ever before.
Shortly after taking office a year ago, DeSantis pledged to invest $2.5 billion during his four-year term to protect water resources and help restore the Everglades. He has attacked algae blooms and red tides, and has pledged to reduce the pollutants that get into the state's lakes, waterways and coastal waters.
While welcoming the governor's proposals, environmentalists want the governor and the Legislature to do more — particularly in reducing the pollutants that contribute to the greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming global temperatures.
In the budget proposal the governor unveiled last year, the only money DeSantis proposed for reducing carbon emissions was Florida’s $166 million share of 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.