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Climate change no longer dirty words for Florida’s GOP, but how green will Trump go?

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Florida’s Republican leadership quickly shifted its climate convictions under Gov. Ron DeSantis with multiple bills this year uttering what were once dirty words in Tallahassee.

In Washington, congressional members of the Sunshine State GOP have acknowledged climate change in efforts to address impacts of a warming world, including harmful algae blooms and sea level rise.

But the nascent embrace of a planet-friendly climate doctrine puts them at odds with President Donald Trump, who needs Florida’s 29 electoral votes come November. While Trump is lauded for his $250 million earmark for Everglades restoration this year, he has not conceded the role burning fossil fuels play in turning up the heat on Earth.

Critics of Florida’s Republican turnaround on climate change complain the strides are superficial, lacking the guts to tackle real issues of finding sustainable ways to reach carbon neutrality.

Environmental optimists said they are thankful for baby steps.

Spectators from both sides agree on this — voters will see a shift in White House theology to a deeper shade of green as the election nears.

“I think it is more likely than not that the president’s rhetoric on climate change will be less offensive to reality than it has been in the past as we approach the election,” said Alex Bozmoski, managing director of RepublicEn, a conservative climate group based at George Mason University. “What you are seeing in Florida is the direction the Republican party must go if it wants to continue to be a national political party.”

DeSantis’ first days in office were a whirlwind of environmental boons from promises of an annual earmark of $625 million to restore the state’s iconic river of grass to the ousting of the South Florida Water Management District governing board, which was seen as too friendly to agriculture.

The benchmark report of DeSantis’ blue-green algae task force mentions climate change on its first page as a contributor to toxic blooms, while the new chief science officer — a position DeSantis created — said on his inaugural day that climate change is real and that humans exacerbate it.

Since then, DeSantis moved to buy 20,000 acres of Everglades land that was slated for oil drilling so that it could be preserved. He is supporting a bill to create a Statewide Office of Resiliency and Statewide Sea-Level Rise Task force, which were part of his January 2019 executive order on the environment.

A resolution, simply titled “Climate Change,” also is moving through committees that expresses lawmaker backing for resiliency efforts, including the addition of a statewide grid of electric vehicle charging stations.

Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the legislative reconciliations on climate change may seem like small advances, but they lay the groundwork for increased efforts.

“They have to be in the game,” she said about Republican lawmakers. “Politically, more people are becoming aware of climate impacts, particularly younger voters and younger Republican voters.”

Streets flooded during king tides, stronger and wetter hurricanes, warmer temperatures and increasing algae blooms are too conspicuous for Florida Republicans to ignore, Glickman said.

“President Trump is out of step on climate change with the general public and as well as with many in his own party,” she said. “As the election heats up, and the State of Florida is up for grabs, we may see him shift his position some.”

Colleen Castille, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, agrees.

But she thinks Trump will pick “low-hanging fruit” that won’t upset the fossil fuel industry.

“That’s his MO,” she said. “The president is going backwards on everything environmental.”

She’s also wary of celebrating the climate pivot in Tallahassee just yet. Some argue the turnaround in Tally is more of a “dodge.”

John Capece, the science officer for the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, said what he sees from state leaders and Congress are various stages of “greenwashing” — surface rhetoric on climate change without substantive initiatives. While climate change is getting their attention, the response has been more about hardening infrastructure rather than shutting down carbon emissions, Capece said.

One bill seeing success in Florida this session, which ends March 13, would require sea level rise to be considered before taxpayer dollars are spent for coastal construction projects.

“They are going straight from adamant climate denial to investment in fortification, completely skipping the whole climate change negation that needs to be emphasized,” he said. “Building a wall against the ocean is not a solution. Only through mitigation and transforming our society does this change.”

For example, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, proposed a bill this session that would require the state to be using all renewable energy by 2050. It fell flat. A clean energy bill sponsored by Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, was likewise ignored.

Eskamani said the announcement that Trump was asking for $250 million for Everglades restoration was made to “muddy his track record” on the environment.

“Time and time again, you see window dressing, not real policy change,” she said.

Aside from the $250 million for Everglades restoration, environmentalists found little to laud in Trump’s 2021 budget proposal. The Environmental Protection Agency would see about a 26 percent cut. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would lose about 14 percent. There’s also less money earmarked for Department of Energy research and development not related to defense programs.

Castille said a focus on renewable energy and federal money for wastewater infrastructure would be a landmark — however unlikely — announcement from the Trump administration. She touts U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for making a 180-degree turn on climate change after accepting the science that proves it, but he too has emphasized adapting to rising seas and fixing the Everglades over going carbon neutral.

“He’s a smart man, but also politically smart,” Castille said. “He knows it is affecting his family, his constituents.”

Influential Republican Miami Mayor Francis Suarez hasn’t been shy about addressing climate change, pledging in January to go carbon neutral by 2050. Florida U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Francis Rooney, both Republicans, have supported efforts to mitigate climate change.

“History will judge harshly my Republican colleagues who deny the science of climate change,” Gaetz said in a 2019 announcement of his “Green Real Deal.”

But clashes on climate change take a back seat to economic and party ideologies, with Gaetz and DeSantis still stalwart allies of Trump, Bozmoski said.

Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo, who lost his U.S. House seat to a Democrat in 2018, said Trump has already shifted from mocking climate change to saying little about it.

Curbelo supported climate change initiatives in Washington and introduced legislation for a carbon emissions tax. He also voted to repeal Obamacare and helped write a Trump-supported tax bill.

He noted that Trump is supporting the One Trillion Trees Initiative, and said Floridians may give the president points for investing in the Everglades.

“The president and his team know that his previous approach was politically disadvantageous,” Curbelo said. “In Florida, part of his electoral strategy is making a strong commitment to Everglades restoration which is a project that enjoys strong bipartisan support in the state.”

Kmiller@pbpost.com

@Kmillerweather

This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.