David Zierden, Florida’s state climatologist, opened with these sobering facts during his Jan. 29 presentation titled “Climate Change in Florida: What We Know,” which took place at the University of Florida.
Droughts, extreme rainfall and flooding, hurricane and wind damage, severe freezes, heat stress, sea level rise – these were just some of the many threats he covered in his hour-long talk about two simple words: climate change.
Mighty enough to incite environmental movements – and dynamic enough to cause worldwide debate – these two words have been on the international scene for decades. Most recently, a 2019 Florida Atlantic University poll revealed that more than two-thirds of Floridians consider climate change a threat.
And now, Florida politicians are trying to match the threat with possible plans and solutions. In fact, there’s even a resolution on the table — CS/SR 1572 — for the legislature’s broad support on climate change preparation policies. This is a big step in a state where officials were allegedly banned from saying the phrase only a few years ago.
Carolyn Cox, coordinator for the Florida Climate Institute at UF, said she thinks the state’s new governor has set the tone for these policy changes.
“Now that DeSantis has come in and recognized that the problem exists and that Florida is going to be hugely impacted, people feel a little bit safer coming out of the woodworks and doing something about it,” she said.
According to the Florida Adaptation Planning Handbook, 76% of the state’s population lives along Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline. These communities are especially vulnerable to threats like sea level rise and extreme weather events.
These climate change impacts alter many sectors of society, Cox said. They can affect water quality, invasive species, agricultural lands, property values and infrastructure maintenance – just to name a few.
“There’s a multitude of things that can impact people that can be traced to climate, so I think we need a better understanding of the science behind those phenomena,” she said.
Proposed bills in this year’s legislative session cover many of these climate-related issues. Some standouts include:
- Statewide Office of Resiliency: Two identical bills, SB 7016 and HB 1073, would create the state’s first Office of Resiliency while establishing a nine-person Sea Level Rise Task Force. The team of experts would be tasked with analyzing future impacts and making policy recommendations for how Florida will brace for higher waters. Under the proposed legislation, the state’s Chief Resiliency Officer, Julia Nesheiwat, would have been heading up the effort. But, Nesheiwat has since announced she will be leaving her position to serve as Trump’s homeland security advisor.
- Florida Climate and Resiliency Program: Two similar bills, HB 913 and SB 1232, propose the establishment of the “Florida Climate and Resiliency Research Program” within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. According to the bill text, the program would analyze, integrate, evaluate and interpret the effects of climate change in Florida. If the bills pass, the program must deliver a report, called the “Florida Resiliency Plan,” to several members of the state’s government every four years. This plan would analyze climate change effects and provide recommendations on strategies to mitigate them and improve resiliency throughout the state.
- Climate Fiscal Responsibility: SB 280 calls on the Economic Estimating Conference, which is part of the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, to provide a climate fiscal responsibility report to Florida’s government each year. The report would center around climate change’s economic impact to the state, especially in relation to credit rating, debt and taxes. The analysis would consider impacts due to increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, sea level rise and global warming. The report would also give five-, 10- and 20-year recommendations for action against climate threats.
- Climate Health Planning: SB 278 calls for the Florida Department of Health to prepare a yearly health planning report to gauge how climate change has or will affect state residents. Factors will include water quality, the spread of diseases, crop yields, housing, wildfires and more. The report would also incorporate an analysis of any disproportionate health impacts, if any, throughout the state. Health equity discrepancies between characteristics like age, disability, race, sex, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, socioeconomic status and location will be considered. Finally, future recommendations must be scaled out to the one-year, five-year, 10-year and 20-year marks for “policy and budget priorities” based on the threats and vulnerable populations.
Cox said she’s an advocate for a Florida climate assessment, such as the report the Florida Climate and Resiliency Research Program would create.
“People need to decide on a baseline of information on which to base decisions,” she said, “because right now, we’re just operating in the dark.”
Since Florida is such a big state, Cox said regional environmental information must be available for people in power. This data could be uncovered through the research detailed in the proposed climate bills.
“Even if people wanted to make the best decisions possible and base them on science, there’s no comprehensive tool for doing that for the state of Florida yet,” she said. “And that’s really what’s needed.”
Cox said she’s doubtful that the Florida Climate and Resiliency Program bill will pass based on what she’s heard through the grapevine. But this influx of climate change bills is still a big step in a state where the two words were once banned.
UPDATE: CS/SR 1572 was adopted. SB 7016 died in Messages. HB 1073 died in State Affairs Committee. HB 913 died in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee. SB 1232 died in Infrastructure and Security. SB 280 died in Infrastructure and Security. SB 278 died in Health Policy.