While spending billions on the environment, DeSantis blocks efforts to ease climate change

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent billions of taxpayer dollars on fighting Florida’s water quality woes, reviving the Everglades and steering money to cities and counties dealing with damage caused by rising sea level and powerful storms.

But the Republican governor also has dug in deep, joining others in his party who resist anything aimed at addressing climate change as the state readies for a projected active hurricane season beginning June 1.

He’s already enacted a measure bolstering the dominance of cars by discouraging bike lanes and banning advertising and dark window tinting on city buses. DeSantis is expected to sign another measure capping state spending on public transit.

Moreover, legislation expected soon to be signed into law by DeSantis would erase the term “climate change” from state law and ban offshore wind turbines – which currently don’t exist in Florida.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a graphic depicting future road construction work as he spoke about transportation improvements on Interstate 4 during a press conference held at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

A history of rejection

DeSantis last year turned down more than $350 million in federal funding for energy efficiency initiatives under the Inflation Reduction Act, a centerpiece of President Biden’s economic agenda.

Weeks later, the DeSantis administration rejected $320 million in federal transportation money that the state was initially considering using to reduce vehicle emissions by creating more trucker rest stops, electric buses and roundabouts.

“We’ve seen a concerted effort to ramp up the fear when it comes to things like global warming and climate change,” DeSantis said last fall, when as a presidential candidate, he unveiled an energy plan keyed to reducing gas prices, flanked by two oil rigs in West Texas.

At the time, DeSantis pledged to end Biden’s efforts to combat climate change. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has called climate change “a hoax,” and vows to undo Biden’s wide-ranging policies if elected later this year.

DeSantis has patched things up politically with Trump after being viciously attacked by the former president and his campaign team during a short-lived GOP primary fight. He now also appears poised to advance the GOP’s push against steps aimed at confronting climate change toward this fall’s presidential election.

Resistance to climate change a unifying force for Florida GOP

Across Florida’s Republican state government, resistance seems to be a unifying force. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis last week sent out a release warning that rooftop solar panels could raise insurance costs and last year repeatedly raised alarms about the fire threat posed by electric vehicle batteries.

“DeSantis’ political base doesn’t believe in climate change, which is sort of like saying you don’t believe in gravity,” said Steven Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Public Affairs and director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management.

Pew Research Center surveys last year showed a majority of U.S. adults saw climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being.

But while nearly eight-in-10 Democrats felt that way, a 20% jump from a decade ago, by contrast, fewer than one-in-four Republicans see it as a major threat, a share almost unmoved from 10 years earlier.

“He’s a smart guy,” Cohen said of DeSantis. “He knows climate change is real. You’re seeing in South Florida what’s called blue-sky flooding, and extreme weather disasters are in the news almost every day. What’s going to eventually help are technical innovations that bring the cost down for fighting climate change.”

But Cohen said Florida’s effort to eradicate the term from state law “is crazy.”

Scott: ‘I’m not a scientist’

In his first meeting with the Capitol Press Corps in 2019, the governor declined to say whether he thought climate change is caused at least in part by human activity, such as burning fossil fuels.

But during his recent unsuccessful run for the White House, DeSantis said in a Dec. 9 interview with the Des Moines Register that he does believe human activities are a “factor” in the changing climate: “I think there’s a variety of factors, including that.”

DeSantis’ predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, also distanced his administration from addressing global warming, dismissing the topic, saying “I’m not a scientist.”

But in advance of his re-election campaign a decade ago, Scott did agree to meet with a handful of Florida climate scientists, listening to their concerns but saying little. No dramatic policy changes emerged from the single meeting at the Capitol.

Among those who met with Scott, Florida State University climate scientist Jeff Chanton said, “In some ways we’ve gone backwards from 2014. Rick Scott at least talked to us. Once.”

Chanton also drew a distinction with state spending going toward strengthening homes and coastal communities against the risk of storms. Some call such work mitigation, but Chanton said that’s “adaptation.”

“Adaptation is just going along with things, business as usual, even as the weather gets worse. We’re beefing up building standards on the coast, and pumping water off the road. But (we’re) not really trying to ease the threat,” he said.

“Just look at our insurance costs. Insurance companies clearly don’t have that much confidence in the state’s approach,” Chanton said.

Don’t forget to turn off the water

Susan Glickman, a vice-president with climate education organization The CLEO Institute, said Florida’s approach “is like walking into the bathroom and seeing the tub overflowing, then taking all the towels to mop up the water, but never turning the water off.”

The new measure eliminating the term climate change from state law basically erases the last vestiges of a 2008 global warming and renewable energy package approved by the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scott, who succeeded Crist, ended the state’s carbon-reduction goals and also worked to keep climate change out of the vocabulary of his administration.

The legislation DeSantis is expected to sign also will bar cities and counties from approving energy policy restrictions, while banning wind turbines off the coast.

Henry Kelley, a former Tea Party activist who is now co-founder of Pensacola’s BlueWind Technology, which makes housing for wind turbines, said the state is sending a bad message to an emerging new green industry.

“Saying that the state is closed for business is discouraging to companies and investors,” Kelley said. “I’m a conservative. And conservative and conservation have the same root word. When did conservationists become the bad guy?”

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