Young climate activists flood Tallahassee, asking Legislature to protect their future

Britani Silvera

Young climate activists poured into Tallahassee from around the state this week for what they touted as the biggest youth-led rally and lobby day for climate and energy policy in the history of Florida legislative sessions.

What were they there to do? Advocate for bills that would encourage things like mangrove planting and worker protections for rising heat and discourage passage of a bill that would help bankroll “renewable” natural gas operations that they argue will mostly benefit fossil fuel companies. They acknowledged that a body of lawmakers with a track record of downplaying environmental concerns and protecting polluters and industries is unlikely to listen. But they described the gathering as a training ground for a green movement they hope will become a more influential voice in the future.

“We’re all aware we might not have a huge dent in the legislation,” said Britani Silvera, a 22-year-old organizer at the CLEO Institute, a Miami-based climate advocacy organization. “But it’s about creating that collective power and empowering people to know when we come together their voices can make a difference.”

About 300 students showed up at the capitol, doubling the presence from last year, for a press conference and rally held on Wednesday. Afterwards, they split into groups and met with 120 elected officials.

“You can’t count young people out because just that — they’re young,” said Amamika Naidu, a University of Florida student, from the Capitol steps. “And we’re not going anywhere.”

Her peers from Miami-Dade, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Tallahassee stood behind her holding signs that said things like, “the seas are rising and so are we” and “action is the antidote of despair.”

“Because the majority in Congress are Republican, they’re missing an opportunity,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute and genCLEO Action Fund, which has nurtured and provided the tools for youth to organize for years.

“The youth supporting this movement come from both sides of the political table and those students are going to go out and vote in the upcoming election so they should not underestimate the power of their votes,” she said.

Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute, advocates for climate and energy policy at a press conference in Tallahassee on Jan. 24. Raymer Maguire

Alongside the CLEO Institute, the coalition included ReThink Energy Florida, genCLEO Action Fund, Alianza for Progress, Third Act Florida, Sierra Club Florida, Earth Ethics, Inc., Sunrise Movement, Youth Action Fund, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Florida and OurClimate.

They’re mostly focusing on three key bills this session. The first on the list is a heat illness prevention bill (HB 945) that requires annual training and education material on heat illness with the onus on employers.

The state bill is educational and not as strict as Miami-Dade County’s proposed heat protection ordinance, which would require water, rest and shade and set penalties for employers who failed to provide it. But those regulations were tabled in Miami-Dade County Commission until March and the coalition said the state legislation would at least be a step in the right direction towards state-wide protection.

“This is very much a Florida problem that we will continue to see get worse and worse,” Arditi-Rocha said. “We hope it goes beyond a messaging bill and we can out the issue of extreme heat front and center.”

Arditi-Rocha said the people who are opposing outdoor worker protection are using our federal standard, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA), as a one-stop shop.

OSHA is working on a federal rule to protect outdoor workers nationwide, but it could be years before even the draft rule is introduced, much less enforced. With 2023 being the hottest year on record and climate change only turning up the heat for the future, the group wants to see something more immediate.

“We’re not just advocating for our climate but for all the vulnerable communities who will be affected,” Sarahi Perez, a Florida International University student, said.

The second bill they’re advocating for is about mangroves (HB 1581) and would direct the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to do rule-making for mangrove replanting and restoration. It also includes conducting a statewide feasibility study on mangroves and other nature-based solutions for flood insurance purposes.

“Planting mangroves is a beneficial thing to be doing for a soft infrastructure to protect our shorelines, provide for fish nurseries supply food supply for fish and marine animals,” David Cullen, a lobbyist supporting the Sierra Club said.

The coalition is opposing HB 683, which calls for public utility increases for infrastructure used for “renewable natural gas” or RNG.

The renewable natural gas market is rapidly growing in making pipeline-quality gas from operations like hog and dairy farms to landfill and wastewater plants. While it sounds good at face value, the coalition has big concerns about what would happen if the bill were to pass.

Cullen believes that it would allow companies to mix in large percentages of fossil fuel under the renewable heading.

“Putting renewable in front of natural gas does not make it a clean source of energy and that’s what they’re trying to pretend, that’s greenwashing,” Cullen said.

Brian Lee, the co-founder of ReThink Energy, has the same concern.

“If you call it renewable people will feel really good about it,” Lee said. “But by statute it can be mixed and include a fraction of a percentage of natural gas and 99 percent fracked methane.”

“The younger generation has to live with the choices being made by this legislature,” Cullen said. “This legislature is not looking to their future, they’re looking to the interest of utilities.”

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