TALLAHASSEE — Florida Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Republican, declared it so in September 2019 at a speech designating him the next speaker of the House: “We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’” And Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has used the term repeatedly since his campaign for the job in 2018, even saying it three times in a news release that announced a new statewide job, chief resilience officer, tasked with preparing Florida for sea level rise.
After years of the GOP dismissing scientists who say the planet is warming, Republicans in Florida, one of the states vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, are becoming increasingly comfortable with talking about the changing climate.
DeSantis’s office said it does not see a downside to using “the term ‘climate change’ or any other term.”
“As it pertains to Florida’s environment, the focus is and will remain solely on solutions,” a spokesman for the governor told The Energy 202. He listed steps the governor has taken while in office to mitigate pollution, including funding $625 million toward water quality and restoration of the Everglades National Park, reaching an agreement to purchase 20,000 acres of wetlands intended for oil drilling.
The governor has also created offices for environmental accountability and transparency as well as coastal protection.
And in a departure from the past, more bills with the phrase “climate change” have been filed this year in the Florida legislature than in the previous decade, according to an analysis by The Energy 202.
“I thought he showed real political courage in those remarks,” Rep. Ben Diamond (D), the minority leader-in-waiting said of Sprowls’s speech. “We're certainly in a far better place than we were under the [previous Gov. Rick] Scott administration because we're now having the discussions.”
The rhetorical shift by Florida Republicans on climate change mirrors one happening in Washington, where top GOP officials are preparing their own climate legislation in response to concerns from young Republicans the party is ignoring the issue. But Republicans who want to tackle climate change are at odds with the Trump administration, which has backpedaled on the issue as the president has withdrawn the country from the Paris climate accords after calling climate change a “hoax,” and rolling back regulations to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to a warming planet.
In Florida, the GOP’s apparent new openness in acknowledging the Earth is getting hotter is a sea change from just a few years ago.
Scott, now a U.S. senator, made national headlines for allegedly banning the words climate change and sea level rise from use by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. In 2015, scientists working for the department told reporters it was an unwritten policy under Scott not to use the term climate change.
At the time, the policy became ammunition for the state’s Democrats. Former senator Jeff Clemens mocked Bryan Koon, Scott’s emergency management chief, when he testified in front of Clemens’s committee and avoided the C-words. Clemens jokingly suggested, “maybe as a state we use ‘atmospheric re-employment,’ That might be something the governor can get behind.”
Scott denies ever banning the words, and his office defended his environmental record as governor.
“As we’ve said many times, the claim that there was any policy banning the term climate change is laughably false and was never based on any actual evidence,” Chris Hartline, Scott’s spokesman, told The Energy 202.
Hartline cited budget items Scott approved that put millions toward programs including flood mitigation, beach renourishment and coral reef protection.
“Senator Scott is glad the DeSantis administration is continuing his work to protect Florida’s natural treasures for generations to come,” Hartline added.
When Hurricane Dorian was barreling toward his Florida last year, Scott was asked by Fox News’s Sunday host Chris Wallace whether he believed there was a connection between climate change and hurricane intensity. Scott answered that “the climate's changing” and “our storms seem to be getting bigger,” but he said “we don't know what the cause is.”
It hasn’t just become a political priority to acknowledge climate change: In Florida, the consequences of sea level rise are significantly greater than in other states.
Even at a committee meeting last week for a Florida House bill to require publicly funded construction projects along the coast evaluate sea level rise, Republicans doubled down on the significance of the state’s geography.
“Florida is going to be seeing the effects of climate change long before a lot of other parts of this country,” state Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Republican representing part of Miami and bill sponsor, told lawmakers. “What we do will be an example for many other parts of this nation.”
Politico’s environment and energy reporter Bruce Ritchie, who reported on the exchange, tweeted he hadn’t “heard any recognition of sea level rise like this in the Florida House in the 12 years” he has covered Tallahassee.
Sprowls said conservatives need to stop confusing “acknowledging a problem with acquiescing to a particular solution.”
While other Republican-controlled states, including Texas and South Carolina, have tiptoed around terms like climate change in their proposals for federal disaster dollars, Florida hasn’t, the New York Times found.
In a draft proposal for $633 million from a federal program, Florida officials wrote that “climate change is a key overarching challenge which threatens to compound the extent and effects of hazards.”
Former Florida Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo told my colleague Jackie Alemany the state “is the avant-garde of the party” because climate change is a local issue.
“Florida is a state where the environment is top of mind for most voters,” he said.
Of 1,045 Floridians surveyed by Florida Atlantic University in October, 56 percent agreed climate change is real and caused by people, including 44 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats.
Both Diamond and Sprowls’s districts are in one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the world to a major hurricane. Their constituents live near Tampa Bay, where waters could rise up to 8.5 feet above today’s sea level in the next century, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Diamond, a top Democrat in the Florida House, is optimistic about passing his own climate bill because of the growing support from the other side of the aisle.
After no success last year, Diamond reintroduced the legislation with a Republican sponsor this year. The bill would create a program within the state’s Department for Environmental Protection that produces a resiliency plan for sea level rise every four years.
After November, Sprowls will begin work as speaker, and one of his priorities is finding a way to acquire more data on sea level rise. With data, lawmakers can make informed decisions about where to focus funding and resources, he said.
“We spend so much time on the hyper-politicization of climate change and these words like ‘sea level rise’ that we stopped looking for the common-sense things that we need to do to protect our community,” he said. “Say the word, don't say the word. Let's tackle the problem.”
— Budget cuts for the environment and science: Trump's $4.8 trillion budget for fiscal 2021 would curb funding for science research, The Post's Joel Achenbach, Laurie McGinley, Amy Goldstein and Ben Guarino report. Among the cuts is a 26 percent reduction to the Environmental Protection Agency, with 50 programs losing funds, and a 28.7 percent cut for the Energy Department, including more than one-seventh of its science program's budget. Remember: this budget is only a wish list and is unlikely to be passed by Congress.
- 'You're fired': Part of Trump's cuts to the EPA would mean eliminating 1,562 of the agency’s 14,172 full-time staffers, the Associated Press reports.
- On the other hand: Not all science-specific federal programs would face the ax. NASA would receive a boost of $2.6 billion, and the Energy Department would get additional money for safeguarding the nuclear weapons stockpile.
- Moonshot: If passed, the NASA budget increase would be one of the largest in years, funding $3 billion to get astronauts to and from the moon as part of NASA’s “Artemis” program, The Post's Christian Davenport reports.
- More cuts: Another item would eliminate the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program, which was created in 2007 to promote development of fuel-efficient vehicles, AP reports. This may impact Lordstown Motors Corp., which was considering asking for a loan from the program to reopen a former General Motors factory near Cleveland to build electric trucks.
- To quote: “The President’s proposed budget is a severe disappointment for science and ignores the many ways in which science fuels our economy, safeguards our security, improves our health and well-being, and is critical for a thriving future,” Chris McEntee, chief executive and executive director of the American Geophysical Union, told The Post.
— A step closer to driverless cars: Nuro, a delivery robot company, will begin testing its autonomous grocery car in Houston now that it has won the first federal safety approval of its kind, The Post's Ian Duncan reports. Transportation Department officials' approval indicates the federal government doesn't think robot cars must meet the design standards for regular vehicles to be approved. For instance, Nuro's vehicle won’t need mirrors or a windshield.
- However: Even with the ruling, Nuro will still face limits. The approval is valid for only two years, the vehicle won’t carry passengers or go more than 25 miles per hour, and production will be capped at 5,000 vehicles, Duncan writes.
— Butte has a waste problem: Butte, Mont. residents are waiting to see how the EPA will finish cleaning up what may constitute the nation’s largest Superfund complex, Kathleen McLaughlin reports for The Post. The once booming mining town wants toxic chemicals that threaten its drinking water cleared. State and federal officials who negotiated with the company on the hook for cleanup may announce what's next for Butte "in weeks, if not days," McLaughlin writes.
- History: "The city’s toxic sites, including the Berkeley Pit, were placed on the Superfund cleanup list in the 1980s, but the remediation plans and attempts that followed had no final deadlines," McLaughlin writes. "The complexity of what’s required and the projected costs are part of the challenge."
— Herbicide dicamba raises flags, sows divide among state and federal officials: Some state pesticide agencies are fielding complaints from farmers about dicamba, an herbicide produced by Monsanto, and have sought the EPA's advice, NPR reports. The EPA approved the chemical in 2016 to be sprayed directly on genetically engineered soybean plants, but farmers near sprayed fields have told state agencies their own crops are wilting. Despite previous issues, the EPA extended its approval just before the 2019 growing season, thinking new restrictions on how and where dicamba can be sprayed would help.
- Dialed in? “Last November, state officials, including Leo Reed, of the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, pressed EPA officials in a conference call about dicamba. “Are crinkled soybean leaves an 'unreasonable adverse effect?' ” someone asked. Reed told NPR that if it is an adverse effect, the herbicide is being misbranded.
- Up next: The EPA will decide whether it wants to reauthorize use of dicamba at the end of 2020.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change will hold a hearing entitled "EPA’s Lead and Copper Proposal: Failing to Protect Public Health" on Tuesday.
- The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will markup Better Energy Storage Technology Act, Clean Industrial Technology Act of 2019 and more on Wednesday.
- The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs will hold a hearing entitled “Surface Transportation Reauthorization: Public Transportation Stakeholders’ Perspectives" on Tuesday, Feb. 25.
— To the sun and back: NASA and the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday. The probe's mission is to capture the first pictures of the sun’s elusive poles, the Associated Press reports.