No more denying on climate change, says a GOP chair in state Senate

Climate change activists marching towards the site of Democratic presidential debate in Miami

Just a few years ago, some GOP colleagues “emotionally shut down” when confronted with climate-change science and the urgency of addressing it, Republican State Sen. Tom Lee recalls.

Today, “There is a younger generation of conservatives in this state that aren’t so much in denial,” said Lee, who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties. “There is substantial evidence that our sea level is rising.”

Lee is chairman of the Florida Senate’s Committee on Infrastructure and Security, which has a Republican majority.

Earlier this week, his committee addressed the issue of preparing for climate change for the first time this decade, sparking a significant shift in how lawmakers from both political parties may view and address the issue.

Lee said there can be no more denying that Florida is weathering the effects of climate change. He said public policy must address it to “mitigate the trajectory” of worsening conditions.

“I’m just so glad we’re no longer climate deniers,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, one of three Democrats on the committee. Stewart represents part of Orange County, in the Orlando area.

Stewart said Monday night was the first time “ever” that she has heard climate change discussed by Senate Republicans since GOP Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010. Scott served for eight years and was elected last year to the U.S. Senate.

Stewart told the Florida Phoenix she wants to see the 2020 Senate adopt a resolution declaring once and for all that climate change is happening, that a preponderance of scientific evidence proves it, and that Florida leaders must act to minimize damage to the state – regardless of political pressure from national Republicans to deny it.

She asked Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ newly appointed “chief resilience officer” if the governor has set a timeline for transitioning Florida to clean energy as a means to slow down climate change.

The officer, Julia Nesheiwat, did not answer that question but said her “priorities and goals” are to inventory existing resources and to build consensus that sea-level rise, for starters, is real.

“We’re seeing it happen as we speak,” Nesheiwat said. “This is a dire and urgent issue.”

Lee said the very existence of a chief resilience officer represents a “paradigm shift” by DeSantis – away from Scott and away from climate-change denier President Donald Trump, who campaigned for DeSantis and Scott.

With 1,350 miles of coastline, 825 miles of tourist-loving beaches and low elevation, frequent flooding along coastal Florida is the most visible proof of rising seas.  But climate change is causing flooding inland, too, said Gary Mitchum, oceanography professor in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

“We have torrential rains that go on for days,” Mitchum told the committee. “It’s going to get worse as the climate continues to warm.”

Not only are seas rising and rain intensifying, but the warming climate also has allowed invasive species and tropical diseases to extend northward into Florida, he said.

Republican Sen. Travis Hutson represents St. Johns, Flagler and part of Volusia. He asked Mitchum what difference it makes if Florida reduces its contribution to climate change when China and India contribute so greatly.

“The U.S. leads by far in per-capita emissions,” Mitchum answered, saying much can be accomplished by addressing “inefficiencies on our side.”

The Senate committee called on Florida Department of Transportation officials to report the status of their plans to armor against sea-level rise.

Chief Engineer Will Watts said the department builds roads and bridges to resist hurricanes, waves and flooding, but it has not accounted for sea-level rise. After many years of a “linear approach,” he said, the DOT is “migrating” toward planning that assumes a 2-foot rise in sea level and prioritizes armoring of structures.

Chief Planner Huiwei Shen said DOT is in the second phase of a study to develop action plans that will address sea-level rise and flooding by December 2020.

Jennifer Jurado, chief resiliency officer for Broward County, said municipalities around the state could not wait for state elected officials to get right on climate change. They moved ahead years ago to do what they could to brace for floods, erosion, road closures, drainage-system failures, and threats to drinking water.

“Saltwater intrusion into the aquifer is having a dramatic impact,” she said.

The most active municipalities are planning for sea-level rise in the next few decades of not just 2 feet but more, she said, adding it is crucial for policy makers to develop “consistency” and at least a “minimum understanding of the constructs” underlying the problems.

Asked by Lee where the Senate should focus its efforts, Jurado was quick to offer a laundry list, starting with energy.

“Clean energy policy is a positive direction,” she said, saying solar power and electric vehicles are overdue.

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