In his first week in office, Florida’s new Republican Governor Ron Desantis has made the environment and climate change a top focus.
On Thursday, Desantis signed an executive order to tackle the myriad environmental problems facing the state from toxic algae to sea level rise to Everglades degradation. He also asked for the resignation of all board members of Florida’s most powerful water management district, which has come under fire for leasing parts of the Everglades needed for restoration to the sugar industry just after November’s election. In doing so, Desantis immediately cleared the incredibly low bar of “doing better than Rick Scott,” though there are still details that need to be sussed out to determine just how much oomph the new policies will have.
The biggest ticket item on DeSantis’ environmental executive order was to score $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades protection and restoration. Among the litany of other directives, the order also includes the creation of an algae task force to deal with the state’s persistent toxic blooms, taking actions to “adamantly oppose” offshore drilling and fracking, and appointing a chief science officer and Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection “to help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise.”
“It’s bold to see recommendations of this magnitude coming two days after you see a new gov inaugurated,” Julie Wraithmell, executive of the Florida Audubon Society, told Earther. “These are solutions we’ve known about but haven’t had the political will to do. I’m very encouraged by not just what he said but how he said it. This clearly a big priority for him and his entire administration.”
That’s all well and good, but the order is also light on details about how it will be implemented, particularly when it comes to finances. Wraithmell said that it appears some of the policy stuff is in motion at the Department of Environmental Protection and she’s looking forward to seeing the governor’s budget proposal that usually drops in early February. Senate Democrats were a little more muted.
“While I am encouraged that Governor DeSantis is taking the first steps to address the dire water pollution crisis facing Florida, I am concerned by the lack of details in his directive,” state senate minority leader Audrey Gibson said in a statement. “His order calls for the securing of $2.5 billion over the next four years to invest in Everglades restoration and protecting our water resources, but there is no identification of where that money will come from.”
In a separate announcement, DeSantis also called for the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees the Everglades and water for nearly 8 million Floridians living between Orlando and the Florida keys, to resign.
DeSantis ran on most of these issues during the governor’s race when he beat out Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in November. One area where Gillum drew a major distinction with DeSantis was being pro-climate action, and laying out a plan to not only address sea level rise but its cause in the form of spiraling carbon pollution. Desantis’ order doesn’t really do that aside from the language surrounding fracking and offshore drilling.
Nor does the order mention the words “climate change.” Ditto for DeSantis, who didn’t utter the phrase when touting it, according to the Miami Herald. In that regard, DeSantis is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who famously banned the use of the phrase during his governorship.
Still, Florida environmental groups ranged from cautiously optimistic to downright excitement over Florida’s future.
“We congratulate Governor DeSantis for these bold pronouncements,” Everglade Foundations CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a statement sent to Earther, noting the “initiatives mark the beginning of a new and more hopeful era for the Sunshine State, for its waterways and for the Florida Everglades.”
That would be big news given that Florida has had no shortage of water crises. Toxic algae have befouled Lake Okeechobee as well as both coasts of Florida in recent months, including a rare Atlantic bloom. Freshwater is being kept out of the Everglades because of industrial farming, disrupting one of the most unique ecological systems on the planet. And sea level rise is causing saltwater to creep into aquifers, further mess up the Everglades, and destroy communities by boosting hurricane storm surge like we saw with Michael last year.
Addressing all these requires a complete overhaul of how the state manages its waterways and coastlines. DeSantis’ plan isn’t nearly bold enough in that regard, and its ignorance of climate change could mean it eventually comes back to bite Floridians.
Speaking with the Miami Herald, Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone put it clearly: “If you’re building the sea walls and doing nothing about the cause [of sea rise], then you have to come back 10 years later to build a sea wall again.”
This post has been updated with comment from Julie Wraithmell.