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Bill discounting climate change in Florida’s energy policy awaits DeSantis' approval

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra's, R-Iowa, Faith and Family with the Feenstras event, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra's, R-Iowa, Faith and Family with the Feenstras event, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Addressing the human-caused emissions warming the global climate and contributing to impacts here like hotter temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes could no longer be part of Florida’s energy policy, under legislation before Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The measure, approved earlier this spring by the Republican-controlled legislature, would erase several instances of the words “climate change” from the state code and restructure Florida’s fossil fuel-based energy policy around reducing reliance on foreign sources and strengthening the energy infrastructure against “natural and manmade threats.”

The legislation also would nullify goals aimed at enhancing renewable energy use in the state. The goals were implemented in 2022 after some 200 Floridians, all under the age of 25, filed a petition for rulemaking calling for the state to move toward 100 percent clean energy by 2050, a benchmark scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

DeSantis has until May 15 to act on the legislation. As a Republican presidential candidate, he pledged to expand American dominance in oil and gas, going so far as to promise he would replace the words “climate change” with “energy dominance” in national security and foreign policy guidance. A spokeswoman said the governor would review the measure.

Delaney Reynolds, 24, one of the young Floridians involved in the petition for rulemaking, described the legislation as “despicable” and “actually infuriating to read about and follow.”

“It worries me a lot,” said Reynolds, who graduated this month with a law degree from the University of Miami and plans to study sea level rise and climate change as a Ph.D. student. “I have been checking the Florida state government website every day to see whether or not DeSantis has taken action on the bill.”

Florida’s primary energy source is natural gas, most of which is produced outside of the state. Six percent of the power consumed here is derived from renewable sources, although that is projected to increase somewhat in the next decade because of growth in the solar industry, according to a state House of Representatives staff analysis of the legislation.

The measure would undo the last residue of the energy policy developed under former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was the state’s only governor to take significant steps to address greenhouse gas emissions while serving from 2007 to 2011. Crist was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016 as a Democrat but left in 2022 for a failed gubernatorial bid against DeSantis.

The Crist administration implemented several measures aimed at reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency and enhancing renewable energy use in the state. One notable law authorized the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop cap and trade regulations for emissions and also required Florida’s Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities, to develop rules for embracing a renewable energy portfolio standard.

The Crist administration policy also required the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees the Office of Energy, to set clean energy goals. The goals, some of the strongest in the nation, were implemented belatedly in 2022 in response to the petition for rulemaking filed on behalf of the young Floridians by Our Children’s Trust, an advocacy group.

Much of the Crist administration energy policy was abandoned in 2011 when his successor, Rick Scott, a Republican, took over as governor. Scott, now a U.S. senator facing reelection in November, transformed Florida’s policy on the environment and climate, dismantling environmental programs across state government and notablybanning the words “climate change” from state agency communications, making him a punchline for late-night comedians.

“This is even more significant than what Rick Scott did,” said Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney at Our Children’s Trust, of the legislation. The group also has filed litigation against the federal government over the country’s fossil fuel-based energy system. “Here the Florida Legislature is enshrining that philosophy into law, which is shocking given Florida’s vulnerability. This is something that all of state government should be addressing head on, and instead they’re burying their heads in the sand and pretending climate change doesn’t exist.”

DeSantis has focused his climate policy as governor on the state’s $1.8 billion Resilient Florida program, characterized by his administration as an historic investment to prepare communities for rising seas, more intense storms and flooding. The program provides communities with grant funding for vulnerability assessments and resilience projects.

But DeSantis, who has described himself as “not a global warming person,” has done little to address the main cause behind the warming climate—greenhouse gas emissions. As a presidential candidate he shifted further right, unveiling an energy plan that involved, among other things, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the international treaty aimed at limiting warming to a threshold where scientists say climate impacts become more severe.

“We’re de-recognizing one of the most significant trends on the Earth right now, which is changing climate, warming oceans and warming air and rising sea levels."

Jeff Chanton, professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University

The legislation now before DeSantis would repeal state grant programs encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy and ban offshore wind facilities within a mile of the coastlines, none of which currently exist. The measure also would require the Public Service Commission to assess the security and resiliency of the electric grid and natural gas facilities against physical and cyber threats. Rep. Rick Roth (R-West Palm Beach), one of the bill’s sponsors, characterized climate change as a “made-up problem.”

“Everything is about economic growth. It’s not about climate change. It’s not about renewable energy. We’re not against solar power, but it’s just really cleaning up the language of the law to make sure it’s in line with what we need to do. The secret to protecting the planet,” he said, “is actually more reliable and cheaper and affordable energy. Because as people have more reliable and cheaper energy, it provides more jobs, provides more income and allows people to prosper. And when people have money in their pockets and a roof over their heads they care more about the environment. So you’ve got to protect the planet through economic growth. That’s the way to do it.”

Jeff Chanton, professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University, said Florida faces dire consequences of climate change.

“We’re de-recognizing one of the most significant trends on the Earth right now, which is changing climate, warming oceans and warming air and rising sea levels. We’re just not going to acknowledge that it’s happening, except when it comes to arming the coast and building stronger houses and stronger infrastructure along the coast in the hope that we can weather these storms,” he said. “We’re in an arms race against nature.”

Few people would be more affected by the legislation than young Floridians like Reynolds, who grew up in the Florida Keys on an 1,000-acre island called No Name Key. As a child she loved boating, fishing and snorkeling and remembers the corals near where she lived as resplendent with color and vibrant with wildlife, including snapper and even invasive lionfish. A record marine heat wave last summer stressed the sensitive corals, leading to widespread bleaching.

“It’s basically like rubble. It’s like looking at piles of rocks, and there are less fish, less sea creatures,” she said. “When I see that kind of thing it does bring me to tears because this is the environment that I grew up in, and I’m watching it be destroyed and I have to grapple with the fact that future generations, my future kids and grandkids, may not be able to experience Florida and the Florida Keys, if it’s still above water and accessible, like I got to. And that’s really sad.”

For her, the legislation has been disappointing, but it also has motivated her to push harder for government policies addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Her voice cracks as she talks about it.

“We are literally watching south Florida go extinct while our government promotes the very entities that perpetuate these antiquated ways of business that are causing the problems in the first place,” she said. “To me that is unacceptable, and that’s why I care about it so much.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.  

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Amy Green