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Environmental Bills Return to Tallahassee


After an eight-year virtual drought in the Florida Legislature, there's a host of environmental protection bills in the 2020 session.

During his two terms, Gov. Rick Scott banned the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” from being uttered, written, or hinted at. Scott has denied this, but one state employee begged to differ.

“You could just say ‘the water’s getting hotter,’” said the unidentified employee. “We couldn’t talk about why the water’s getting hotter. At some point it was mentioned that sea level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding.’”

Fast forward to 2019, and a new administration.

“Ron DeSantis – on day one – said that climate change is real; and that Florida is severely affected by it, and we’ve got to respond to it and take action. And that seems to have changed the tone of Republicans who control the order of things that happen with the legislature,” said Christian Wagley, a coastal organizer for the non-profit group Healthy Gulf.

He calls the lawmakers’ flurry of measures sort of “dipping their toes” into the climate change pond.

“There’s a lot of bills that would study the problem more,” Wagley said. [But] so far what we’re not seeing a lot of is bills that would actually act upon the primary causes of it which would be the burning of fossil fuels.”

Despite its “Sunshine State” nickname, Wagley says Florida lags way behind in developing alternative energy sources.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Christian Wagley, coastal organizer for the non-profit Healthy Gulf.

“About 30 states in the nation have goals for switching to wind and solar energy for example; and Florida is one of the states that has not – despite the fact that we are more vulnerable to sea level rise and climate change than probably any other state,” said Wagley.

“These are welcome changes in the legislature; they’re not all going to pass but I think at least a few of them will.”

Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers are proposing a task force to look into how best to protect the state's 1,350 miles of coastline.

Approved unanimously by a House subcommittee, HB 1157 would charge Florida International University, the Department of Environmental Protection, and other state universities to collect and analyze data. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia – a Republican from Spring Hill – is the bill’s sponsor.

“We’ve heard numerous reports about certain areas of the state flooding more than usual; we’ve also hear about projections that certain cities on our coast will be under water because of the prospect of sea level rise,” Ingoglia told the subcommittee. “What we don’t know is how much of this flooding in these areas is attributed to rising seas, and how much is attributable to land subsidence.”

GPS beacons will track the vertical positioning of the soil to see if flooding is caused solely by sea level rise.

“Or, if the land is effectively sinking because we are putting quadrillions of tons of steel and concrete on sandbars and marshlands,” Ingoglia said. “Thereby compacting the soil and lowering the elevations further below the flood elevation.”

The program, says Ingoglia, is statewide and based on a $355,000 appropriation to FIU a while back to begin a pilot project at Miami Beach.

“It’s anywhere between threr and five of these beacons; I think they just finished the permitting process so they’re starting to collect the data now,” said Ingoglia. “But this allows FIU to contract with other state universities to get these beacons all over the state.”

Credit Florida House
State Rep. Blaise Igoglia (R-Spring Hill).

Another bill – SB 280 – deals with the economic impacts of climate change by developing a climate fiscal responsibility report. That includes how climate change would affect the state’s credit rating; its long-term needs, and recommend actions to be taken. Healthy Gulf’s Christian Wagley says there have already been a number of studies by the private sector.

“Should we be placing infrastructure, for example, in places where it’s likely to get washed away in some number of years?” asked Wagley. “The insurance industry has really pushed a lot of this. They look at Florida and see a lot of insured buildings and such, that’s vulnerable to change. And they’re very, very concerned about that.”

It’s early in the session, but Wagley was asked to handicap the measures, as to which ones have the best chance of becoming law. He says a couple are showing promise.

“One would create a Florida climate and resiliency research program within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Wagley said. “And they would be required to submit a plan to the governor and the legislature every four years. And there’s one that would create a similar type of office – actually in the governor’s office – to look at resiliency issues. I think things like that are likely to advance.”

One other climate bill, introduced by Democrats, would set renewable energy goals for a transition for Florida, mostly involving solar power. But Wagley concedes that could be too big of a leap of faith for a Republican-dominated legislature.