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As Seas Rise, Florida Republicans Examine Ways To Adapt To Climate Change

Florida lawmakers are interested in addressing climate change. But they’re not setting any sort of renewable energy goals—which is something  democrats have proposed in the past. Instead, the Republican-led majority is focusing on making the state more adaptable to rising sea levels.

Florida’s Chief Resilience Officer Julia Nesheiwat is trying to create a statewide strategy for addressing climate change. She recently told a group of business people the state’s primary threat from climate change is sea level rise.

“Our state is surrounded by water, and 80% of our residents live on the coast. We face many resiliency challenges," she said, addressing the Florida Chamber's Transportation and Infrastructure Summit.

Among those challenges—the state’s roads, highways, houses, buildings.

“For example, We have over 2,500 miles of roads that are three feet below the high tide line, making them prone to flooding. Since 2005, Florida homes have lost over $5 billion due to flooding.”

And the water will keep rising.

Earlier this month, the Senate’s Tourism and Infrastructure Committee took a step toward addressing the threat of sea level rise. Florida is vulnerable, and local governments, especially coastal ones, are already trying to find ways to adapt. Chairman Tom Lee used the meeting to turn a commonly-spoken retort by Republicans on climate change, on its head. 

“I am not a scientist either," he said, "but I do see that we have some changes taking place in our climate that seem to be resulting in changes to our sea level."

Lee wants to get a baseline for where water levels are now and where they’re projected to be over the next several years.  His proposal makes the Chief Resilience Officer a permanent position in Governor’s office, and creates a task force to put together a projection for sea level rise. The task force idea has support from Audubon of Florida, the Florida League of Cities and the Sierra Club.

Estimates show that at one, to three feet of sea level increase, people will have to get around Miami via boat. Low-lying areas are likely to be underwater., and that will cause people to start moving elsewhere, triggering migrations.

Senate President Bill Galvano says he had climate change in mind when he pitched the plan to create three new highways, dubbed “MCORES”:

"One of the ideas within the MCORES idea was acquiring mitigation properties," he says. Those properties would be used as buffers to protect the highways, transportation routes and communities from rising water levels. "I would stay tuned, see where we go." 

Florida’s Department of Transportation Secretary has started talking about designing highways for the future, and a proposal by Democratic Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez calls for equipping the state’s highways with more electronic vehicle charging stations as a way to adapt to more electronic vehicles and people on the highways.

The efforts come after years of silence about climate change from the state’s Republican leaders and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, is pleased to see the turnaround, yet she wonders whether it’ll be enough.

“I think it’s really important to note we’re behind the curve on this. You see the King Tide’s rushing in…to put it in perspective, if you’re a young couple taking out a 30-year mortgage in Tampa Bay, by the time you pay off that mortgage, the sea levels would have likely risen one, to two feet, according to the Tampa Bay Climate Serviceadvisory panel. So it’s imperative we get this done.” 

At least 10 bills filed for the upcoming session directly address climate change, sea level rise and resiliency. Many lawmakers are hoping this year, the legislature will get something done. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.