Misery Wrought by Hurricane Ian Focuses Attention on Climate Records of Florida Candidates for Governor

ORLANDO, Fla.—For Janét Buford-Johnson, it was as if all the homes on her street had been turned inside out by Hurricane Ian.

“The neighborhood looks like a disaster area,” she said somberly some four weeks after the hurricane. “Like someone had a war out here, and things are just blown up. … They put a bomb underneath everything, and everything from inside have to come out. So everything is everywhere.”

Her own sand- and cream-colored stucco house, which she inherited in 2003 after her mother died, was no different. Inside, it was now mostly empty, cleared of the sodden contents that were strewed across her front lawn: DVDs, a Christmas tree and decorations, jugs of laundry detergent, furniture and bedding, a suitcase, bicycle, vacuum cleaner.

Amid the detritus were photos from her son’s high school graduation. “No one can fathom the pain that you have when you go to pick up something, and it just falls apart in your hands,” Buford-Johnson said. “I can’t even put it in words. I think at this point, I’m kind of all cried out.”

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian and a fear of further cataclysms have renewed scrutiny of Florida’s climate change policy. Charlie Crist, the state’s only governor to have taken significant steps to address the warming temperatures that contribute to climate volatility, tried to wean the state from fossil fuels while serving from 2007 to 2011. Now he is running as a Democrat for that office against the Republican incumbent, Ron DeSantis, who is considered a potential front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.

Both candidates made the environment and especially the Everglades priorities of their administrations, with Crist concentrating on protecting land through state acquisitions and DeSantis emphasizing water quality. But the candidates differ starkly on climate change, widely viewed as Florida’s biggest environmental threat. As governor, Crist, then a Republican, worked to put the state on a path toward embracing cleaner energy; DeSantis has focused instead on resilience, like hardening the state’s infrastructure against rising seas and the more destructive storms associated with higher temperatures.

Ian made landfall in southwest Florida on Sept. 28 as a near-Category 5 hurricane, devastating coastal communities with high winds and a storm surge before its pounding rains left widespread flooding across the state’s interior. The hurricane is responsible for billions of dollars in damage and dozens of deaths, according to early estimates. 

One preliminary study concluded that human-induced climate change had increased the hurricane’s rainfall rates by more than 10 percent, researchers at Stony Brook University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently reported.

Some environmental advocates suggest that whatever their political leanings, Floridians are awakening to future climate risks. “Obviously folks who are in the thick of it, they’re thinking about survival. I don’t even know that they’re thinking about voting,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, an advocacy organization that has endorsed Crist in the governor’s race. “But I do think that voters in Florida, they make the connection between catastrophes like Hurricane Ian as not just being natural disasters but as being fueled by our lawmakers’ failure to do something about carbon emissions, about methane emissions.”

Crist’s Climate Initiatives as Governor

Soon after taking office in 2007, Crist gathered with leaders in business, government, science and advocacy for a summit in Miami on climate change. At the conclusion of the talks, he signed three executive orders that were aimed at reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency and enhancing renewable energy use in the state. One of the orders also established a task force to develop a series of recommendations for addressing rising temperatures.

The task force produced an Energy and Climate Change Action Plan the next year. Citing a National Academies of Sciences assessment during the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, the report acknowledged the role of human activity in climate change through the combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use over the last several hundred years. The report also suggested that addressing emissions would stimulate the economy through new technologies, business opportunities and jobs while reducing reliance on foreign fuel sources.

“If Florida and other states and nations act now to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, many of these effects can be avoided, minimized or mitigated,” the report said. “These actions necessary to reduce GHG emissions are available to every household, every community and every state in the nation. There is a cost associated with some of these actions, but there is also a direct cost for failing to act.”

In 2008, the Florida Legislature also approved several measures related to climate change and energy, including a notable bill codifying many of the provisions of Crist’s executive orders. The legislative action also authorized the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop cap and trade regulations for emissions and required Florida’s Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities, to develop rules for embracing a renewable energy portfolio standard, among other things.

“I knew at the time that this was a real situation, something we had to face and something we had to realize was going to create bigger storms,” Crist said this month on MSNBC. Climate change did not come up during this week’s gubernatorial debate. 

The Crist administration’s climate policy was effectively abandoned in 2011 when his successor, Rick Scott, a Republican and now a U.S. senator, took over as governor. Crist had run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 while still governor, changing his party affiliation to Independent, but lost to Marco Rubio, a Republican. He later changed his party affiliation to Democratic and ran against Scott for governor in 2014 but lost. Crist was elected in 2016 to the U.S. House of Representatives but left in August for his third gubernatorial bid.

“I don’t think anything came of almost any of those recommendations” under Crist, said Moncrief of Florida Conservation Voters, who worked in the office of general counsel at the Department of Environmental Protection until 2011. “So two years of work‚—scientists coming together, stakeholders coming together”—and then, Scott “threw it all in the garbage.”

Scott transformed Florida’s policy on the environment and climate, dismantling environmental programs across state government and notably banning the words “climate change” from state agencies, making him a punchline for late-night comedians. Ben Kirtman, professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science, said the policy gap probably left the state more vulnerable to Hurricane Ian.

“I don’t think Charlie Crist’s plan would have done better,” Kirtman said. “I think the advantage of Charlie Crist’s plan is, without that gap in between, we would have been constantly revising what we’re doing, given that sea level rise rates have gone up faster than anticipated.” Kirtman joined other scientists in meeting with Scott to present evidence of global warming.

“If we had constantly been worrying about those things and thinking about those things, would we have been in a better position with Ian? I think so,” he said of the policy lapse before the hurricane struck. “Would it be a nonproblem? No. It was a big storm. It was a big storm surge, and to be able to build, have infrastructure that can just survive, that is not something that’s attainable at this point in time.”

DeSantis Moved on Everglades Restoration and Coastal Protection

DeSantis took office in 2019. Last year, he signed into law the state’s Resilient Florida program, devoting $1 billion to infrastructure projects like elevating roads, improving drainage and renovating wastewater pump stations, among other things. A large part of the funding comes from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The governor also established the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection within the Department of Environmental Protection and appointed the state’s first chief science officer and chief resilience officer. All of these factors played into the Everglades Trust’s decision to endorse DeSantis in his re-election bid, said Anna Upton, the organization’s chief executive.

“When it comes to Everglades restoration, Gov. DeSantis fulfilled the promises to secure record funding and to advance and expedite critical Everglades restoration projects,” she said. “That’s really important, because when a candidate says that they’re going to do something and when a politician says that they’re going to do something, if they actually do it you need to support that.”

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But others point out that the policy fails to address the state’s reliance on fossil fuels. Crist has said that if elected, he would strive to establish Florida as a leader in solar energy through programs aimed, for instance, at making rooftop panels more affordable. He also has plans for a renewable portfolio standard and goals for utilities on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

DeSantis is running ahead of Crist in the latest polls: One conducted this month by Florida Atlantic University indicated that he was favored by 51 percent of the voters surveyed, compared with Crist’s 40 percent. 

Meanwhile, Floridians like Janét Buford-Johnson face months of grappling with the wind and flood damage left by Hurricane Ian. Her house is situated on a retention pond that has flooded the Orlando neighborhood in the past, but never like this. Her mother bought the house back in 1993.

During the hurricane, the dwelling was flooded with some three feet of water. It rose so rapidly that Buford-Johnson and her 15-year-old daughter had to be rescued by firefighters before dawn. In the weeks since, she has stayed with family members and friends. 

As the broken furniture and mildewy bedding left at the curb in front of the house awaited a trash pickup, a dirty line three feet high along the wall of what used to be her living room showed where the water had risen. The tile floor was smeared with mud. The air smelled damp and stagnant.

In better times, Burford-Johnson lived here with her four children; when the hurricane hit, she was sharing her home with her daughter, son, his girlfriend and their 18-month-old baby. Now she finds it hard to imagine ever returning to the house, but her path forward is fraught. Housing costs across the region have skyrocketed, and Burford-Johnson has not worked since a robbery at the convenience store she once managed.

“It has nothing but memories of who we were, you know?” she said of her home. “I guess we are resilient. We’re still here. But everything we had is gone. Everything is completely gone. It’s been wiped off the planet, basically. It’s just like we were here, but were we really here?”

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