DeSantis Called for “Energy Dominance” During White House Run. His Plan Still is Relevant to Floridians, Who Face Intensifying Climate Impacts 

SATELLITE BEACH, Fla.—Established by rocket scientists on a sliver of a barrier island south of Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the 20th century, this community is the sort of place where locals raise families after growing up here themselves. Most don’t want their community to change, but change is coming.

The city is situated in one of the most highly eroding areas in Florida. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon on the other, the water is a treasured draw and growing threat. In 2022, Hurricane Nicole washed away some 13 feet of beach, leaving four homes uninhabitable, after making landfall roughly 42 miles to the south as a Category 1 storm.

“I grew up here. I don’t want it to change either,” said Courtney Barker, the city manager. “What is that happy medium, to allow people to build better but still keep the character of the community that we all love?”

Across Florida, communities are grappling with the biggest environmental threat facing the state: climate change. Gov. Ron DeSantis has invested more than $1.6 billion toward hardening the infrastructure against rising seas and flooding, the first time in about a decade top leaders of this uniquely vulnerable state have taken action on virtually any aspect of the global problem.

But the governor, who has described himself as “not a global warming person,” has done little to address the main cause behind warming temperatures and wean the state off fossil fuels. As a presidential candidate DeSantis shifted more sharply right, and now that he has bowed out of the New Hampshire primary and shut down his presidential campaign, his climate change record shifts from a seldom-mentioned talking point on the campaign trail to front-and-center fact of life back home in Florida, as communities here face intensifying impacts like record heat and more destructive hurricanes.

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Nicole was part of a historic season best remembered for Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, causing nearly $112.9 billion in damage and at least 156 deaths. Ian ranks as the costliest hurricane in state history and third-costliest in U.S. history, after Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017. In 2023, Hurricane Idalia, powered by record warm water temperatures, came ashore in northwest Florida as a Category 3 storm. It was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in that part of the state since 1896.

A few weeks after Idalia, DeSantis stood in front of an oil rig in Midland, Texas, where the economy is based in large part on oil and natural gas production, and unveiled an energy plan as part of his presidential campaign. The plan involves, among other things, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the international treaty aimed at limiting warming to, at most, 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, a threshold where scientists say climate impacts become more severe.

DeSantis said that as president he would end consumer subsidies for electric cars and commitments to net-zero emissions. Standing at a podium adorned with the words “Fueling American Freedom,” 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. He went further this month during a debate with rival Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, when asked what he might do about carbon emissions if elected.

“So on day one as president we take Biden’s Green New Deal. We tear it up, and we throw it in the trash can. It is bad for the country. We have to have reliable energy,” he said. “China is the problem here, and so hold them accountable.”

Back in his home state, where surveys show Floridians are more likely than other Americans to believe climate change is happening and support government actions to address it, some see DeSantis as out of touch, said Luigi Guadarrama, political director at the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter. 

“This isn’t something that’s 10 years ahead anymore. This is here, and Floridians are experiencing the impacts day by day, whether it’s evacuating for a storm, whether it be hunkering down, whether it be flooding,” he said. “To have a governor that ignores that and that offers lip service, right, and carefully crafted talking points and uses it as a political bargaining tool across the state, it’s horrible. People’s lives are not political bargaining tools.”

MaryAnna Mancuso, a political strategist and spokeswoman for republicEn, an organization supporting conservative climate leadership, said more conservatives and especially young voters are identifying climate change as a problem that needs to be addressed.

“There is overwhelming scientific evidence,” she said. “[DeSantis] unveils an energy policy like that, it’s a slap in the face to Floridians who are suffering.”

Even though DeSantis is no longer seeking the presidential nomination, he may not cast aside his energy plan, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. DeSantis could attempt to implement key components in Florida in advance of another presidential run in 2028, he said. (DeSantis’ time as governor does not end until January 2027, although term limits prevent him from running for another consecutive term.)  

“Bottom line, they have been very creative and very aggressive in expanding executive power, so I suspect where he could he will try to continue to keep some of these ideas alive and adopt them at least in some form in Florida,” Jewett said.  

Resilient Florida

At the heart of DeSantis’ Florida climate policy is the Resilient Florida program, characterized by his administration as a historic investment to prepare communities for rising seas, more intense storms and flooding. The program was established under 2021 legislation that acknowledges the storms’ impacts “pose economic, social, environmental, and public health and safety challenges to the state.” The measure does not mention the words “climate change.”

Resilient Florida provides communities with grant money for vulnerability assessments that identify risks, and for local planning and policies aimed at addressing the problems. Notably, the program acknowledges the risks faced by coastal and inland communities and also establishes standards for vulnerability assessments, to encourage consistency in scope and data collection.

Examples of approved projects include $28 million for a tidal flooding mitigation and shoreline project in Hollywood, south of Fort Lauderdale, and $2.3 million for a living shoreline and resiliency project in Treasure Island, a community outside Tampa. Erin Deady, an environmental attorney specializing in land use and resilience, described the program as transformational and compared it to Everglades restoration, a multi-billion dollar federal and state effort that is among the most ambitious attempts at ecological restoration in human history.

“From a resiliency and a vulnerability and an adaptation perspective, the state of Florida is unparalleled in the country in terms of moving money to local governments to understand their vulnerabilities, understand where they are exposed and putting together plans to do something about that,” she said. “You can’t find another state government that has moved this much money down to local governments, for not only doing capital improvement projects but also the planning. If you don’t have a plan to know how and when you’re going to be vulnerable, moving money for projects isn’t really the smartest outcome, and that’s why I think the vulnerability assessments that the Resilient Florida program is funding, that’s why they are so important.”  

A man rides though a flooded street in Crystal River, Fla. on Aug. 31, 2023, after Hurricane Idalia barreled into the northwest Florida coast. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

A man rides though a flooded street in Crystal River, Fla. on Aug. 31, 2023, after Hurricane Idalia barreled into the northwest Florida coast. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Resilient Florida also required the state Department of Environmental Protection to complete a comprehensive statewide flood vulnerability and sea level rise assessment by July 2023, including an inventory of critical assets, that will be updated every five years. The department also was to develop a statewide flooding and sea level rise resilience plan by December 2021 that included ranked projects and eventually would address risks identified in the assessment. The Department of Transportation had to create a resilience action plan for the state’s highways by June 2023.

Deady said the new funding, some of it federal, has sparked important conversations in communities that might not have occurred otherwise. She thought some of the deadlines were aggressive and was not surprised the program is behind schedule.

“To come up with the models to evaluate flood risk, that’s not easy either. Sometimes if we look at old flood insurance maps, they’re old. They don’t have the best data associated with them,” she said. “I think we would rather do it right.”

Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, an advocacy group focused on smart growth, said it is too soon to gauge how effective the program has been.

“Let’s be honest: A lot of what we’re dealing with in terms of climate change is a legacy of decades of greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of what we’re experiencing is already baked into the cake,” he said. “Florida has been too lenient in allowing development in coastal high-hazard areas and flood plains, and Florida needs to be a lot more thoughtful about what areas may be inappropriate for development and steer development away from those areas. Or if property is destroyed in places like that, policies should not allow the same kind of property to be rebuilt in those areas because that’s just going to put people in danger again.”

DeSantis also established positions in his administration for the state’s first chief science officer and chief resilience officer. He has dedicated billions of dollars to Everglades restoration and water quality, and environmental groups have cheered the funding. But some would like to see more spending on other vulnerable waterways, such as the Indian River Lagoon, where ongoing water quality problems led in recent years to an unprecedented manatee die-off.

DeSantis’ latest budget proposal also calls for funding for resiliency planning and projects, beach renourishment and the protection and restoration of offshore reefs, after record water temperatures led to widespread coral bleaching. The proposal puts money toward home mitigation programs, as a means of addressing sky-rocketing property insurance costs. Florida lawmakers will take up the budget proposal during their annual legislative session, which began this month.

The governor’s environmental policy in Florida contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Rick Scott, a Republican and current U.S. Senator. Scott gutted environmental programs and famously banned the words “climate change” from state agencies.

But DeSantis also has taken actions that have left the state more vulnerable to climate change. He has done next to nothing to move the state toward cleaner energy, although he did veto 2022 legislation targeting net metering, a billing arrangement aimed at compensating rooftop solar customers for excess energy they send back to the grid. The measure would have phased in new net metering rates, and clean energy advocates had feared the measure would reduce financial incentives for rooftop solar, harming the industry’s expansion in the Sunshine State.

His administration has turned down federal funding to reduce vehicle emissions, characterizing the money as “the continued politicization of our roadways,” as state Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue put it. Florida was the only state to refuse the funding. DeSantis vetoed a popular bipartisan bill to add electric vehicles to state and local fleets, which would have saved state and local money. He also rejected federal funding to enhance energy efficiency and help low-income residents install solar panels on the roofs of their homes. His own administration has predicted some $26 billion in residential property statewide will face chronic flooding by 2045.

Green Means “Go”

The energy plan DeSantis put forth as part of his campaign would have undone much of President Joe Biden’s climate policy. It would have prohibited state and local governments from considering environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) in investing. It also would have streamlined environmental review procedures for energy and infrastructure projects and greenlit fossil fuel development on federal lands, with the goal of bringing down the price of gas to $2 a gallon.

“We’re going to unleash our energy sector,” he said in Midland. “Green in our administration is going to mean ‘go.’ I will demand faster approvals than any president in history. If bureaucrats are slowing down projects then those bureaucrats are going to lose their jobs. It’s about time we had accountability.”

“We have seen a concerted effort to ramp up the fear when it comes to things like global warming and climate change,” he continued. “This is driven by ideology. It’s not driven by reality. In reality human beings are safer than ever from climate disasters.”

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Last August he declined to raise his hand on the debate stage with other Republican presidential candidates when a moderator asked which of the contenders believed human behavior was contributing to climate change. DeSantis said he believed the global climate is warming naturally, without the interference of human activities like the burning of fossil fuels.

In Satellite Beach, the fire station is a low-slung brick-and-stucco structure situated in the lowest part of the city, near the Indian River Lagoon. When the lagoon is high, the intersection in front of the station can flood, a challenge for fire trucks that must move through the water. Eventually city leaders decided to relocate the fire station to higher ground and had planned to take out a loan for the $4.5 million project. But the city was able to obtain a grant through Resilient Florida, which will provide part of the funding. Construction is expected to take about a year.

“When you put an investment into a building you want it to last,” said Barker, the city manager. “In 20 years that area is projected to be more flood-prone, and we didn’t want to invest in an area where we thought we might have to move.”

The funding for this and other projects has been important for Satellite Beach, where heavier rains are causing more frequent flooding and the pounding waves so popular among surfers are washing away the community’s most treasured asset: its beach. Regular beach renourishment projects are needed to restore the sand that is crucial to the local economy and also serves as a buffer protecting the community from the Atlantic Ocean, especially when hurricanes approach.

The community could use more state help, though, Barker said. State regulations make it difficult for municipal governments to make land use and zoning changes that discourage new development in areas that are increasingly vulnerable because of climate change. The community also would benefit from more public transportation options that would stem the emissions warming the planet and contributing to the impacts the community is grappling with.

“It’s not just the effects you have to address,” she said. “It’s the cause as well.”

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