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Florida’s new resilience officer doesn’t shy away from saying ‘climate change’

Julia Nesheiwat also says new restrictions on development will be needed to cope with rising sea levels

TAMPA — For the first time ever, Florida has a chief resilience officer to oversee the state’s efforts to cope with climate change — and in her first extended interview, she wasn’t shy about using the term “climate change.”

Consider that a major advance in Florida. During Rick Scott’s tenure as governor from 2011 through 2018, stories circulated among state employees that uttering “climate change” would be met with a swift rebuke, although Scott himself denied it. In an interview Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recently named resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, was asked if she hesitated to use the term.

“Not at all,” she said. “It’s here. It’s real.”

But she didn’t want to discuss the past politics that made the subject so verboten in the previous administration: “I want to stay away from the politics and get things done for the state of Florida.”

She also said new limits will likely be necessary on building homes, businesses and infrastructure in flood-prone areas.

“There will need to be restrictions, absolutely,” Nesheiwat said.

But deciding what changes are necessary will involve state officials collaborating with local governments, homeowners and businesses affected by the decisions, she said. She also said she wanted to work closely with the Florida Department of Transportation on the placement of new roads and bridges.

She wouldn’t endorse ending new development along the state’s vulnerable coastline, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein contended that the state already has good regulations on wetlands destruction and stormwater runoff.

Nesheiwat and Valenstein acknowledged that the costs of coping with higher storm surges, continued saltwater intrusion into drinking water and other ramifications of rising sea levels will be high. But Nesheiwat said she was optimistic that there was grant money for needed pumps and other technology that could alleviate the burden on Florida taxpayers.

“I think the funding is out there — it’s just a matter of harnessing it,” she said.

The challenges facing Florida will require something more than “a quick Band-aid fix,” she said. As a first step, she wants to pull together an assessment of all the current efforts by local governments and other agencies to cope with climate change, then decide what new might be needed.

A 2014 national climate assessment said Florida is squarely in the cross-hairs of climate change, with Tampa Bay, Miami and Apalachicola judged as among the most vulnerable places in the nation to climate change. Florida and other Southeastern states, it said, are “especially vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme heat events and decreased water availability.” That means “large numbers of cities, roads, railways, ports, airports, oil and gas facilities and water supplies are at low elevations and potentially vulnerable.”

But while Scott was governor, the state itself did little to plan for such looming threats, in spite of the fact that Scott himself owns a waterfront home that would be susceptible to rising seas. A trio of scientists met with Scott to convince him climate change was real and the state should take action, but nothing came of it.

DeSantis has been reluctant to talk about “climate change,” too, perhaps because of his close ties with President Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords even though its carbon-cutting goals are voluntary.

But when DeSantis named Nesheiwat — a Lake County native who had been a deputy special envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department — as the state’s chief resilience officer, a news release from his office said her job would be “preparing Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of sea level rise."

RELATED STORY: DeSantis taps Florida’s first ever climate change czar

(EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misspelled Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein’s name.)