Ten years late, Florida’s GOP lawmakers address climate change. What now?

“We lost a decade,’’ said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.
Rain from Tropical Storm Hermine and high tides flooded streets around Tampa last September. A new analysis projects that sea level in Tampa Bay could rise 5 to 19 inches by 2040. That is prompting local officials to look at plans to anticipate and cope with the changes. ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times (2016)
Rain from Tropical Storm Hermine and high tides flooded streets around Tampa last September. A new analysis projects that sea level in Tampa Bay could rise 5 to 19 inches by 2040. That is prompting local officials to look at plans to anticipate and cope with the changes. ANDRES LEIVA | Times (2016)
Published Oct. 15, 2019|Updated Oct. 15, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in a decade, a Florida Senate committee scheduled a meeting Monday to discuss the impact of climate change on the peninsula state.

What did senators learn?

“We lost a decade,’’ said Sen. Tom Lee, the Thonotosassa Republican who chairs the Committee on Infrastructure and Security.

He began the 90-minute hearing with three words that have not come from the lips of a Republican state senator in years: “Sea level rise.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of conversation about this. I understand that, and I understand why,’’ he continued, leaving unsaid that the words “climate change” were banned from the lexicon for much of the eight-year tenure of former Gov. Rick Scott, and the state’s response to it was not considered a priority.

But Lee, who served in the Senate for the last six years of Scott’s term, said he believes there has been “a paradigm shift” with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — who followed the lead of local governments in Florida and appointed a “chief resilience officer” to start talking about the effects of global warming on the state.

The new landscape comes with new political realities, Lee said. “There’s a younger generation of conservatives in this state that aren’t as much in denial.”

“The world is changing and so is the leadership in state government,’’ he said. But he stopped short of saying the Republican governor and the GOP leadership of the House and Senate, as well as the development, utility and insurance industries that finance them, will support the “paradigm shift.”

Just as Scott set the tone for little climate talk in Florida, President Donald Trump has derided climate change, avoids uttering the phrase, and has directed his top officials to reject the science. Will the Florida Legislature be willing to talk about climate change, let alone address the issue with legislation?

“It’s a little too early to predict this,’’ Lee said. “I think reality is going to set in and, if it doesn’t, it’s going to hit us right in the face.”

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, nearly 60% of Republicans between the ages of 23 and 38 say that climate change is having an effect on the United States, and 36% believe humans are the cause. Republicans over age 52 agree with those statements at half the rate.

The committee heard from Florida experts on sea level rise, infrastructure resiliency, transportation and how South Florida governments have worked together despite the state’s intransigence.

“We have detected that sea level rise is accelerating” faster than what they had predicted in the past,’’ said Gary Mitchum, professor of marine science at the University of South Florida. By 2050, the oceans will be two feet higher along Florida’s shores.

Before that happens, however, “it’s going to get worse as the climate continues to warm.’’ Sunny-day flooding will be a constant foe, putting a demand on roads, sewers, tunnels and buildings in ways that defy current plans, he said.

Among the plans still behind the curve: the Florida Department of Transportation, which has not planned for a two-foot rise in sea level, said Will Watts, chief engineer of FDOT.

He told the committee while the agency builds bridges that can sustain 100-year storms, and builds stormwater retention ponds based on 25-year frequency, it is just starting to try to work toward anticipating what will happen when seas rise two feet.

Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer for Broward County, described how the impact is already “incredibly problematic.”

King Tides and sunny-day flooding are disrupting postal delivery in many communities, eroding utility boxes, requiring law enforcement to manage traffic corridors where flooding has closed roads, she said.

Mitchum, the USF professor, warned that as the air temperature warms, the air can hold more water, so hurricanes will become more frequent, rain will come in larger amounts, and inland parts of the state will continue to “have torrential rains that go on for days,’’ he said.

That will have direct impacts on storm and sewer systems, and public health — as tropical diseases become more prevalent.

He said that reducing greenhouse gas “emissions tomorrow to pre-industry levels is not going to decrease warming dramatically, but you will decrease the level of warming...

“It will take some time to turn it over but, basically, we have to start now,’’ he said.

Jurado urged the committee to remember that any conversation about sea level rise must include a stronger state focus on clean energy policy.

Republican members of the committee, however, weren’t ready to embrace the warnings.

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Alachua, asked Mitchum for data. Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, asked what good is it for Florida to change its policies when India and China are big producers of greenhouse gases.

“Instead of looking at just total emissions, look at it per capita,’’ Mitchum responded. He said the United States “leads by far in per capita emissions” and that is because of our inefficient use of energy, while China is “relatively new” and its power systems are “more efficient.”

Lee, a home builder from the Tampa area, said after the meeting that many of his colleagues “emotionally shut down when we have this conversation” because “they don’t know how to respond to it” and the “magnitude of costs is what’s so daunting.”

But, Lee hinted, the committee might produce legislation, although he wouldn’t elaborate on what it would include.

“I just feel it’s a duty we owe to future generations to at least have planned for this to some extent,’’ he said. “What we can do in this environment? I don’t know. But we have got to push that envelope.”