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Climate change: Will Florida lawmakers finally address it?

“I think it’s really important to note that we are behind the curve on this,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [STEVE CANNON  |  AP]
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [STEVE CANNON | AP]
Published Dec. 11, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Plans for a statewide office focused on rising sea levels and more electric-vehicle charging stations along Florida highways are moving forward in the Senate, as Republicans have become more open to addressing climate change and emissions issues.

The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee approved proposals Monday that would establish a Statewide Office of Resiliency under the governor (SPB 7016) and direct the Public Service Commission to work with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on electric-vehicle charging station infrastructure (SPB 7018).

Committee Chairman Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who put the bills forward, said the state needs to know where the coastline will be as sea-level rise occurs and as plans advance for roads, bridges, residential developments and other infrastructure.

“We’re putting billions of dollars into the infrastructure of the state every year,” said Lee. “It seems like we ought to have some sense and some indication of where we might be relative to our current tide levels 50 years from now or 40 years from now.”

Phrases such as climate change and greenhouse gas emissions had been mostly kept under wraps by state Republican leaders before last year’s elections, when Gov. Ron DeSantis was elected to succeed former Gov. Rick Scott.

Lee, a former Senate president, credited DeSantis for the “bold pivot in public policy.”

The Senate committee Monday also backed establishing a Sea-Level Rise Task Force to make recommendations about Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline and the relatively low elevations of the state that are vulnerable to coastal flooding from sea-level rise, storm surge and heavy rainfall.

Committee member Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat who cautioned that climate change will impact the state’s infrastructure and economy in “this generation,” called the Senate approach to climate change a “step in the right direction.”

“I think it’s really important to note that we are behind the curve on this,” Cruz said. “You see the king tides rushing in, and to put it in perspective, if you were a young couple that was taking out a 30-year mortgage in Tampa Bay, by the time you paid off that mortgage the sea level would have likely risen 1 to even 2 feet” according to one panel’s estimate.

The Senate bills do not have matching proposals in the House.

But incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has challenged House members to stop “being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’”

And Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, has filed a proposal (HB 4999) seeking nearly $6 million for a seven-year study by Florida International University to track sea levels across the state. The study would be modeled on a program funded in the current fiscal year for the Miami Beach area.

DeSantis, who in August named Julie Nesheiwat as the state’s first chief resilience officer, has sought the creation of the statewide resilience office.

A Senate staff analysis said the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact Sea Level Rise Work Group has projected Southeast Florida could see sea-level rise from 1 to nearly 3 feet over the next 40 years, while the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel estimates waters in that region going up 1 to 2.5 feet in 30 years.

“In the U.S., sea level rise and flooding threaten an estimated $1 trillion in coastal real estate value, and analyses estimate that there is a chance Florida could lose more than $300 billion in property value by 2100,” the staff analysis said.

The electronic charging station plans follow DeSantis’ announcement in August that 15 percent, or $24.9 million, of the state’s share of a settlement in a Volkswagen emissions scandal would go toward placing charging stations for electric vehicles at all Florida Turnpike service plazas.

A Senate staff analysis said increasing charging stations statewide would help in “facilitating mobility and commerce and reducing costs related to EV (electronic vehicle) travel time.”

“To the extent that increased EV use is encouraged, the state may realize reduced greenhouse gas emissions, thereby contributing to the overall health of the state’s residents and environmental resources,” the staff analysis said.

Cruz said a lack of electronic stations along U.S. 19 from Tampa to Tallahassee kept her from leasing an electronic vehicle.

“I worry that I would find myself stranded somewhere if I’m over that 250-mile range in an electric car,” Cruz said.

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