‘Time for real action’ on climate change: Florida students sue DeSantis, et al

“Sadly, our state government has long disregarded the stakes with feel-good political appointments,’’ said Delaney Reynolds, a 20-year-old University of Miami student and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Left to right are four of the eight students suing Florida for inaction on climate change: Isaac Augspurg, 14, of Alachua; Levi Draheim, 14, of Indian Rocks Beach; Delaney Reynolds, 20, of No Name Key; Valholly Frank, 17, of Weston.
Left to right are four of the eight students suing Florida for inaction on climate change: Isaac Augspurg, 14, of Alachua; Levi Draheim, 14, of Indian Rocks Beach; Delaney Reynolds, 20, of No Name Key; Valholly Frank, 17, of Weston. [ Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald ]
Published Jan. 9, 2020|Updated Jan. 9, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida’s leaders open the annual legislative session next week prepared to claim they’re responding to climate change, eight young residents are taking them to court for doing the opposite.

The students, who range in age from 21 to 12, are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the Florida Cabinet and two state agencies for violating their constitutional rights and endangering their future by failing to aggressively develop a plan to combat climate change.

They come from Miami, No Name Key in the Keys, the Big Cypress Seminole Tribe reservation, Gainesville, Pensacola and a Space Coast barrier island and are asking a state court to compel the state’s elected leaders to develop and implement a comprehensive energy plan that doesn’t continue to exacerbate climate change.

“Sadly, our state government has long disregarded the stakes with feel-good political appointments,’’ said Delaney Reynolds, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was originally filed in April 2018 in Leon County Circuit Court, and amended to include the new governor and agriculture commissioner.

“The time has come for real action and that’s why I am suing the governor and the Cabinet.”

The group is represented by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based organization sponsoring similar suits from young people around the country at the state and federal level.

Reynolds and three co-plaintiffs, Valholly Frank, Isaac Augspurg and Levi Draheim, spoke to law students at the Florida State University College of Law on Wednesday about their legal flight just days before Florida lawmakers convene the annual 60-day session. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday was canceled after the state agreed to release documents the plaintiffs are seeking.

The students acknowledge DeSantis’ claim that his appointment of a climate resiliency officer is being touted as a significant advancement, after former Gov. Rick Scott buried the issue for eight years. And they recognize Fried considers her call for more studies “the most ambitious energy and climate legislation in a decade.” But they do not consider either action progress.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but what I’m seeing so far is just talk,’’ Reynolds said. “It is not going to solve the issue for the long term. Until I personally start to see us cutting back emissions, reducing fossil fuel efforts, I’m kind of ‘whatever’ on mitigation.”

The students’ arguments are fundamental, and they say central to the role of government in protecting their rights.

But opponents say the question of whether the state should more aggressively respond is not a legal question, but a political one, and DeSantis and Fried have asked a court to dismiss the lawsuit. Judge Kevin Carroll has allowed the case to move forward.

The students are claiming that the state has created a “fossil fuel energy system” that endangers their future, leading to the rise in sea levels, the intrusion of salt water, the degradation of plant and animal habitats and the destruction of property. They also say that as the climate warms it will reduce the possibility that they “will grow to adulthood safely and enjoy the same rights, benefits, and privileges of earlier-born generations of Floridians.”

They easily cite statistics: Florida is the 27th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world and the second highest in the nation. It is third in the nation in energy consumption, with 97% of its energy sourced from fossil fuel and non-renewable energy sources at a time when they say viable and affordable alternatives are available.

The students are from families that live their values.

Augspurg’s family owns a 20-acre hobby farm in Alachua, near Gainesville, where they grow much of their own food. But the region is one of the most severely impacted by inland flooding and, in the last two summers, his farm has suffered from intense drought and heat, killing crops and baby goats.

Augspurg, 14, asks DeSantis and Fried to think about their children and nieces and nephews. “They are going to be affected by the climate crisis, even if they have money,’’ he warned.

Draheim, 12, lives in Indian Harbor Beach on Brevard County’s barrier island and does what he can to help the environment. He plants sea oats to build up the dunes, picks up trash on the beach with his school group, and he and his family eat vegan.

But with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Indian River Lagoon on the west, his city is flanked by water. After Hurricanes Michael and Irma, Draheim’s front yard was flooded with eight inches of water. His school was closed and his mother, who worked there, lost her job and they were forced to find a new school.

Water quality has been an issue in recent years — some attribute it to rising sea temperatures — and the Indian River Lagoon has been ruled off-limits for swimming because of flesh-eating bacteria and dead fish.

“I’ve experienced fish kills, red tide and algae booms, and that is disgusting because there is millions of dead fish on the beach as far as the eye can see,’’ he said.

Reynolds’ family lives in a solar-powered home on No Name Key, where they capture water in cisterns. But her home is only three-feet above sea level and she fears that in her lifetime her community will be uninhabitable.

“We face the imminent threat of hurricanes becoming larger and more frequent — and that puts us at risk,’’ said Reynolds, a junior at the University of Miami.

Monroe County just asked the State of Florida for $150 million to prepare for sea level rise and, absent any change in fossil fuel policy, she warns, the county is “going to be under water” by the end of the century.

Her message to DeSantis and Fried: “While mitigation and resiliency efforts are good steps in the right direction, they are short-term solutions. If we want to actually do something to save the future of Florida, we need to take direct actions, and curb the use of fossil fuels.”

Besides, she asks, “if they’re serious about wanting to solve this problem, like they say they are, why are they trying to dismiss us? Why are they fighting us? Why won’t they sit down with us, discuss our ideas and come up with solutions?”

The governor’s office would not respond to a request for comment. Fried’s spokesman, Franco Ripple, said her team has met with the plaintiff’s representatives “numerous times” and considers her commitment to “clean, renewable energy and improved energy efficiency and conservation” unprecedented. They encouraged the plaintiffs to join her “in demanding the Legislature pass energy policies that reflect the climate crisis our state faces.”

For Frank, a 17-year-old from Weston whose father is a member of the Panther Clan of the Seminole Tribe, a home on the Big Cypress reservation has been in her family for generations. It is near “ceremonial grounds and medicine plants and everything that makes us native,’’ she said.

“Native Americans have this mindset of if what you’re doing is going to negatively effect the next seven generations you should not be doing that,’’ she said.

“But sea level rise is gradually destroying’’ her community, she said. The rising waters could “wipe out my entire home, my entire culture and that sense of community we have.”

If Frank could speak to DeSantis and Fried, she would ask them to come visit the reservation “and show them my home and what would be destroyed,’’ she said. “Because people don’t really care about things until it gets personal.”

The lawsuit cites statistics from the state and the federal government.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment reports that “Florida alone is estimated to have a 1-in-20 chance of having more than $346 billion (in 201 1 dollars) in property value (8.7%) below average sea level by 2100 under a higher scenario.” The Florida Department of Health reported that 590,000 people in South Florida face “extreme” or “high risk” from sea level rise.

The students each said they never imagined they would have to sue their state to get the attention of lawmakers, but they see it as a “moral obligation” for their generation.

“The time has come to set the politics aside and deal with the foundational issue that is causing climate change, the use of fossil fuels,’’ Reynolds said. Among her wishes: mandate that new construction include solar panels, and increase incentives to abandon fossil fuel.