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What’s next for climate change in Florida Legislature?

Even after losing a key leader, advocates wonder if lawmakers are ready to act.
Former State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, wore rainboots in Florida's Capitol.
Former State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, wore rainboots in Florida's Capitol. [ GATEHOUSE MEDIA/ZAC ANDERSON | TNS ]
Published Dec. 7, 2020
Updated Dec. 7, 2020

The day after Floridians took to voting booths, the same day the United States officially left a global agreement to reduce planet-warming emissions, Miami state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez was gearing up for a recount he would lose.

Rodríguez had become known in Tallahassee for wearing galoshes around the Capitol. It was an attempt, he said, to make his colleagues pay attention to sea level rise after years of inaction. His narrow defeat, in a race clouded by a no-party candidate with the same last name (who may have lived in a different district), was not a clear referendum on Rodríguez’s politics.

But it left the Legislature of a state perhaps more vulnerable than most to climate change without a clear champion on the issue. The question now is whether Florida needs that kind of figure, or whether it has reached a point where the topic no longer requires a man slipping on rain boots to prompt discussion in the halls of power.

Former State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, speaks before a U.S. Senate committee in June.
Former State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, speaks before a U.S. Senate committee in June. [ CAROLINE BREHMAN | CNP via ZUMA Wire ]

“It is a worrying message in terms of what it says about climate policy,” said Rodríguez, a Democrat, talking also about the state’s backing of President Donald Trump, who has doubted the science of climate change. The loss belied his experience on the campaign trail, where he said voters asked about the subject more than ever. Floridians, too, backed some local green measures; residents of Key Biscayne approved a $100 million bond to address sea level rise.

“My hope is that maybe there’s a disconnect on policy and politics,” Rodríguez said, “that people weren’t intending to vote against the climate agenda.”

Related: Florida environmentalists want Legislature to create climate change committee

Surveys show most Floridians accept the realities of climate change and worry about the impacts. A shift in the electorate, advocates say, has led to a gradual thaw on conversations about the problem in Tallahassee. The altered tone follows a decade of avoidance by Republican leadership, they say, though lawmakers still shy away from talking seriously about emissions that contribute to climate change.

Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, wrote earlier this year about the need to improve flood defenses. After multiple failed attempts, Rodríguez last year joined with Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Miami Republican, to pass a law that requires sea level rise studies before certain state-funded construction.

“The state has a responsibility to address these issues,” Aloupis said. Parts of his district flood even in regular storms. “It’s never good to be reliant upon one person. It needs to be something that’s an ongoing conversation.”

Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in 2019. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times (2019)]
Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2019)]

Florida voters and climate

Some progressives thought Florida might swing on the climate vote in 2020.

It did not.

The Sierra Club Florida tallied 21 House wins — and 36 losses — for candidates friendly to its cause across the primary and general election, said Deborah Foote, the group’s government affairs and political director. In the Senate, she said, they managed an even record.

“The brighter light is shining on those local races where we are seeing a significant number of our endorsed candidates winning,” Foote said shortly after the election. “I think that’s where we’re going to see continued change and innovation, on the local level.”

Children get a look at "Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture set out to melt at ZooTampa at Lowry Park to highlight the threat of climate change.
Children get a look at "Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture set out to melt at ZooTampa at Lowry Park to highlight the threat of climate change. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Florida Conservation Voters celebrated candidates securing spots on the Coral Springs City Commission and in the Miami-Dade mayor’s office, said the group’s executive director, Aliki Moncrief. Both victories came, unsurprisingly, in South Florida, which has long outpaced the rest of the state both in experiencing the most obvious effects of climate change and in trying to address them.

Voters in national and statewide races undoubtedly had other issues that were a priority this year: the pandemic, a sputtering economy and racial injustice.

Some still view the environment as more of a backyard, local concern, Foote said. Residents on both coasts agreed to pay additional taxes to boost conservation. In Orange County, they decided to recognize natural bodies like rivers and streams in court cases, part of an environmental movement called Rights of Nature that advocates say could make it easier to bring lawsuits to block pollution and development. Lawmakers recently passed a bill that would make such a rule illegal in Florida, arguing that the idea could produce frivolous legal challenges.

Related: Florida advocacy group says environmental law hurts its chance to save nature

Altogether, Foote and Moncrief said, the mixed results may foretell more of the same, with municipalities running ahead of Tallahassee on climate issues.

Though lawmakers have begun to openly discuss the damage rising seas could cause, Moncrief said, they have stalled on attempts to address the human sources of warming.

“I do not think we’re going to see that coming out of the Legislature,” she said.

Others see a real opportunity in new leadership, particularly with Sprowls atop the House of Representatives. In a speech last year, he said: “We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’” The op-ed he wrote with Simpson, published in the Tampa Bay Times, referred to “sea level rise” but did not use the term “climate change.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, front, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, back, listen to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak in January.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, front, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, back, listen to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak in January. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Neither Sprowls nor Simpson, the Senate President, responded to a call or text message seeking comment for this story.

“We have crossed a threshold when it comes to sea level rise and flooding and the need for resilience,” said Susan Glickman, Florida leader of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “But if all we do is adapt to sea level rise ... there’s an old adage: When you find yourself in a hole, what do you do? You stop digging.”

Is Tallahassee changing?

Depending on who’s talking, the last Florida legislative session was either a reason for optimism or for continued skepticism.

Rodríguez and Aloupis earned unanimous support for the sea level rise study law, but other climate-related bills flopped. Rodríguez had hoped to push the state Department of Health to develop an annual report about concerns like water quality, heat-related sickness and the spread of diseases under a changing climate. He couldn’t find a partner to pick it up in the House.

“There’s a danger in dealing with climate only as it impacts property and economics,” Rodríguez said.

Florida is one of 13 states to not have some kind of specific goals or standards for how much energy comes from renewable sources like solar power, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A law last year, introduced by Rodríguez and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, would have targeted 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, but it did not get a vote.

“I think the hill just got steeper,” Rodríguez said. Many lawmakers, he said, are swayed by utility companies that rely on natural gas to make power.

Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat talked about as a person who could help carry the mantle on climate change, introduced a bill last winter that would have made the state formulate a resiliency plan to present to the governor. It was not brought up for a vote. Another early advocate for addressing climate change, Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, died this year of cancer.

Rep. Ben Diamond waves signs on Election Day in St. Petersburg.
Rep. Ben Diamond waves signs on Election Day in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“I can’t really predict how far we get in one session, but just the fact that we’re now having these conversations and we’re having them in a bipartisan and constructive way I think is positive,” Diamond said. “Now we need to take some action to go along with it.”

Aloupis said he will continue to suggest flood mitigation policies, but he believes lawmakers have to consider the sources of climate change, too. Local governments, he said, need state help to make fixes in stormwater systems and to convert areas, including in his own district, from septic systems to newer sewer lines. Most of all, they need money.

Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami
Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami [ myfloridahouse.gov ]

“This is going to have to be not just looked at from a policy perspective but from an appropriations perspective,” Aloupis said.

When lawmakers return next March, they will confront a host of budget problems as the pandemic has throttled state revenues. Glickman noted hopefully, though, that a House subcommittee on environment and agriculture has added “flooding” to its title.

“You can only ignore some problems for so long,” she said.

With little earlier progress, Rodríguez said, “the biggest challenge is the bar is so low.”

“There’s going to be relatively small policies that then get sold as if they’re really championing the kind of planning and forward-looking policies that we need here,” he said. “How much of an incentive is there to really tackle climate or is this about scoring political points with the general electorate?”

Jett Tanner, 68, from Tampa, looks out to the water off Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa after Tropical Storm Eta.
Jett Tanner, 68, from Tampa, looks out to the water off Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa after Tropical Storm Eta. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.