Florida Gov. Rick Scott has ignored climate change risks, critics say

Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media about Hurricane Irma while flanked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 in Doral. [Photo by Mark Wilson | Getty Images]
Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media about Hurricane Irma while flanked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 in Doral. [Photo by Mark Wilson | Getty Images]
Published Sept. 9, 2017

TAMPA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been ubiquitous in recent days as Hurricane Irma bears down on the Sunshine State, warning of deadly winds and storm surges and imploring residents to heed evacuation orders.

"This is a catastrophic storm our state has never seen," he cautioned at one of many news conferences.

By all accounts, Scott and other officials have aggressively tried to prepare the state and its residents for the destructive storm's impact and immediate aftermath.

COMPLETE COVERAGE:Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

But for all of Scott's vigor in readying Florida for Irma's wrath, his administration has done little over the years to prepare for what scientists say are the inevitable effects of climate change that will wreak havoc in the years to come. With its far-reaching coastline and low elevation, Florida is one of the states at greatest risk from rising sea levels, extreme weather events — including more powerful hurricanes — and other consequences of a warming planet.

Local officials, academics and even some political allies say Scott has scarcely acknowledged the problem and, along with the Republican-led Legislature, has shown little interest in funding projects to help the state adapt and become more resilient in the face of storms such as Irma.

"The science has been brought on a silver platter to Gov. Scott, and he's chosen not to do anything," said Kathy Baughman McLeod, a conservation expert who served on the Florida Energy and Climate Commission, which was effectively dismantled after Scott took office in 2011. "If there is climate action, it's all coming from local and regional collaboration. There is no state leadership on climate change in Florida, period."

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Scott, a Republican, has often demurred when asked about climate change and the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is fueling it, saying, "I am not a scientist."

But he faced a wave of criticism in 2015 after the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed state employees had been discouraged from using the terms "climate change" and "global warming." One state official even refused to utter the words in a public hearing.

The governor's office has repeatedly insisted no such policy ever existed. Scott's office did not respond to request for comment for this story, perhaps understandably, as he prepared Floridians to face the historic and deadly storm barreling toward them.

Scott's long-standing refusal to acknowledge an issue that many others view as among Florida's biggest threats has had repercussions, his critics say.

"It's more than an absence of leadership. There's harm being done by denying the problem," said Eric Buermann, former general counsel to the Republican Party of Florida and a former board chairman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "He's chilled the discussion, so that those who would want to do something about it feel ostracized . . . I'm a Republican. He's a Republican. He's a nice guy. There's nothing negative I have to say about the human being. It's just that the policy is 180 degrees off course."

Seas are rising faster than in the past, and low-lying Florida, with its tourist-attracting beaches and condo-crowded coastlines, could be among the hardest hit by the change.

"It's important we don't hide from reality," said Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami's geological science department and an expert on sea level rise. "We should be doing very serious planning, and it doesn't help when you have a governor and a president who are dismissing (climate change)."

Scott's predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, arrived in office in 2007 determined to address what he described as an existential threat to the state.

"I am persuaded that global climate change is one of the most important issues that we will face this century," Crist said in his initial State of the State address. "Florida is more vulnerable to rising ocean levels and violent weather patterns than any other state. Yet, we have done little to understand and address the root causes of this problem, or frankly, even acknowledge that the problem exists."

Crist convened a climate change summit in Miami, created a task force focused on the issue, signed an executive order to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions and mandate more energy-efficient building codes. He also signed a bill, championed by a state House Republican, that would push the state toward more renewable energy sources.

"I wanted to be up front and on point when it comes to climate change," Crist, now a Democratic U.S. House member, said in an interview. "It is real and it exists."

But when Scott swept the governor's race with support from the tea party and came to office in 2011, the issue all but vanished from the state's agenda.

"Local governments kind of stepped into the vacuum and have led the conversation every since," said Steve Adams, a former climate and energy adviser to Crist, who oversees urban resilience for the Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Miami Beach has undertaken a roughly half-billion quest to raise roads, build storm water pumps and gird itself against a slowly encroaching ocean.

"Our storm water program is all funded by city of Miami Beach residents," said assistant city manager and chief resiliency officer Susy Torriente. "We really have not seen state or federal funding in this type of adaptation, unless it comes after a storm."

A coalition of four South Florida counties, which collectively represent nearly a third of the state's population, banded together to coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities across county lines. In 2015, President Barack Obama called it "a model not just for the country, but for the world."

In the Tampa Bay area, a regional planning commission was worried about the lack of state leadership as local municipalities did little to prepare for water that was rising around their beach communities.

In 2010, they ran a simulation of a Category 5 hurricane they called Phoenix, which the real-life Irma resembles, and estimated its devastating impact. Government leaders paid attention.

Pinellas County, home of St. Petersburg, hired a climate specialist to convince government officials, planners and scientists to work together on adapting to change. A Climate Science Advisory Panel and a multicounty network that works on climate-related problems were established without the state's help.

But many communities simply don't have the financial means to combat the effects of climate change, said Albert Slap, president and co-founder of Coastal Risk Consulting, a firm that provides flood risk analysis.

"Smaller and medium-sized towns along the coast won't have the money they need to build the necessary resilience," Slap said. "The clock is ticking."

Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist with the Florida Sea Grant program, noted some state agencies have continued to address climate-related problems during Scott's tenure, often through funding from federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scott himself has pointed to his administration's support of Everglades restoration, as well as a number of water management and beach renourishment projects around the state. In one debate during his run for reelection in 2014, Scott claimed to have spent "$350 million to deal with sea-level rise down in the Keys, or down in the Miami area. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with coral reefs."

The fact-checking organization PolitiFact later accused him of exaggerating, saying while the state did spend $100 million to help the Keys upgrade its sewer systems, the legislature had paved the way for that spending under Crist's tenure.

When five climate scientists from Florida universities arranged a meeting with Scott during his 2014 reelection run, they saw it as an opportunity to convince him to invest in solar energy and mitigate some of the impacts of warming, such as rising seas. But the effort failed, said David Hastings, a climate scientist at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

"He really wasn't interested in listening to us," Hastings said of the meeting in Scott's Tallahassee office. "The meeting was incredibly short."

While some municipalities have tried to address problems caused by increased downpours, such as overwhelmed wastewater treatment facilities and flooded neighborhoods, Hastings and other scientists say Scott's administration has done little to mitigate the destruction of storms like Irma, whose winds could drive rising waters inland, making a bad problem many times worse.

"Hurricane Harvey and Irma should resolve any doubt that climate change is real," Hastings said. "These are extraordinary storms."

Ruppert said trying to adapt to Florida's changing climate without the support of the governor is "like trying to have a team without a coach . . . Having a leader who sets the tone can really make the difference in the progress we make - or fail to make."

But he added Scott, Donald Trump and other public officials who have ignored calls for climate action are not solely to blame for the devastation Florida is likely to face from Irma and other disasters to come. Even at the local level, he said, growth often trumps common sense.

"Florida is like a heroin addict when it comes to development," Ruppert said. "There's one lesson we should have learned that we haven't learned yet . . . We keep putting people in harm's way."

As he spoke, Ruppert was stuck on an interstate, trying to escape his South Florida home alongside tens of thousands of his neighbors.

"I left," he said, "with the mind-set that I might not have anything to go back to."