Florida’s first-ever chief resilience officer is saying the right things about preparing the state to cope with climate change. That alone is a welcome improvement from former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. But Julia Nesheiwat will need to work closely with local officials and raise her profile in Tallahassee for this office to reach its potential. Florida is uniquely vulnerable to a warming climate, and its response must be equally distinct.
Nesheiwat earned an early vote of confidence with her first extended interview last week, freely acknowledging the challenges of climate change — “it’s here, it’s real” — and the implications for Florida, which could include new limits on development in flood-prone areas. That straight talk and grasp of reality is a stark reversal from the environment under Scott, a climate skeptic who did little during his tenure to prepare Florida for the flooding associated with rising seas, saltwater encroachment into the drinking water supply and other impacts of a warming climate.
Nesheiwat has not laid out a specific agenda, reasonably choosing to spend the near-term compiling an assessment of all current efforts by local governments and other agencies to deal with climate change. In the absence of state leadership under Scott, more and more local governments tried to plug the gap by initiating resiliency efforts on their own. In the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and other area government agencies have hired the equivalent to Nesheiwat to coordinate climate strategy at the local level. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has included such a new position in next year’s city budget. Across the state, resilience coalitions are being formed at the regional level, including one in Tampa Bay involving six counties and 21 municipalities. There is plenty of work going on, and Nesheiwat will need to coordinate and support these efforts so that the state and local governments are working with one vision and common goals.
Gov. Ron DeSantis deserves credit for establishing a point person at the state level to bring order and collaboration across these layers of government. While Nesheiwat has not endorsed a development ban along the coastline, she wants to work closely with the Florida Department of Transportation on the placement of new roads and bridges. She also envisions working with homeowners and businesses as they manage climate-related threats to their properties and livelihoods. Her office could be a gateway for state and federal grants as communities look to harden their infrastructure. She should also make resiliency a high priority for the Legislature. A strong advocate speaking for the governor could be a powerful tool for public health and safety when lawmakers meet next week to draft the next state budget.
Of course, the proof will be in the results, and the governor has a huge stake in this effort. While education is a component, the focus must be action-oriented, with this office leading the way for smarter planning, more durable infrastructure and strategies for combating the health, safety and economic impacts that warming poses. A 2014 national climate assessment found Florida is squarely in the cross-hairs of climate change, with Tampa Bay, Miami and Apalachicola judged as among the most vulnerable places in the nation. There is no more time to lose in getting this office — and this state — up to speed.