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  1. Opinion

DeSantis’ climate czar is leaving, but Florida’s seas are still rising | Editorial

Gov. Ron DeSantis cannot drop this critical priority for Florida.

That was quick. After less than six months, Florida’s first chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, is moving on to a new post with the Trump administration. While she may be leaving, the risks that climate change poses to Florida are only accelerating, and Gov. Ron DeSantis should move quickly to fill this leadership void.

Of course, Nesheiwat wasn’t here long enough to make much of an impact. Hired by DeSantis in August, she came to the job with a background in military and diplomatic affairs. That may explain her new job as a presidential adviser on homeland security. But in her travels across the state, meeting with environmental activists and local officials who are grappling with climate impacts, Nesheiwat was hailed as a fresh voice, someone who had the ear of Florida’s conservative leaders and a seat at the policymaking table.

Her blunt declaration in August at a workshop in Tampa -- that climate change “is here - it’s real” -- reflected both how far behind Florida is in addressing this global crisis and the excitement that her appointment generated, even if her title - resilience officer - seemed more reactive than forward-looking. At a conference on the subject in St. Petersburg in January, which drew hundreds of people from local governments, universities and private industry, Nesheiwat promised to be an advocate at the state level and to help coordinate local responses to climate-related impacts. She also talked up the need to grow the clean-energy sector and to look critically at how and where Florida grows its population centers. Nobody in power in Tallahassee has spoken like that.

Nesheiwat raised expectations almost overnight in a state where the previous governor, now Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, all but made climate change a taboo topic. The absence for so long of a strategy from Tallahassee has left it to cities and counties to confront how to protect billions in infrastructure from the threat of rising seas, extreme weather and other climate impacts.

Communities across Florida are elevating roads and water supply systems, hardening bridges, fire stations and hospitals and devising costly plans to protect power stations, communications and emergency facilities from the dangers of a warming climate. These regional efforts are admirable, but they need state direction, additional money and outside expertise. Strong leadership from Tallahassee will help secure state and federal financing for local projects. The office could also serve as a catalyst for expanding environmental research, improving risk modeling and strengthening the state’s land development and construction codes.

Nesheiwat said she provided an interim report to DeSantis in January, which the governor’s office has yet to release in response to a request from the Times. That delay is inexcusable, especially for a governor who raised expectations he would make a priority of this pressing public safety issue. DeSantis excited activists and local officials who saw in Nesheiwat an open channel and a welcome change in thinking. He should work quickly to appoint a successor who shares the same sense of reality and appreciation for what a vocal advocate in Tallahassee can achieve.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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