DeSantis and other Florida Republicans face a climate change quandary

In 2018, when then-Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., was running for governor of Florida, he proudly distanced himself from the science of climate change. "I am not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists," DeSantis said while campaigning. "I am not a global warming person. I don't want that label on me."

But with warmer ocean temperatures increasing the power of hurricanes and higher sea levels exacerbating storm surges, DeSantis, like many other Florida residents, may no longer have the luxury of ignoring climate change. This week, portions of the state’s Gulf Coast were devastated by Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 hurricane that caused 10-foot storm surges that obliterated homes and businesses and left hundreds of residents stranded.

The Associated Press reported that "Ian's rapid intensification occurred after it traveled over Caribbean waters that are about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal, largely because of climate change." That warmer water creates "a lot more rocket fuel for the storm," Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach told the AP.

Despite the firmly established science linking climate change to more powerful hurricanes, as well as sea level rise that helps worsen their impact, many Florida Republican politicians, including the governor and both of its U.S. senators, have resisted government action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing warmer temperatures. Yet even while they avoid any admission that burning fossil fuels is the underlying cause of climate change, they must also try to manage the state’s growing risks that scientists have linked to the warming world.

DeSantis has embraced spending for the restoration of the Everglades wetlands and "resilience" for coastal cities, such as improved drainage and raising sea walls. His state must "tackle the challenges posed by flooding, intensified storm events (and) sea level rise," he said in May of 2021. Without labeling the issue a climate change problem, the DeSantis administration estimates that sea level rise will put $26 billion in Florida residential property at risk of regular flooding by 2045.

The governor has steered clear of venturing an explanation as to why sea levels are rising and storms are intensifying, explaining that he fears that admitting human activities cause climate change would accept the premise that people should change their ways to reduce its severity.

"What I've found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways," DeSantis said at an event about sea level rise last year. "We're not doing any left-wing stuff."

DeSantis’ record on climate change has been more mixed than his pugilistic comments might suggest. He appointed the state’s first resilience officer, but after his appointee left the job a few months later DeSantis did not bother to find a replacement. He also created a position of chief science officer. But environmentalists were disappointed when he appointed Michael La Rosa, who was Florida chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization known for advocating fossil fuel-friendly policies, to the Florida Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s utilities.

DeSantis also supported buying 20,000 acres in the Everglades to prevent oil development, and the state is spending money on electric vehicle charging stations. He even vetoed a utility-backed bill that would have hamstrung the rooftop solar market.

But Florida remains a laggard in utility-scale renewable energy, being among the minority of states with no legal requirement that its utilities increase renewable production. And this summer DeSantis proposed prohibiting state pension funds from considering climate-change vulnerabilities and carbon emissions in its investments.

DeSantis’ office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The impacts of climate change routinely pose challenges for coastal communities in Florida and elsewhere. Rising sea levels cause flooding on even sunny days in waterfront communities from St. Petersburg to Miami, and studies find the problem will get worse in the years to come.

Stronger storms due to warmer water temperatures and more evaporation in the hotter air, have hit the state in many recent years.

The state has also seen no shortage of devastating storms that coincide with the steep temperature increases witnessed over recent decades. Hurricane Irma hit Florida and its northern neighbors in 2017, causing 129 deaths and $54 billion in damages. The next year, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 5 storm, killing 59 people in the U.S. where it racked up another $25.1 billion in damages. Numerous studies have shown that hurricanes have become stronger because of climate change and many scientists say that effect was apparent in Irmaand Michael.

DeSantis, of course, is not alone among Florida elected officials in wanting to steer clear of that discussion. In 2015, when Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., was governor of the state, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Florida's Department of Environmental Protection employees were "ordered not to use the term 'climate change' or 'global warming' in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records." The Scott administration denied that there was ever such a prohibition.

Scott's public statements, however, often cast doubt on climate science. "Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that's cycles we're going through or whether that's man-made, I wouldn't be able to tell you which one it is," Scott said after Hurricane Irma.

As senator, Scott has more recently shifted to acknowledging climate change's existence but opposing actions to address it. "The weather is always changing," Scott said in the 11-point "Plan for America," a political roadmap he released this year in his capacity as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We take climate change seriously but not hysterically. We will not adopt nutty policies that harm our economy or our jobs," he wrote.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acknowledges that the Earth is warming, but he has claimed that “many scientists would debate what percentage is attributable to man versus normal fluctuations.”

Leading climate scientists, however, note that there is a remarkable unanimity in their community regarding the long-held findings that greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation are the leading causes of global warming. In fact, 99.9% of peer-reviewed scientific papers find climate change is primarily caused by humans, according to a 2021 survey of 88,125 climate studies.

Rubio has joined the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus and endorsed bills to deal with some of the effects of climate change, such as measures to restore both the Everglades and coastal reefs. But he opposes actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and supports increased production of fossil fuels, the burning of which is what has caused the problem in the first place.

"Americans, particularly Floridians, are right to be concerned about the changing climate," he wrote in a 2019 USA Today op-ed. "But they are also right to be concerned about a regressive overreaction." He added that "the good news is [climate change] problems are manageable."

Rubio and Scott both have lifetime voting scorecards from the League of Conservation Voters, an American environmental advocacy group, of 7%.

Florida Republicans were not always so leery of environmental protection. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush established a conservation program to set aside $100 million in state funding for environmental protection projects, which continued under his GOP successor Charlie Crist. Scott cut it to less than $28 million. Crist is now a Democratic member of Congress who is running against DeSantis for governor.

Former President Donald Trump, another Florida resident, has also made his feelings about climate change known, calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government designed to weaken the U.S. economy.

The political polarization that worsened under Trump has pushed Florida Republicans in a more anti-environment direction, even as the state’s economy is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change.

Climate scientists say though that climate science denial won't be a tenable position in the long run, as the threat to Florida is existential. As Peter Gleick, a climate scientist who has received the MacArthur Fellowship referred to as the "genius grant," put it: "A future Hurricane Ian, with the three feet of sea-level rise that is coming, will irreparably wipe out Central and Southern Florida."

How is climate change leading to worse hurricanes? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.