Climate Resilience is Not Enough for Florida

Surfside Condo collapse

On the morning of June 24th, I stood surrounded by my family in an Airbnb in Asheville, North Carolina. They had decided to escape the sweltering South Florida heat by driving up to the mountains. But they did not escape the news. My aunt gasped at her phone and read us the notification she had received while we had been sleeping: a condo building had collapsed in Surfside, Florida; hundreds were unaccounted for. My grandma recounted the number of times she had driven past the high-rise condos of Surfside, and we sat shocked at the tragedy that had occurred so close to home.

CARL JUSTE/MIAMI HERALD, Miami Flooding in 2019

Over the course of the next few days, I started noticing the headlines: Miami’s Climate Dystopia Gets Real, The Surfside Collapse Is Renewing Focus on Climate Change Risks, rising seas long pressured Miami coastal properties. My childhood in South Florida was marked by constant conversations about sea-level rise, given frequent flooding in Miami and along the coast. Now I was finally seeing the truly tragic consequences. In South Florida, it is possible that sea levels will rise 8 inches by 2030 and 17 inches by 2040. That prompts the question: what is the Florida government doing to help?

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, Ron DeSantis at a press conference in May, 2020

In January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pushed for and gained support for the Resilient Florida program, an allocation of funds to prepare coastal communities for the worst effects of sea-level rise, coastal flooding, and erosion of the shores. In May, he signed Florida Senate Bill 1954 which outlined resources to protect natural defenses to sea-level rise like coral reefs as well as human-built defenses like home-elevation projects. Given that Florida’s previous Governor, Rick Scott, refused even to acknowledge the problem of climate change, these are certainly steps in the right direction. However, they are not enough. Such policies are reactive, not proactive, to the climate challenges South Floridians face. Rather than fighting to slow sea-level rise, the governor’s policies simply push for permanent adaptation to it. In fact, despite the occasional measure to help property owners affected by climate effects, Governor DeSantis and his administration have made decision after decision that exacerbates the climate crisis. The DeSantis administration is creating an unsustainable cycle: it allocates funds to blockade Florida from rising sea levels, it signs legislation that worsens the climate crisis, sea-levels continue to rise because of this legislation, it is forced to spend even more money on saving Florida communities from total destruction.

WKNIGHT94 TALK [CC BY-SA 3.0 (HTTPS://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-SA/3.0)], fossil fuels in Florida

One of these harmful decisions was Governor DeSantis’ direct support for fossil fuels while undercutting renewables. Only six months after proposing his Resilient Florida plan, Governor DeSantis signed HB919 into law. HB919 preemptively stops any local government from prohibiting a fuel source (such as oil or gas) to consumers. This decision came a year after ten Florida cities committed to the Sierra Club’s Ready to 100 campaign, a commitment to 100% renewable energy. Yet, given Governor DeSantis’ decision, these cities cannot take any effective steps toward their goal of converting to renewable energy. DeSantis’ action makes it even more difficult for Florida to be resilient in the face of the climate crisis. Is there any hope for change?

Governor DeSantis has shown he does have the ability to rally bipartisan support behind climate adaptation policy when he thinks it will benefit his political standing. It should not be a huge step then for him to recognize that it is in his own interest to move toward acting on climate change prevention or mitigation. Floridians have already spoken up about what they need and favor. The 2020 Yale Climate Opinion Maps show that 74% of Floridians want CO2 to be regulated as a pollutant, 81% want tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels, and 86% want to fund research into renewable energy. Most importantly, 56% of Floridians believe that Governor Ron DeSantis needs to do more to address climate change. The recent tragedy at Surfside should give DeSantis the opening he needs to take stronger climate action.

JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES, Miami Waterfront Properties in 2014

The drastic climate impacts long predicted for Florida’s future are here now and are obvious. They are already the subject of dramatic efforts to educate Floridians about the dangers of climate change, such as a powerful video released by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) titled “Keeping Florida, Florida.” In it, EDF explains that “Miami is on the frontlines of climate change impacts such as sea-level rise, excessive rainfall, extreme heat, and storm surge.” To prevent the most severe of these impacts, it is vital that Florida be proactive. Resiliency will never be enough because it is, by definition, reactive. One study estimated that, by the end of the century, there will be 6 million Floridian climate refugees fleeing to escape sea-level rise, with 2.5 million of them coming from Miami alone. These communities do not have the ability to continually elevate their houses higher or install seawall on top of seawall. But Governor Ron DeSantis and his administration do have the ability to protect their constituents with effective, proactive climate policy. The real question is: Does DeSantis have the political will and can Floridians rally strongly enough to give it to him?


Isabel Wood: RCC Stanback Presidential Intern

Isabel Wood is the co-lead with Ross Feldner and Bob Musil of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program and works with Mackay Pierce on communications and social media.

She is a rising junior at Duke University majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with a certificate in Documentary Studies. [email protected]