The Sacrificing of Florida for One Governor’s Political Future

In May, on a strangely warm but overcast day in Durham, North Carolina, I graduated from Duke University after four years of studying, meeting new people, and experiencing world-changing events. After listening to our commencement speaker, throwing our caps into the sky, and saying tearful goodbyes, I finished packing my apartment and began my drive home – to South Florida.

Traveling from North Carolina to Florida is accompanied by several changes. The car stops its ascent and descent of hills once you reach the Florida border, the humidity sticks to your skin, and the air stops smelling like forest. Instead, you sniff salty wind. But by the time I had re-acclimated to my childhood home, these changes were not the ones I most noticed most. Florida felt like an entirely different state than the one I had left four years previously, mostly because of its heightened social and political tensions and fears.

Ron DeSantis was sworn in as Florida’s governor in January of my senior year of high school. Since then he has passed shocking legislation. From Don’t Say Gay to his ban of DEI programs funded by the government, to a new abortion ban, to allowing weapons purchases without a permit, Governor DeSantis, in a short span of time, has created a state that looks far different than it did four years ago. These social changes are hot topics in the news in Florida and beyond.

But one subject that is often overlooked is how Governor DeSantis has affected environmental legislation in the state, especially since Florida is ground zero for climate change. The answer is complicated. Governor DeSantis has a confusing and contradictory history with environmental policy.

On one hand, the governor has stated that he cares for and wants to protect Florida’s environment and its people; on the other, he rarely follows through on the state’s most pressing environmental issues. In June of last year, he vetoed a bill that would have hindered Everglades restoration projects, effectively siding with environmental groups over industry. But within a year this decision, in May of 2023, he signed a bill into law that prohibits investment into environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds. Just this month, the Governor passed a law awarding $300 million to those impacted by flooding and storm surge while several times publicly dismissing the existence of climate change, the very crisis that causes flooding. Or look at his contradictions in clean energy. Governor DeSantis vetoed a bill last year that would have made rooftop solar more difficult for Floridians to install. But in 2021, he had mandated that cities must continue using fossil fuels.

Given this contradictory record, one must ask why Florida’s governor has supported some protective environmental legislation and not others. The answer is two-fold: (1) Florida has a long history of conservation and rejecting all conservation efforts would likely anger voters. (2) A kind of gubernatorial greenwashing. Giving concessions on some environmental legislation allows Governor DeSantis to then oppose strong, effective policy needed to protect the climate.

Florida has had a strong conservationist movement since the late 1800s when women began protesting the killing of birds in the Everglades to decorate hats. The conservation movement continued with further protection of species in the Everglades, as well as the ecosystem as a whole. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the pioneering Floridian environmentalist and author was nicknamed the “Guardian of the Glades” given her relentless advocacy to protect the Everglades. In 1947, after work from scientists and conservationists like Douglas, the Everglades were added to the National Park Services. Just three years later, in 1950, Rachel Carson took a research trip to Florida and into the Everglades. She wrote, “The feeling of space is almost the same as at sea, from the flatness of the landscape and the dominance of the sky.”

This heritage of environmental advocacy has protected some of Florida’s most vulnerable ecosystems, but, further, it has led to a booming eco-tourism industry. A report by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found that, in 2017, out-of-state tourists and residents spent $90 million on 35 outdoor recreational activities with a total economic impact of $145 billion with support for more than 1.5 million jobs. Given this history and the contemporary economic impact of Florida’s natural environment, it’s not surprising that Governor DeSantis does not completely ignore environmental concerns. Overall, however, his policies do the bare minimum, creating only a facade that he is protecting Florida’s environment and people.

On May 24th of this year, Governor DeSantis announced he would be running for President. Soon, he will be discussing his legislative record on a national stage. To garner the votes of Democrats, more moderate Republicans, and Independents, he will likely point to certain conservationist efforts he has supported. To rally more conservative Republican voters, he will likely continue his climate change denial, arguing for the importance of the economy above all. Voters, in Florida, and soon in every other state in the nation, will have to be vigilant when determining the validity of these claims. All Americans must ask themselves: While sea levels rise and heat waves hit Florida, is partially protecting the Everglades enough? While communities face environmental injustices and unreliable energy systems, is giving out minimal financial assistance enough? And, most importantly, while millions of Floridians are targeted and threatened because of their identities, are sporadic and small environmental successes enough?

I have been back in Florida for two months now, reading headlines, talking to other residents, and feeling the tension in the air. I know my answer.

RCC Presidential Fellow – Isabel Wood – Duke University

RCC Presidential Fellow Isabel Wood graduated from Duke University with a degree in Environmental Science and Policy with minors in Biology and Cultural Anthropology. She was a two-time RCC Presidential Fellow and in, 2021-2022, was the co-lead of the RCC’s Bird Watch and Wonder program. Isabel served as president of Duke’s Undergraduate Environmental Union where she planned environmental programming, advocated for a greater focus on environmental justice topics, and facilitated collaboration between environmental entities.