Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on the Keep Florida Free Tour at the Horsepower Ranch in Geneva. Credit - Paul Hennessy—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
There are two versions of the Little River neighborhood on the northern edge of Miami. Flipping through a thick stack of planning documents, the future of the neighborhood looks almost utopian: kayakers travel down a “blueway,” while homes have been raised to minimize flood damage. Public housing facilities are renovated and refreshed to withstand the region’s increasingly precarious climate, and public transit hubs and widened sidewalks provide alternatives to high-carbon personal automobiles.
But the current reality on the ground looks very different. When I visited in early September, homeowners in the wealthy part of town along the waterfront were constructing private sea walls to keep water off their property—even if it means allowing it to drain into their neighbor’s yard. Homes rely on septic systems, which can leak into front yards when big storms strike. A drab public housing facility relies on a giant external pump—wheeled in like a tractor trailer—to keep the sewage flowing.
There may be a lot of expensive work ahead to realize the city planners’ vision of residents living in harmony with the water. A surprising source is helping foot the bill: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-dominated state government. Political headlines coming out of Florida in recent years have centered on DeSantis relentlessly stoking the nation’s culture wars, from his crusade against critical race theory to the state’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law to his opposition to mask mandates. Yet in the background, DeSantis has championed a program to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to communities across the state to help them prepare for the sea level rise and worsening flooding that will result from climate change. The Little River area has alone received commitments of more than $25 million in state funds. “The governor [wants] to deliver results to real problems that exist right now,” says Wesley Brooks, who DeSantis appointed as the state’s Chief Resilience Officer to oversee climate adaptation efforts, “and set the stage for better preparedness in the future.”
DeSantis’ program says a lot about the potential future of the politics of the fight against climate change in the U.S. In the past, Democrats have called for aggressive climate measures focused on bringing down emissions, while most Republicans have either dodged the conversation or rejected the science of climate change. Yet DeSantis is a Republican leader of a purple state at the forefront of climate disasters. Just last week, Hurricane Ian ravaged the state, bringing Category 4 winds, tens of billions of dollars in losses, and at least 100 deaths. Already in Florida, the effects of climate change—from big storms like Hurricane Ian to the more quotidian flooding challenges—have made the issue impossible to ignore. The rest of the country will soon follow.
DeSantis has piloted a new Republican approach to climate change by spending money on climate adaption but not on mitigation. In other words, he has sought to pay for his state to adapt to a changing climate but not to address its greenhouse gas emissions, the root causes of climate change. DeSantis’ Resilient Florida Program is politically savvy, passing nearly unanimously in a bipartisan vote in 2021 and receiving enthusiastic plaudits from local officials. And, experts say, it’s also good policy that will help allocate money to the places that need it the most. But it does nothing to cut carbon pollution, and DeSantis has dismissed such efforts as “left-wing stuff.” And there’s another issue: adaption alone isn’t enough. Florida is at risk of hundreds of billions of dollars in climate damage in the coming decades; the program allocates hundreds of millions. Even with state adaptation funds, climate change presents a dire, potentially cataclysmic problem for the state.
There are lessons in Florida’s shifting climate politics. DeSantis’ embrace of climate adaptation is an indicator that climate change will lead even the most hardened ideologues to acknowledge the real harm caused by a warming planet. But his approach should also alarm anyone concerned about the future. We will all be in trouble if merely bracing for impact becomes a mainstream approach to address climate change in the U.S.
On the ground in South Florida
Over four days in early September, I crisscrossed the South Florida megalopolis to meet with local officials to see as many of the nearly 200 projects funded by the Resilient Florida Program as possible. In Cutler Bay, 20 miles south of Miami, I saw a $1.5 million project aimed at restoring a canal bank to help drain flood water. In Miami, I drove by sea walls set to be replaced. In Delray Beach, I stopped by a gathering of local resilience officials who shared the urgent climate-linked challenges facing their communities and how they wanted the state to help.
It became clear that, no matter a community’s political makeup, DeSantis’ program helps. “We’re thrilled to have the ability to apply for these funds,” says Amy Knowles, the chief resilience officer in the City of Miami Beach. Joe Schmidt, interim climate strategy director at The Nature Conservancy in Florida, says the program has given cities the opportunity to fund projects that they have long known they needed but haven’t had the resources to pursue. “It’s huge,” he says.
Florida already faces a climate crisis. The Everglades have been hit by toxic algae blooms, caused by agricultural runoff and worsened by high temperatures where bacteria thrive, that threaten public health in the state. City streets flood in Miami even on sunny days, blocking streets and stressing the sanitation system. More than a third of properties in the state face significant risk of severe flooding in the next three decades, according to Risk Factor, a nonprofit that models climate risk. And the unique composite of risk has already strained the state’s homeowners insurance market. Rates have risen dramatically for many residents and, even before Hurricane Ian, six local insurers had gone bankrupt this year.
Florida residents know they have a problem. A 2021 survey from Florida Atlantic University found that nearly nine out of ten Republicans in the state understand that climate change is happening. “Governor DeSantis saw an opportunity,” says Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of the CLEO Institute, which advocates for climate policy in the state. “Florida was going through a tremendous climate-related crisis and he ran on an environmental platform.”
Within days of entering office in 2019, DeSantis asked his GOP predecessor’s appointees on the South Florida Water Management District to resign because of their poor environmental record. He committed to the restoration of the Everglades to the tune of $2.5 billion. The Resilient Florida Program, which he signed into law in 2021, arguably represents the crown jewel in that agenda. Spearheaded by Chris Sprowls, the Republican speaker of the house, the program passed with only one no vote in both chambers of the state legislature. It called on communities across the state to assess their vulnerabilities and contribute to a state-wide plan to address climate risk. It immediately committed $640 million for projects, drawing on money given to the state via COVID-19 relief bills, and committed the state to doling out up to $100 million annually. “The goal here was to protect the state, protect its residents, protect our way of life,” says Sprowls.
DeSantis has wholeheartedly embraced the legislation, and doubled down on its focus on adaption rather than mitigation. “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 a press conference last December. “We’re not doing any left-wing stuff. What we’re doing though, is just reacting to the fact that okay, we’re a flood-prone state.” (While DeSantis and other Florida Republicans talk about the effects of climate change, they tend to avoid using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming.”)
In another appearance, he likened addressing greenhouse gas emissions to restrictive policies aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. “Anyone that says that somehow, you know, the state of Florida can prevent storms from happening or do some of that stuff… These are the same types of folks who were saying that locking down would cause COVID to go away,” he said in February.
The core of this position isn’t that climate change isn’t happening. And DeSantis doesn’t deny that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible. Instead, he argues that reducing emissions in Florida will do little to stop damage in the state, and the state is better served by simply hardening its infrastructure to adapt.
There’s some truth to this position. No one city, state, or country can save itself. Florida is responsible for about 4% of U.S. emissions; the U.S. is responsible for about 15% of global emissions. And it’s politically compelling: over and over, state officials answered my questions about emissions reductions saying that dealing with adaptation was simply more politically palatable. Debates about emissions reduction are what “the rest of the country is arguing about,” says Sprowls. “The state of Florida is focused on what’s impacting our poorest families, our residents or businesses, the future of our state, our bond rating, our flood insurance—all of these things that we can see and touch and feel.”
But there’s also a very big danger to this way of thinking: even the most dedicated attempts to adapt will fail if every jurisdiction follows the same logic and allows emissions to rise unchecked. “These bills are actually pretty deeply rooted in a climate denial mentality,” says Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “It’s pushing money at a problem that really needs a heck of a lot more fortitude from our lawmakers.”
‘We have to set an example’
Three weeks after I returned from my trip to the Miami region, Hurricane Ian hit the other side of the state, bringing Category 4 winds and up to 30 inches of rain in some areas. Images show entire neighborhoods razed in Fort Myers and neighboring cities. At last count, the death toll stood at greater than 100, though it is expected to rise.
Florida is no stranger to large storms, but climate change is making the problem worse. Abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to Hurricane Ian’s rapid intensification in the days before it made landfall, a clear marker of climate change. The research on the link between climate change and storms is unequivocal, and storms will only get stronger in the years to come as a result of the warming we’ve already baked in.
Communities need to adapt to prepare for more climate events to come. Homes, roads, and infrastructure need to be elevated. Drainage systems needs to be hardened. Natural infrastructure—a well-placed park or a mangrove tree—can help keep water out of communities. Some neighborhoods may need to be abandoned altogether.
But there’s a point when adaptation isn’t enough. If temperatures continue to rise on their current trajectory, coastal communities across the Florida could face more than eight inches of sea level rise by 2040 in even a moderate scenario, according to data from Resources for the Future, an energy and environment research group. That may not sound like a lot, but it will contribute to a nearly 20% chance of annual flooding of three feet. Saltwater would intrude on drinking water supplies. Heat would reduce the productivity of agricultural workers in the places where farming remains viable. It’s easy to imagine entire parts of the state becoming uninhabitable.
In short, a scientifically guided approach to climate change would require both adaptation and mitigation. Some parts of Florida are willing to try. In Miami-Dade County, local officials are working to prepare existing infrastructure for floods, while also pursuing policies to electrify local transport, push buildings to be more energy efficient, and offer boats a low-emissions fuel. “We are part of the impact on the world,” says Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County. “We have to set an example.”
In the scheme of global emissions, the county’s may be close to negligible, but it’s an approach that recognizes the truth of not only Florida’s future but all of our futures on a warming planet. No matter how much we spend, adaptation alone can’t save us.