By Kaitlin Sullivan
If a new bill passes, Florida could fund a program specifically dedicated to assessing and preparing for the impacts of climate change.
Rep. Ben Diamond, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, introduced a bill in the state legislature in March that would create a Florida Climate and Resilience Research Program within the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection. If the law passed, the new program would consider the impact of rising sea levels, natural disasters and rising temperatures on Florida’s environment, agriculture, energy and transportation infrastructure, public health, disaster preparedness and economic growth.
That information would help the state plan for those impacts.
“As a peninsula with thousands of miles of coastline, Florida is uniquely exposed to the risks of climate change,” Diamond wrote in a government newsletter. “In Pinellas County, we are already seeing its effects. I am very concerned about flooding in our neighborhoods, access for our residents to affordable flood insurance and homeowners’ insurance, and the fact that hurricanes are getting stronger. We need a statewide resiliency plan to address these issues.”
The bill is currently in the house’s Agriculture & Natural Resources subcommittee, and while it’s likely to face hurdles in passing the Republican-controlled house, Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently shown support for other environmental legislation and signed an executive order in January creating the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency.
A report released in January by the Brookings Institution outlined the ramifications of climate change in the U.S. and painted a particularly dire picture of Florida’s future. Coastal property damage and hotter weather would plague the entire South, but Florida has some of the most vulnerable metro areas, including Lakeland, Tampa, Sarasota and Orlando. Climate change could shrink Lakeland’s economy by nearly 18 percent and Tampa’s by 17 percent by the end of this century.
“What the study underscores is the human impact and its economic ramifications,” said Matt Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at Brookings Institute who co-authored the study. “This isn’t simply a bloodless matter of asset devaluation or physical damage. Some of the greatest risks impact human workforce and human life.”
The new program would set out to quantify what climate change is already costing the state and project costs in the future, which would be the first state program to assess those numbers in a comprehensive way. The bill calls for the program to “identify and evaluate public expenditures by local governments, including past expenditures, present expenditures, and reasonably anticipated expenditures over the next 5, 10, and 20 years.”
Those costs include “rebuilding communities and economies impacted by extreme weather events, upgrading septic and sewage infrastructure affected by a rising water table, improving drinking water treatment infrastructure to protect against frequent downpours and chronic flooding.”
The impacts go beyond infrastructure as well, including increasing public health response to tropical disease and vector-borne epidemics, implementing energy resiliency technologies to support essential healthcare and assisted living facilities. The bill also mentions the impact on housing, as climate displacement threatens to spur gentrification of currently low-income communities.
The Congressional Budget Office expects the U.S. will now spend an average of $54 billion every year on damage from hurricane winds and storm-related flooding alone. According to these projections, 66 percent of flood damage costs would not be compensated by federal assistance. Another recent report, compiled by the global investment firm BlackRock, details how extreme heat and the growing threat of home destruction could prompt a mass migration from southern cities like Miami to northern metro areas such as Spokane, Wash. which will escape the harshest effects of climate change. A shrinking population base would create a ripple effect in local economies.
“When you lose a tax base, you’ll see how municipal bond ratings and just economic activity in general goes down,” said Kirsten Snow Spalding, senior director at Ceres, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable investment. “If you look at places hit by cyclones or flooding, you can see how all economic activity is jeopardized when you lose a worker base.”
The Brookings Institution report also speculated how the large-scale climate impacts could reshape politics.
“We tend to look at politics through disagreements over emissions but the current gridlock might begin to break down as we see that many jurisdictions that do not currently support climate change mitigation will be some of those that are hit hardest,” Muro said.
That Florida is dealing with climate change in a concrete manner is a shift from its recent political path. Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator representing the state, repeatedly denied the reality of climate change and reportedly banned the state’s Department of Environmental Protection from using the term global warming or climate change, although Scott denied such a policy.
DeSantis, also a Republican, has made some moves early in his term recognizing environmental threats to the state, including the executive order that allocated $2.5 billion to Everglades restoration, but has stopped short of recognizing climate change as the root of the issue.
“All of the work that has been done to combat climate change has been done at the local level. I believe it is time for state government to take a leadership role in this effort. It is time for us to join forces with our local partners and formulate a statewide strategy to deal with the challenges posed by climate change,” Diamond said.