Florida Man Tries to Hold Back the Sea

Florida Man Tries to Hold Back the Sea
Then-candidate Ron DeSantis takes a tour of the Everglades in September of 2018. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee, AP)

Here’s something you don’t hear every day: there’s good news out of Florida. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bills on Wednesday that make serious efforts to address the impacts of sea level rise in the state. But don’t take that as a sign that Trump-lite DeSantis is now some sort of right-wing climate saviour. Rather, this is the latest in his high-wire act to fix some of Florida’s climate problems without doing anything about their causes.

The pair of bills establishes an annual fund worth tens of millions of dollars to help local communities living with sea level rise, guidelines for regular flood risk assessments and resilience plans, and forms local “resilience coalitions” to help communities prepare. “We’re really putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to protecting the state of Florida and particularly our coastal communities from the risks of flooding and storms,” DeSantis said at the signing.

Most of DeSantis’s political views are pretty guessable from anyone with an offhand knowledge of the types of stuff Fox News commenters like to regularly froth themselves into a rage about. In recent weeks, DeSantis has offered cash to cops and trumpeted that he wants to “fund the police” (OK?), announced the state would ban vaccine passports (weird), thrown a fit because a coronavirus panel he hosted that was full of scientific misinformation was taken off of YouTube (lol), and said he would sign a bill banning trans girls from playing women’s sports in the state (fuck you, dude).

But in a deviation from the normal pablum that passes for Republican policymaking these days, DeSantis’s environmental and climate record has some bright spots. In one of his first moves after taking office, DeSantis signed a sweeping executive order that, among other things, directed the state to “adamantly oppose” offshore drilling and fracking and appointed a chief science officer “to help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise.” From the guy who once featured his infant son in a campaign ad teaching him how to “build a wall” out of blocks and put the kid in a “Make America Great Again” onesie, it was a stark departure from the Trumpian blueprint of climate denial. This unexpected move as well as other motions to protect the Everglades also got DeSantis accolades about being “bold on climate change” early in his tenure.

The most recent bill is a striking illustration of the type of tightrope DeSantis is seeking to walk that may provide a blueprint for other Trumpy Republicans wondering how in the world they can address climate change without being called antifa by the MyPillow guy making an appearance on Newsmax or whatever. DeSantis told reporters during his campaign that he’s “not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists.”

But as he prepares to campaign for reelection next year — and possibly eyes a 2024 presidential run — he seems to understand that he needs to find some way of talking about the increasingly clear threat that climate change poses. This recent set of bills talks a big talk on mitigating the impacts of sea level rise — but does nothing to explore the causes of why that sea level rise is happening, make any sort of goals for lowering statewide emissions, or encourage the development of renewable energy.

“I think the irony of the proposal was that he listed all the impacts of climate change but never actually said ‘climate change,’” state Rep. Anna Eskamani told the Sierra Club Magazine in February. (It’s true in the final bills, too: The phrase “climate change” doesn’t appear once in either bill.) “And so we’re going to continue to spend money on resiliency over the years where we could also be making investments in taking the state off fossil fuels and actually tackling the climate change crisis in front of us.”

Ultimately, what may be pushing DeSantis “left” on climate change is the simple fact that sea level rise is hitting Florida, well, now. A report published last year found Miami “faces the largest risk of any major coastal city in the world.” When one of your major cities is projected to be one-fifth underwater by 2045 (Miami, it was nice to know you), it’s ignorant to not address that elephant in the room.

As more and more Republican politicians try to figure out how to seem concerned about climate change, DeSantis is showing one way to do it: Talk big on cleaning up the mess, but stay quiet about what caused it in the first place.