Climate change could virtually disappear in Florida — at least according to state law

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida, perhaps the most vulnerable state to sea-level rise and extreme weather, is on the verge of repealing what’s left of a 16-year-old law that lists climate change as a priority when making energy policy decisions. Instead, the state would make energy affordability and availability its main focus.

A bill waiting to be signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis would strip the term “climate change” from much of state law and reverse a policy then-Gov. Charlie Crist championed as he built a reputation for being a rare Republican fighting to promote green energy over fossil fuels.

While Florida is distinct for having an enormous coastline and being flat — Miami’s average elevation is roughly 6 to 7 feet (2 meters) above sea level — the chairman of House Infrastructure Strategies Committee said it also has unique challenges and the climate change language in law makes meeting them more difficult.

“We’re protecting consumers, we’re protecting consumer pricing, we’re protecting them with great reliability and we’re protecting to make sure we don’t have a lack of energy security in our state. That’s where we’re moving as far as our policies,” said Republican Rep. Bobby Payne.

But critics say now is not the time to go backwards when it comes to climate change policy, including Crist, who is now a Democrat who last served in the U.S. House.

“It’s disappointing to see a continuing lurch in the wrong direction, particularly when Florida, with our coastline, is probably the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, I mean if we don’t address it, who’s going to?” Crist said. “It breaks my heart.”

In 2008, the bill to address climate change and promote renewable energy passed unanimously in both legislative chambers. Crist signed the bill with fanfare at an international climate change conference he hosted with guests such as then-California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Payne said the Crist-era law makes it more difficult for the state to be more flexible in meeting its energy needs.

“When he invited Arnold Schwarzenegger to Miami for the environmental summit, that was a good indication that his ideologies collide with the public’s from the perspective of reliability and cost,” Payne said.

After Crist left office in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, gutted much of what Crist enacted. This year’s bill repeals what’s left of it. The bill passed the Legislature with Republican support and Democratic opposition. It was sent to DeSantis on Friday and he has until May 15 to take action. His office didn’t respond to multiple emails asking his position on it.

Payne, who spent nearly four decades in the power industry before retiring, said he isn’t convinced that humanity’s energy consumption is destroying the planet. He also notes three-quarters of the state’s energy is provided by natural gas, leaving it vulnerable to market fluctuations.

The enormous energy legislation he shepherded through the Legislature prevents local governments from enacting some energy policy restrictions and de-emphasizes clean energy by banning wind energy turbines or facilities off or within a mile (less than 2 kilometers) of the coast.

It eliminates requirements that government agencies hold conferences and meetings in hotels certified by the state’s environmental agency as “green lodging” and that government agencies make fuel efficiency the top priority in buying new vehicles.

Brooke Alexander-Gross of Sierra Club’s Florida chapter said that stripping climate change from state law won’t make the problem go away, but she isn’t optimistic that DeSantis will veto the bill.

“Having that language there really encourages a lot of people to take a look at what climate change actually is and it’s disappointing to see a governor in a state like ours strip that language, which is really just a way for him and his administration to ignore everything that’s going on,” she said.

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