To call attention to sea-level rise, Florida Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is wearing rain boots that feature the phrase "#ActOnClimateFL." His bill just passed its first Senate committee, which is good news for a Capitol that has so far turned a blind eye. (Courtesy photo)
Every journey of a thousand miles, the adage goes, begins with a single step. Last week, a state Senate committee took a small step toward protecting our region against the devastation that can be foreseen as the sea keeps rising.
Voting 5-0, Republicans and Democrats on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee together passed Senate Bill 78, which would require that state-funded infrastructure projects near the coast be preceded by a sea-level impact studies.
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Coming the same week that thousands of young people across the state, nation and globe skipped school to demand action to combat the projected changes in climate that threaten their generation’s future, the unanimous vote by the panel in Tallahassee was a breakthrough.
After years of turning a blind eye to the growing prospect of devastating losses, the Legislature is beginning to concede to reality: Sea level rise is happening; it will worsen; and Florida must adjust.
SB 78 addresses one obvious adjustment: From now on, whenever we construct public buildings, roads or bridges, we should be factoring in the structures’ ability to withstand the heavier flooding that we know to expect. Doing this will help keep repair, replacement and insurance costs to a minimum. And by setting statewide standards for making structures resilient, we’ll give the insurance industry and Wall Street more confidence that coastal buildings are worth investing in over 20 or 30 years.
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat from a king tide-prone section of Miami, who thinks this issue is so urgent that every day during session he wears black rain boots with white letters reading: #ActOnClimate.
“Passing bills like this sends an economic signal at an important time,” Rodriquez said after the bill crossed its first hurdle, “and I’m confident that our Legislature is ready to lead.”
Rodriguez said he is gaining support from reluctant Republican lawmakers by emphasizing climate change as an economic issue. Before last week’s vote, builders, architects and local governments joined environmental groups in praising the measure.
In an interview, Rodriguez said the debate on climate change has significantly shifted among his Senate colleagues. They’re no longer arguing about the science. “We’re now talking about how much of a priority are we going to make it,” he said.
“My message is, we are in urgent times — and that, when you plan, you save money in the long term and the short term,” he added.
This is change for the better — the sort of change we have been advocating in our collaborative series The Invading Sea in conjunction with the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and WLRN.
Rodriguez has high hopes the bill will do well in the Senate. But even if it hits rougher waters in the more conservative House of Representatives, this movement is an important sign that state government is rousing itself from its years of denial on climate issues under the Rick Scott administration.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who calls himself an environmentalist in the Theodore Roosevelt mold, has named a Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, who is respected by environmental groups. Without fanfare, he formed an Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection within the DEP to “help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise.” He also created the DEP position of chief science officer to prioritize “scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis needs to ensure alignment with current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.”
Next, should come proper funding in the state budget.
Local governments have needed this kind of support. The four counties from Jupiter to Key West have been doing trailblazing work for 10 years on resiliency issues as the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.
And just last month in Palm Beach County, 10 south-county communities and the county government — under the name Palm Beach County Coastal Resilience Partnership — began meeting to craft a cohesive strategy for climate-change adaptation.
They were no doubt sobered — if not staggered — by the news from Delray Beach, which learned from a consultant that alleviating present and future flooding in some 14 neighborhoods will require raising roads and seawalls and improving pipes to the tune of $378 million.
Such enormous projects can’t be shouldered by the towns alone. “We can’t keep leaving this to localities, with no leadership from the state,” Rodriguez said. ‘“That’s not what we ought to be doing.”
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, visit InvadingSea.com