Extremes collide in Florida: Summer weather and Gov. Ron DeSantis' agenda

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As the Northern Hemisphere tiptoes into summer, Florida is already in the crosshairs of what is likely to be a season of extremes.

Storms battered South Florida this week, with nearly a foot of rain falling in just hours over some parts on Wednesday, causing severe flooding in and around Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota and other major cities. Several weeks earlier, an early-season heat wave sent heat indexes well into the triple digits across the same region. And all of this comes less ahead of what forecasters say could be an exceptionally active hurricane season.

Those extremes have a common denominator — they’re all amplified by climate change. That’s a reality at odds with the state’s politics.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has emerged as one of the country’s most vocal and active politicians in opposing efforts to address climate change. Last month, he signed into law a bill to deprioritize climate change in the state’s energy policies, largely scrubbing the phrase from its statutes.

“We’re restoring sanity in our approach to energy and rejecting the agenda of the radical green zealots,” DeSantis wrote on X touting the bill.

DeSantis this year also signed into law a bill that bans cities and counties from requiring mandatory water breaks and other workplace protections against extreme heat. It goes into effect July 1, leaving workers with little to no protections ahead of what the National Weather Service predicts will be a warmer-than-usual summer for Florida and much of the rest of the U.S.

Experts say DeSantis’ policies are in stark contrast to climate science. It’s the kind of dissonance that makes it more challenging to protect people and prepare them for the realities of living in a warming world.

“At every level of government, we need to figure out: How do we adapt our programs, policies and responses to a climate that is changing rapidly and will continue to do so?” said Katharine Mach, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, & Earth Science and chair of the school’s environmental science and policy department. “Figuring all of that out is the adaptation of our era.”

DeSantis has also avoided tapping federal money to help states address climate change. Florida is one of just five states that opted out of a $250 million federal program to help localities develop plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions, though Miami, Jacksonville and three other cities were able to receive some funding. DeSantis did recently accept $350 million of federal money for energy efficiency upgrades after he initially vetoed it.

Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ press secretary, said Florida’s susceptibility to hurricanes and extreme weather is a product of its being a low-lying coastal state, but he did not address climate change specifically.

“This issue is not new but a fact of Florida’s geography and topography,” Redfern said in an email. “As such, strengthening and fortifying our beaches, infrastructure, and homes is the correct focus for the state.”

Climate change remains a deeply partisan issue, though there have been some signs Republicans are beginning to take it more seriously. Still, what to do about it remains a topic on which Republicans and Democrats are far apart.

And with the Republican Party rallying around former President Donald Trump as its presumptive nominee for the November election, climate change is expected to remain highly politicized. Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and has said he wants to repeal federal laws offering incentives for electric vehicles and offshore wind.

DeSantis, who aligned himself with Trump after his failed presidential run, talked during his campaign last fall about “a concerted effort to ramp up the fear when it comes to things like global warming and climate change,” casting climate change as part of a broader culture war, rather than recognizing global warming as a real threat, critics say.

Ali Zaidi, President Joe Biden’s climate adviser, said many states are falling behind.

“It’s just simply irresponsible to deny folks the measures of mitigation that are readily available to us, that help us protect the American people from the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” he said.

Image: Rain Storms Inundate Southern Florida flood waters (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Image: Rain Storms Inundate Southern Florida flood waters (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The threat to Florida is particularly urgent, with some parts at risk this summer when temperatures and humidity spike.

Hialeah, a suburb of Miami, is one of the places most vulnerable to heat and health impacts in the country, according to a new heat and health index from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, which identified only 0.3% of other ZIP codes around the country as likely to be more vulnerable.

Floridians also face financial challenges. Extreme weather has driven home insurance costs sharply higher, with many insurers leaving the state altogether.

Those types of financial setbacks can be political catalysts, said Emma Fisher, deputy director of Climate Cabinet Action, a political action committee that supports climate-focused candidates in down-ballot races.

“Climate change is increasingly having everyday impacts and financial impacts for Americans,” Fisher said. “It’s one of those things where, when it starts to hit voters in their pocketbooks, then it becomes a big issue for voters.”

The U.S. Senate has looked at whether Florida’s state-backed insurer has enough money to handle payouts if hurricanes continue to batter the state.

DeSantis has also downplayed the role of climate change in intensifying hurricanes.

Studies have shown, however, that warm sea surface temperatures and a warmer atmosphere can help storms pick up wind speed and strengthen rapidly, particularly as they near land. A warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, meaning such storms can dump more rain and cause more damage once they make landfall.

Together, conditions are set for what could be a “very scary and very dangerous hurricane season,” said Andrew Pershing, director of climate science at the nonprofit organization Climate Central.

The recent Florida storms have added urgency among Florida Democrats. State Sen. Shevrin Jones posted Wednesday on X in response to video of a flooded street in Miami Beach: “Florida refuses to acknowledge ‘climate change,’ despite streets turning into rivers and @GovRonDeSantis vetoing crucial infrastructure projects in vulnerable communities.”

Jayden D’Onofrio, chairman of Florida Future Leaders, a Generation Z-led political action committee formed by young Democrats, similarly jabbed at DeSantis, noting the recent bill that removed mentions of climate change from state law.

“Now, South Florida is experiencing some of the worst flooding it has ever seen,” D’Onofrio posted on X. “We are ruining our beautiful state because of political maneuvering.”

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