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Environment

Climate Change Threatens Florida. These Lawmakers Want To Know How.

Flooding on the Sponge Docks
High tide from offshore Hurricane Michael creeps up into the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs after the Anclote River backs up. JIM DAMASKE

After consulting with scientists, a pair of Florida state representatives — both Democrats — have filed a bill calling for the first-ever Florida Climate Change Assessment.

Such an assessment would document what climate change has already done to Florida as a way to determine how to deal with its continuing impacts, explained Gary Mitchum, associate dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, who consulted on the bill.

RELATED: Is Climate Change Fueling More Intense, Stalling Hurricanes?

“It’s not just a review of the science but also a look at what’s at risk,” Mitchum said Thursday.
House Bill 913 and its companion Senate Bill 1232 may face a tough road to passage. A similar bill filed last year never made it out of committee.

Still, the House version has bipartisan support. It’s sponsored by Democratic Reps. Ben Diamond, of St. Petersburg, and Anna Eskamani of Orlando and Republican Rep. Holly Raschein of Key Largo. So far Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg is the only sponsor of the Senate version.

Raschein could not be reached for comment, but both Diamond and Eskamani say they are optimistic about their bill’s chances this time. Both cited new Gov. Ron DeSantis’ actions in appointing a chief science officer and a chief resiliency officer, along with Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Chris Sprowls’ mention of climate change as an important issue at the ceremony designating him the next Florida House speaker.

“For the past decade we in Tallahassee gave very little attention or focus on these issues,” Diamond said, noting accusations that former Gov. Rick Scott even banned state department heads from using the term “climate change,” a charge Scott has denied. “Now that there’s a new administration, we finally have an opportunity to come together and start working on this challenge.”

RELATED: Seas Are Rising. It Rains More. How Much Of That Is Making Hurricanes Worse?

Eskamani said the idea of trying to learn how to cope with the warming world has gained support among both parties in part because “people are beginning to understand that if we don’t take action on climate, it’s going to lead to a big economic cost.”
The bill calls for pulling together input on the issue from a university consortium called the Florida Climate Institute, as well as such state agencies as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Division of Emergency Management.

The assessment, which Diamond compared the climate assessment to a road map that the state can follow in making policy decisions. He noted that the bill, if passed, would launch a series of climate assessments focused on different topics. The first one would look at sea level rise and its coastal impacts. Future ones might examine the effects on agriculture or hurricane preparedness, he said.

California has been doing such climate assessments every four years since 2006, often devoting millions of dollars to original research. But what Mitchum foresees is something far less expensive and complex. Still, he and Diamond both said they expect the subsequent Florida assessments will be modeled on a federal product, the National Climate Assessment, that’s produced every four years.

The 2014 National Climate Assessments warned that the Tampa Bay area was one of the places in the U.S. most vulnerable to rising sea levels, and also predicted an increase in Florida of toxic algae blooms and mosquito-borne diseases.

So far neither HB 93 nor SB 1232 have been scheduled for any committee hearings.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.