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Hurricane Ian Proved Why Ron DeSantis’s Version of Climate Resilience Is a Disaster

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hurricane Ian didn’t just wreak havoc across Florida’s southwest coast. It also dumped so much rain inland that rivers across the state flooded. One of the hardest hit was the Peace River, which flows through the town of Arcadia, dozens of miles from the Gulf coast. The floodwaters blocked highways, inundated cattle ranches and stranded hundreds of people.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared in Arcadia on Oct. 2 to view the damage, the shiny white boots he wore immediately made him the object of social media amusement. But by donning those wading boots, usually worn by fishermen on the coasts, Governor DeSantis exposed a truth he has avoided for the last four years: Climate change isn’t just happening along Florida’s edge.

When he was running to replace Gov. Rick Scott, a climate change denier, Mr. DeSantis sneered that he was “not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists.” When he took office in 2019, however, climate advocates found some reason for hope: He appointed a “chief resilience officer” and supported state programs that spent millions of dollars on “resilience” projects.

Resilience, Florida style, turned out to mean something different than what climate advocates might have imagined. It primarily meant using taxpayer money to protect the rampant development of low-lying areas such as Lee County — development that some of Governor DeSantis’s staunchest campaign contributors helped lead.

Hurricane Ian has revealed in brutal detail the inadequacy of his approach.

The sea walls, sewage pump stations, wastewater treatment plants and “living shorelines” that taxpayers funded did little to help inland towns like Arcadia. Hundreds of Central Florida homes remain flooded two weeks on, as rivers flush out the heavy rain. One study found that climate change may have added 10 percent to Ian’s rainfall.

Protecting Florida from the effects of future storms like Ian calls for more than just resilience. It calls for carefully retreating from the rising water and rebuilding where it’s safe. But retreat has never been in Governor DeSantis’s plan. There has been little to no attempt by his administration to stop further development in vulnerable coastal areas. As recently as August, Mr. DeSantis and his cabinet approved a high-rise resort development in Fort Myers Beach, where evacuation times already exceeded state regulations.

Expensive resilience projects like the ones the governor has supported can only ever be a temporary fix. As the sea level rises, they will have to be replaced, made higher, built larger. A bridge that’s been raised by a foot will have to be raised another foot and then another. The same goes for the sea walls and other infrastructure. They don’t address the cause of climate change, only the symptoms, and only for a little while.

If Governor DeSantis ever gets serious about a changing climate, the place to start is with the emissions that are also driving Florida’s other dangerous impacts: the intensifying heat waves that put outdoor workers at risk of dehydration and death, the warmer ocean waters causing rapid intensification of storms like Ian and the toxic algae blooms, which are also exacerbated by pollution.

The governor has gone in the other direction. Rather than encouraging homes and businesses to switch to renewable energy or requiring any retreat from the growing risks of climate-fueled devastation, he has taken steps to protect the oil and gas industry spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Last year he signed off on a bill that prevents local governments from trying to force the state’s powerful utilities to switch to cleaner energy sources. And he recently prohibited the state’s nearly $180 billion pension fund from taking environmental, social and governance metrics into account when making investment decisions.

In December 2021, he made a stop in the waterfront town of Oldsmar to bask in applause as he promoted his resilience programs. When a reporter asked what he was doing about the causes of climate change, he said: “What I’ve found is people, when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff.”

Mr. DeSantis offered no details of the “left-wing stuff” he planned to avoid, nor did his staff respond to a request to explain it at the time. But his actions speak for themselves.

Should he win re-election on Nov. 8 against the challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist, the only Florida governor to take significant steps to combat climate change, he is widely expected to launch a run for president midway through his second term, most likely with strong support from the fossil fuel industry. He may choose to brag about how he’s battled rising sea level along with fighting woke theme parks and critical race theory.

Should he win, expect a President DeSantis to follow the same approach to climate change that’s fooled people for the past four years: hand out big contracts for patching up the impacts on pricey waterfront property while ignoring essentially everything, and everyone, else. If resilience, Florida style, goes national, we all may need some of those white boots.

Craig Pittman (@craigtimes) is a co-host of the podcast “Welcome to Florida” and the author of “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country” and “Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther.”

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