Florida tends to be a pretty lively place. Just look at all our crowded beaches, highways, stadia, hockey rinks, racetracks, bars, restaurants, casinos, and, sometimes, hospital ERs.
You may be surprised to hear that we’ve also got lots of amazing dead spots too — in other words, graves.
The most famous one is the Key West cemetery plot for B.P. Roberts with a snarky marker that says “I told you I was sick.”
In Marathon, there’s a statue of a leaping dolphin that marks the final resting place of the star of the 1960s TV show “Flipper” — actually, a female named Mitzi.
And in Fort Lauderdale, you’ll find the headstone for actor Leslie Nielsen, a devotee of whoopie cushion humor. His marker carries the perfect epitaph for a flatulence fan: “Let ‘er rip.”
Florida is now letting ’er rip with a lot more graveyard markers — but they won’t be called by that name. They’ll be called “resilience projects.”
“Resilience” is the word politicians use when they mean “climate change is an opportunity for me to hand out lots of big government contracts for construction work that will try to cope with rising sea levels.”
But resilience doesn’t do diddly-squat about all the other things that climate change causes. And some of those things can kill you.
The new Canute
A few weeks ago, Gov. Ron “The Billionaires’ Bestest Buddy Pal” DeSantis signed into law a bill to dump the contents of a couple of armored cars full of taxpayer dollars on “resiliency” projects around the state’s coast.
That $50 million of it came from the Biden administration is what Al Gore might call “an inconvenient truth” for the Biden-dissing Governor D.
If the lucky beneficiaries of this cash infusion are like the ones listed in this year’s budget, the money will pay for building pump stations, wastewater treatment plants, seawalls, drainage ditches, and the occasional “living shoreline” that restores vanished mangroves. It’s all aimed at coping with the flooding caused by sea level rise in the state’s low-lying areas.
(Note to self: Check back on which companies get these contracts and then cross-check with contributors to a certain political campaign.)
The agency in charge of handing out all this moolah just happens to be directly under the governor — just like his new 400-member Florida State Guard, which I have already heard referred to as “Meal Team Six.” The Statewide Office of Resiliency was created by another bill that DeSantis signed into law last month.
This concentration on resilience makes DeSantis the modern-day equivalent of the 11th century’s King Canute, who set his throne by the seashore and commanded the incoming tide to halt. As Canute knew, kings have no power over the ocean. DeSantis’ resilience projects won’t stop the rising tide, merely adapt the state’s coast to it — at least for a while.
What the governor never mentions when boasting about his spending on these projects is that they are not a one-time investment. As the seas continue to rise, we’ll have to redo a lot of these million-dollar projects over and over again.
The roads will need to be raised higher. The bridges will have to be jacked up more. The pipes and pumps will have to be enlarged or replaced to cope with the increasing water volume.
Still, the fact that DeSantis is doing something about sea level rise means he’s got a better record on climate change than his predecessor, Rick “I’m Not A Scientist And Also I Don’t Listen to People Who Are Scientists” Scott.
The list of things Scott did to counter climate change is so short you can inscribe it on the head of a — no wait, you can’t inscribe it on anything, because he did nothing. Basically, he gets an F and DeSantis a D.
There are a lot of other climate-related impacts that DeSantis is doing nothing about, because — like Scott — he refuses to face reality. Like Scott, he can’t even bear to say the words “climate change.” It’s as if, by keeping mum, he can avoid making the nightmare real.
I contacted the governor’s press office to ask what, if anything, he’s doing about the climate other than fighting sea level rise. They failed to respond. Perhaps they were too busy trying to spin his latest expensive court loss over one of the culture war bills that have kept him so busy.
DeSantis warned us about his aversion to even discussing climate change back in 2018 when he was a first-time gubernatorial candidate. He told WLRN-FM, “I am not a global warming person. I do not want that label on me.”
This is sort of like Charlton Heston looking at all the simian faces gathered around him and announcing, “I am not an apes-run-the-planet person.”
Well, you are now, pal, whether you want to be or not. We all are.
Cranking the global thermostat
Here’s why DeSantis is wrong to spend all those millions on nothing but pumps and pipes and higher roads: Climate change is attacking all of Florida, not just the coastline.
People who live in, say, Imperial Polk County are as much at risk of being killed by climate change as someone watching floodwaters rising in the streets of Key West, Miami Beach, or Fort Lauderdale.
I put in a call in early June to David Zierden, Florida’s official state climatologist (Yes, we really have one!). We spent some time chatting about our slow-rolling apocalypse — the climate, I mean, not the apes taking over.
“The increasing heat is a problem for outdoor workers, agricultural workers, and for tourists,” Zierden told me.
Roofers working on new homes in Lakewood Ranch, for instance, and those smiling kids who stand outside the Gainesville Chic-Fil-A to take your drive-thru order, and the migrants picking tomatoes in Immokalee — they are all potential victims of a warmer world. They (and their employers) all need to find a way to cope with days that keep getting warmer as the global thermostat gets cranked higher.
DeSantis is doing nothing to help those folks.
Think of all the costumed theme park characters in Orlando waving at the customers from inside their sweaty outfits. Worse, think of the middle-aged and elderly tourists at those theme parks, trudging along on the scorching asphalt with their screaming children and grandchildren.
DeSantis is doing nothing to help those folks, either. (But something tells me Disney’s going to be jacking up its water and soft drink prices.)
The nights are getting warmer too, Zierden pointed out. That affects the soil temperature for farmers and can hurt the growth of crops, such as fields of cotton in Jackson County. Warmer air also encourages the growth and spread of pests such as whiteflies and nematodes, he said.
The amount of rainfall during the summer is expected to increase as well, Zierden said. That’s pretty alarming news, considering some parts of the state already get downpours so large they make Seattle look like the Sahara.
Why, that much rain might even force a delay of baseball games! I mention it because I hear baseball is something the governor cares about, unlike climate change.
But during Florida’s March-to-June dry season, droughts will become more common too, he said. Extended dry spells would affect more than crops and cattle — it will lead to a lot more wildfires.
So, if you like breathing smoke-filled air and watching ashes flutter down on your new car, then you’ll loooove our hot new future. If not, well, you know whom to blame.
More red tide fish kills stinking up the beach and more iguanas surprising everyone by popping up in toilets seem unlikely to appeal to anyone thinking of visiting the state.
I talked to another scientist about how all that heat is going to affect the 22 million of us who call Florida home, plus our 100 million annual tourists.
Bad news, folks: We can’t just turn the A/C on and forget about it.
“Heat is like our sea level rise,” said Christopher Uejio, a professor at Florida State who studies the human health impacts of the environment. “We are already seeing some effects of it today.”
A survey of 44 cities around the globe found that at least one-third of the deaths classified as being heat-related were in excess of normal, Uejio said. In other words, as the temperatures go up, the number of people killed by the increased heat seems to be going up as well.
“Extreme heat is really insidious,” he said. “It affects a wide range of bodily functions. It makes your heart pump harder. With your respiratory system, it makes breathing harder. And when you’re breathing in hot air, that makes your respiratory system work harder, too.”
Then he mentioned dehydration. That’s something I know a little bit about.
My kids’ Boy Scout troop went on more than a few warm-weather hikes through forests and swamps. Despite frequent warnings that they should carry a canteen and stay hydrated, inevitably there would be at least one hiker who’d wind up dizzy and nauseous.
Now picture most of the state feeling dizzy and nauseous — and not just because the governor paid for someone to write a sappy song about how great he is.
“Becoming dehydrated leads to mental confusion and impairment,” Uejio said. “Rates of accidents and injuries go up. Elderly people face an increased risk of falling down.”
All those millions that DeSantis is spending on seawalls and pumps won’t keep your Grandma Rose upright when she gets overheated and dehydrated, folks. Get ready to pay for a new hip — or a headstone.
Which reminds me: Climate change is clobbering your wallet, as well. A state with an increased risk from hurricanes, wildfires, heavy rainstorms, and other ills will naturally face an increase in property insurance rates.
Fans and a sweet tea
Last year, on one of those rare occasions when DeSantis actually took reporters’ questions during one of his “applaud-me-I’m-handing-out-money” events, someone asked him what he was doing about the causes of climate change.
“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,” he snapped. “We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”
Then DeSantis uttered some statements that were so lacking in accuracy that I’m surprised he didn’t get a prize for fiction from the Pulitzer jury. He invoked high gas prices, “affordable energy,” and “anti-energy policies” by Biden. The implication was that fossil fuels are as good for Florida as drinking orange juice every morning. That may come as a surprise to anyone who watched globs of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster wash up on Panhandle beaches in 2010.
DeSantis’ hostility to weaning the state from oil and gas reflects a national push by GOP lawmakers to fight against anyone trying to clean up the pollution now heating up the planet. Perhaps this is why, when Florida legislators were discussing the resiliency bills that DeSantis wanted, they shut down every effort to go after the causes of climate change.
This makes for a tough choice for The Man Who Would Be Governor Again (at least until 2024).
If DeSantis won’t even try to curtail the use of fossil fuels in the nation’s third-largest state, then he needs to start figuring out how to deal with what climate change will do to everyone who lives here.
Perhaps he can assign his Florida State Guard to run around handing out battery-powered fans and serving cool drinks with lots of crushed ice. I’d like a large sweet tea, please, no lemon.
Meanwhile, the guardsmen better take some of that money being spent on construction and plant a whole lot more shade trees, too. We’re going to need them if we hope to stay lively — and alive.
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the “Welcome to Florida” podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.
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