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Mar 29, 2023
DeSantis Fights for Everglades As He Neglects Climate Crisis
(Bloomberg) -- One night in mid-February, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took the stage at the Breakers in Palm Beach to brag about how much he’d done for the environment.
“Protecting Florida’s natural resources has been a top priority since my first day in office,” DeSantis, a Republican, told the crowd of more than 600 as they nibbled on shrimp salad and short ribs at the $2,500-a-seat fundraiser for the Everglades Foundation.
These were well-heeled nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts who cherish the Everglades, the subtropical wetland that covers thousands of square miles of southern Florida. It’s a landscape teeming with plant and animal life, but scarred by the impacts of runaway urban development and industrial agriculture.
DeSantis was essentially opening for Lionel Richie, slated to play later. By the time he was done, the hotel’s Ponce de Leon Ballroom erupted in applause.
To many at the event that night, Florida politicians had let them down, failing year after year to execute ambitious plans to restore the natural flow of water through the Everglades’ sawgrass prairies and cypress swamps. But the 44-year-old DeSantis was different.
In his first term, with the help of the president of the Florida Senate, he’d secured an historic $1.7 billion in state and federal funding for the Everglades. Then he pledged $3.5 billion more to accelerate federal restoration plans a quarter century in the making.
“DeSantis has been very good about restoration,” says Paul Tudor Jones, the billionaire hedge fund investor who co-founded the Everglades Foundation 30 years ago with his fishing buddy, the late George Barley. “I give him high marks—higher than any other leader.”
A few days after the gala, the first effects of that spending became visible 55 miles west of the mansions lining Palm Beach: The US Army Corp of Engineers broke ground on a huge project to clear away sugar cane plantations and create a reservoir the size of Manhattan. It’s the centerpiece of what may be the world’s largest wetlands restoration, aimed at cleansing the waters of Lake Okeechobee of decades of fertilizer runoff and refilling the Everglades, long ago drained to make way for Miami.
DeSantis has embraced conservation and clean water unlike just about any Florida governor before him. His focus on restoring the Everglades, in particular, has won him hefty donations that could help pay for an expected run for the White House in 2024. At the same time, he’s divorced his form of environmentalism from the larger climate agenda that’s anathema to most of the Republican Party, mainly by avoiding the term “climate change.” That duality has helped him politically, but critics say that he’s had more environmental misses than successes and that conservation efforts without climate action are fundamentally flawed.
It’s not as if DeSantis is anyone’s idea of a climate champion. In between culture-war offensives such as punishing the Walt Disney Co. for what he called its “woke” agenda and banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in early-grade classrooms, he’s led a nationwide Republican assault on environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. In a few months, he’s yanked state funds from BlackRock Inc. and hammered banks that restrict lending to the fossil fuel industry.
Like most Republicans in high office, DeSantis rejects what scientists say is necessary to avoid making climate change worse: urgently slashing fossil fuel use to slow the carbon buildup in the atmosphere. “We need fossil fuels,” he said on March 1 as he promoted his new book, The Courage to Be Free, in Doral, Florida. “You can’t just get rid of them unless you guys want to pay a lot more for energy.” (DeSantis declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The governor’s approach to the restoration has bipartisan support, but it’s driven a wedge into the Florida environmental movement. A different Everglades advocacy group, Friends of the Everglades, and the Sierra Club criticize the planned reservoir as too small to truly restore water flows.
The Sierra Club recently gave DeSantis a D- grade on its report card for promising more than he’s delivered in a state that sits in the bull’s-eye of climate impacts. He also hasn’t set any goals for reducing a dependence on fossil fuel that makes Florida the country’s fifth-largest consumer of natural gas.
“It’s not simply that Ron DeSantis is not an environmentalist. Heck, he can’t even say the words ‘climate crisis,’ ” says Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous.
Picking the right environmental fights has paid off for DeSantis, literally. He’s raised at least $3 million from members of the boards of some major Florida conservation groups, according to a review by Bloomberg Green of Florida Division of Elections records. Many men and women in the room that night in Palm Beach have written big checks to the governor, especially Jones. Since 2018 he’s donated $1.25 million.
“I’m kind of a one-issue guy when it comes to Ron DeSantis,” says Jones, who’s given to Republican and Democratic politicians alike in the past. “He’s been great for the Everglades.”
Top aides like to tout DeSantis as a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, the former Republican president, avid hunter and conservationist. That resonated with former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a Florida trustee of the Nature Conservancy. Last year, he gave DeSantis’s reelection campaign $605,000, according to Florida Division of Elections disclosures.
“People often forget these days that conservation and conservative come from the same root word,” says Rauner, a Republican. “Going back to Teddy Roosevelt, and even earlier, the Republican Party is about conserving what’s good and important and valuable in our society.”
DeSantis’s commitment to the Everglades is tied to his antagonistic relationship with Florida’s billionaire sugar barons. For years, brothers Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul of Florida Crystals Corp. and the Mott family’s U.S. Sugar Corp. poured money into politicians’ campaign coffers, securing backing for federal price supports and tax breaks. Those taxpayer subsidies make sugar cane very profitable in a place where it otherwise wouldn’t be. There are about 400,000 acres of sugar cane planted on drained swaths of the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee.
Cane fields can’t thrive without lots of fertilizer. In 2016 and 2018, fertilizer runoff spawned huge plumes of toxic green algae that moved through Everglades canals, east and west, spoiling Florida’s nicest beaches.
DeSantis, a Florida native, has gone up against sugar interests since 2012, when he won a US House seat. He began to describe restoring the Everglades as critical for assuring there’s clean water for drinking, fishing and the tourism industry that drives Florida’s economy. Twice he voted against renewing the federal sugar subsidies. (They passed anyway.) In his book, DeSantis writes that U.S. Sugar bankrolled attack ads aimed at defeating him in the GOP primary when he first ran for governor in 2018. DeSantis still won, by a 32,000-vote margin. (U.S. Sugar declined to comment on the ads.)
A few days after taking office, in 2019, DeSantis replaced the board of the South Florida Water Management District, the powerful state agency that controls the use of water and land across the Everglades. The commission had quietly reversed legislative plans to build the reservoir, appeasing sugar farmers who stood to see tens of thousands of acres of their fields flooded.
“If you look back through history, the sugar industry is one of the most powerful political forces in the state, maybe the most powerful, and they have heavy influence in both political parties,” says Rauner. “But Governor DeSantis has stood his ground.”
U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals said in separate statements that they have long supported the Everglades restoration plan and have even ceded thousands of acres of fields for the cause. The two companies denied being responsible for extensive pollution, arguing that the fields are downstream of Lake Okeechobee. The Everglades sugar cane farming region, Florida Crystals said, “is the most regulated in America and meets the strictest water-quality standard in the nation.”
Twenty-three years ago, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but it stalled for lack of political support. DeSantis began to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding for it in early 2019, days into his first term. The now $16 billion plan, known as CERP, would reclaim—and eventually rewild—thousands of square miles of Everglades wetlands that had been drained, covered with invasive crops like sugar cane, paved and channeled into cement causeways.
DeSantis has thrown his support behind other conservation measures: He’s allocated money to build out state wildlife corridors and has vowed to protect coral reefs. He’s funneled funds into climate adaptation efforts, too. The state has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to communities to harden their defenses against storms and floods, part of a program called Resilient Florida, and to remove septic tanks that threaten water supplies.
Some environmental advocates dispute that DeSantis has taken a consistently hard stance against Big Sugar, pointing to measures they say have helped the industry at the expense of the environment, such as signing a bill that indemnified sugar companies against lawsuits for the effects of sugar burning on communities. Their criticisms don’t stop there.
Resilient Florida notwithstanding, DeSantis has blocked towns from restricting the use of fossil fuels to help stave off climate change.
According to the Sierra Club, he’s implemented only four of 31 recommendations—made by a task force he created in 2019—to combat devastating algae blooms caused by rising water temperatures and pollution levels.
“We have to point to inaction as much as action,” says Democratic state Representative Lindsay Cross, an environmental scientist who’s sponsoring a bill requiring the state to do more to reduce pollution in waterways and prevent algae blooms.
Whether DeSantis’s environmental record in Florida factors much in a prospective campaign for the presidency remains to be seen. GOP strategist Alex Conant says it could win DeSantis votes from pro-business independents. “I think environment is an issue where Republicans can eat into Democratic support from independents without risking their own base,” Conant says.
What’s almost certain is that were DeSantis to run in 2024 and win, his victory would bring a hard stop to President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda.
Meanwhile restoration of the Everglades has advanced more in the past five years than the previous two decades, says Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. The proof is rising from a clearing in the cane fields, just south of Lake Okeechobee: great piles of earth and gravel that will be shaped into miles of dikes, 23-feet high, that will enclose the reservoir, in the middle of what’s long been sugar cane plantations.
By 2030, if all goes according to plan, cleansed waters from Okeechobee will flow into a series of marshes seeded with cattails and water lilies that will remove contaminants. Then, the water will continue south, replenishing the so-called River of Grass and recharging the vast aquifer that supplies 9 million people in greater Miami with drinking water.
A higher volume of freshwater flowing through the Everglades will help push back intruding saltwater as sea levels rise. But even after restoration, the delicate wetland ecosystems won’t be impervious to heat, drought and other impacts of climate change.
DeSantis’s reluctance to talk about or act on global warming gives pause to at least one Everglades Foundation donor who was at the Breakers that night in February.
Thais Lopez Vogel founded the VoLo Foundation, which funds climate change research and mitigation strategies, with her husband, hedge fund manager David Vogel. She says what DeSantis is doing isn’t enough.
“Governor DeSantis is doing amazing things in adaptation—I give that to him and applaud him,” she said after the dinner. “But he is not addressing the main thing, which is mitigation. And if you don’t address the root of the problem, you’re doing nothing. You’re wasting money.” —With Bill Allison
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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