Florida Kids Shouldn’t Have to Litigate to Force Adults to Act on Climate

George Cavros | July 30, 2018 | Climate Change, Florida

Kids shouldn’t have to go to court to get adults in Florida to act on climate change. Yet, that’s what eight young Floridians have set out to do.

Eight boys and girls, from across the state, supported by Our Children’s Trust, recently filed a lawsuit in state court to demand that Florida develop a “climate recovery plan” to reduce greenhouse (GHG) pollution. The suit asserts that in not addressing climate change, the state has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and has caused harm to Florida’s essential public trust resources, such as its beaches and marine life. The suit names Governor Rick Scott; Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam,; The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); and the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) as the Defendants. They have filed motions to dismiss the case – the court’s determination on those motions is pending. A similar case in federal court was just allowed to proceed to trial by the US Supreme Court. We are hosting a webinar entitled “How Kids are Taking Their Fight Against Climate Change to the Courts” August 8th and invite you to join us by registering here.

Several of the youth  hail from south Florida – where residents need no convincing that our community is “ground-zero” for climate change. The impacts are all around us. Annual King Tide events push the Atlantic Ocean into our streets every fall. We’re experiencing yet another summer of brutal heat, that will likely break the sweltering record set last year, which broke the record set the previous year. Many residents, on both coasts, are bracing for the “Summer of Slime” as algae blooms break out in Lake Okeechobee and in estuaries to the north and south – created by mismanaged state water policies but made worse by a warming climate. The litany of adverse climate change impacts includes sea level rise threats to drinking water resources, increased storm surge, beach erosion, coral bleaching, stronger storms, and the related economic consequences.

Incredibly, Florida has no plan to meet these challenges.

Florida actually had an action plan, before it didn’t …

Not too long ago, Florida was on the verge of becoming a leader on climate action when the state developed and published Florida’s Energy and Climate Change Action Plan in 2008. It was developed by a Climate Action Team composed of 28 appointed members, representing a cross-section of Floridians, and 120 technical experts. The action plan was a result of then-Governor Charlie Crist’s 2007 executive orders. Crist’s 3 executive orders included a call for:

  • reducing GHG pollution to 2000 levels by 2017; to 1990 levels by 2025; and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050; and
  • requiring the state’s power companies to procure or produce 20% of their power from renewable resources by 2020, with an emphasis on wind and solar.

The Climate Action Team completed its report and provided 50 policy recommendations and concluded that Florida’s economy would see a benefit through investment in energy efficiency, low-carbon energy sources, and other GHG pollution reduction strategies resulting in a projected cost savings of more than $28 billion from 2009 to 2025.

That same year, the Florida Legislature passed an energy bill (HB 7135) that provided both the Florida PSC and the DEP the authorization to conduct rulemaking to develop programs to achieve the renewable energy goals, and the cap and trade GHG reduction programs respectively. The legislative-catch was that the rules had to come back to the legislature for “ratification.” In an ironic twist, state Rep. Marco Rubio was the Speaker of the House during the 2008 Florida legislative session.

Later that year, I was one of many stakeholders who worked with the PSC and DEP staff in workshops to develop rules. The PSC promulgated a rule to meet the 20% renewables by 2020 goal in late 2008. In 2009, the PSC also set historically higher conservation goals for the state’s power companies – to help families and businesses reduce energy and save money on bills through meaningful energy efficiency programs. It looked like clean energy and climate action were becoming reality in the Sunshine State.

Yet, a bill in 2009 that would have, in large part, ratified the PSC rule for renewable energy goals passed the Florida Senate, but failed to even get a hearing in the House, which wanted to tie it to permitting nearshore oil development. Shortly thereafter, the political winds  on climate action changed in Florida. In 2010, an election year, momentum for the renewable energy goal slowed, and the DEP rule making process was effectively suspended.

New state policy: ignore climate change and clean energy solutions

Newly-elected Governor Scott and the Florida Legislature didn’t waste much time in rolling back progress on clean energy. Energy efficiency was the first to take a hit. Just two years after conservation goals were set, with four new commissioners on the PSC (appointed by the governor), the Commission effectively rolled back the goals for the state’s two biggest power companies.  Conservation goals took an even bigger hit in 2014 – when the PSC gutted conservation goals.

In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that removed the authority for the PSC to adopt rules for renewable energy goals. Governor Scott allowed it to become law without signing it. That same year, the Legislature passed, and Governor Scott signed, a bill removing DEP’s authority to adopt rules for GHG reduction program. Moreover, it has been widely reported that DEP staff was told not to use the term “climate change” in communications with the public or press. According to press reports, when asked about climate change, Governor Scott has responded “I’m not a scientist.”

Wanted: state leadership

While the state of Florida has been AWOL on energy and climate policy for about the last 8 years, local leaders have taken charge. For instance. the southeast Florida region has been working collaboratively since 2009 to address common challenges on adapting to climate change while adopting policies to reduce GHG emissions within the region. A similar collaboration is now taking shape on the west coast of the state. Yet, local leadership and solutions can be hamstrung by state laws and policies that restrict policy options. Local leaders need a willing state partner to maximize their actions on climate change.

Florida’s an important state from a climate action perspective. It’s one of the largest states in the US – with a $1 trillion dollar economy – it would rank 17th in the world if it was a country. It is second only to Texas in electricity generation and has almost 8 million automobiles on its roads. Therefore, policies that reduce state-wide GHG emissions can make a dent globally. By the way, climate-friendly, clean energy policies would also help diversify the state’s tourist-based economy and create good-paying jobs right here at home, while ensuring a sustainable future for our kids – the ones that have the most to lose from climate inaction.

It’s time for state “leaders” to get their heads out of the sand and show real leadership on climate change.

To learn more about this case and others like it around the country, join us on August 8th for a webinar entitled “How Kids are Taking Their Fight Against Climate Change to the Courts” by registering here.

George Cavros
This blog was written by a former staff member of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
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