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Local Efforts To Fight Climate Change Could Be Stymied By State Lawmakers

A patient is evacuated by boat from the St. Vincent's Medical Center after floodwaters from Hurricane Irma covered the first floor of the hospital in Jacksonville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.
John Raoux
Associated Press
A patient is evacuated by boat from the St. Vincent's Medical Center after floodwaters from Hurricane Irma covered the first floor of the hospital in Jacksonville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.

If some state lawmakers have their way, local governments like Jacksonville could lose their ability to address climate change and its impacts independent of the Florida Legislature.

Florida is more vulnerable to climate change than most other states and, with thousands of miles of shorelines, flooding and sea level rise pose a significant threat to Jacksonville. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northeast Florida could see more than 7 feet of sea level rise by 2060 if fossil fuel emissions are not quickly and sharply reduced. 

While the future impacts are daunting to consider, the region is already seeing some of the effects of a warming climate. Sunny day flooding is becoming more common and hurricanes are growing more intense, to name just a few.

In late 2019, Jacksonville’s then City Council President Scott Wilson announced plans to form a committee tasked with addressing these current and future threats and named Councilman Matt Carlucci, a veteran insurance agent, as chair.

“Population growth and natural forces stress our infrastructure and threaten our coastal and river areas more than ever before,” Wilson said. “To address these challenges, I am appointing a special council committee to determine how we can increase the city’s resilience in the aftermath of a natural disaster.”

The Special Committee on Resiliency, as it came to be called, met for the first time in January of 2020 and it immediately became clear that members wanted a chief resilience officer (CRO) — a designated city employee charged with developing and coordinating Jacksonville’s strategy to deal with climate change and its impacts. The committee would later successfully advance a bill creating the position, though Carlucci and other members clashed with Mayor Lenny Curry’s staff over the details of the position.

Jacksonville is currently the only major city in Florida without a CRO. The city was on track to have someone fill that position thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which awarded cities around the world $1 million each to address extreme weather, crime and sea level rise. But in 2016, shortly after Mayor Curry took office, Jacksonville dropped out of the program. The mayor now supports hiring someone for the position and included funding for the role in this year’s city budget.

After more than 50 public meetings over a period of 14 months, Jacksonville’s Resiliency Committee developed a list of observations and recommended action steps which were compiled into a final report that was unanimously approved in late February of 2021. 

Related: Making A More Resilient River City: Top 10 Findings From New City Council Report

The goal of this final report (a draft of which can be seen here) is to provide Jacksonville’s future CRO with a foundation to begin their work. However, there are bills currently making their way through the Florida Legislature that, if passed, could make it much harder or even impossible for the city of Jacksonville and its future CRO to follow through on some of the recommendations in the report.

SB 1236, for example, would prohibit the adoption and enforcement of programs to regulate greenhouse gas emissions without legislative authorization. Creating and implementing a greenhouse gas inventory and reduction plan is one of the recommendations in the Resiliency Committee’s final report.

“To lose the ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the local level is highly problematic when you have a state legislature that is not willing to step up to the plate,” said Jane West, Policy and Planning Director for 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization.

The bill’s sponsor, Doral Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, did not respond to a request for comment by this story’s deadline.

Other preemption bills that could prevent local governments like Jacksonville’s from acting on climate change include SB 856, which would prohibit local governments from regulating infrastructure supporting the production, importation, storage and distribution of fuel and electricity used for transportation, and SB 1128, which would prohibit local governments from restricting or prohibiting the types or the fuel sources of energy production used by utilities, including city-owned utilities like JEA. Both of these bills were filed by St. Augustine Republican Sen. Travis Hutson.

Hutson defended his legislation in a March committee meeting, saying while he knows climate change is happening and he supports moving towards clean energy, he believes it’s essential to protect consumers.

“I want to see more electric vehicle charging stations. I want to see more solar power and other forms of renewable energy that we're using. Where I'm trying to draw the line is any local government that's willing to take away that consumer choice,” he said.

Jacksonville City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who became chair of the Resiliency Committee over the summer, thinks it would be a mistake if the state legislature passes preemption bills like these, and lawmakers are considering about a dozen of them this session.

“I’m not in favor of losing local control on any issue,” she said. “We're surrounded by water. Not every community in the state is surrounded to the extent we are, and we should be able to control that. Our building processes and greenhouse gasses and all that, we should be in control.”

And that concern is shared by others working on this issue around the state.

“Our commission and our mayor, they're not great fans of preemption bills,” said Jim Murley, Miami-Dade County CRO. “There are probably some places where that issue makes sense, for a statewide approach, but we're just such a diverse state. What we do down in Southeast Florida is not going to be just the right thing for you guys up in Jacksonville.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Special Projects Producer Brendan Rivers joined WJCT News in August of 2018 after several years as a reporter and then News Director at Southern Stone Communications, which owns and operates several radio stations in the Daytona Beach area.