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Since taking office, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has made the environment a priority. He's dedicated millions to the Everglades and water quality, and more recently, he's focused on coastal resilience. But critics say he is ignoring the state's biggest environmental threat - climate change. Amy Green of member station WMFE reports.
AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Brick by brick, a stucco shell of a structure takes shape blocks from the beach. It's the most visible sign yet of one small community's enormous task of staving off the rising sea.
COURTNEY BARKER: They're putting in the water pipes right now. We have two fire hydrants coming in for the site 'cause our fire station's going to be right next door.
GREEN: Courtney Barker is city manager of Satellite Beach, which is on a barrier island about an hour south of Kennedy Space Center. Already, flooding is a problem, and beachfront homes perch precariously after storms and hurricanes washed away a seawall in sand. Community leaders expect more to come, so they're moving the public works building to higher ground. Barker sees a potential ally in Governor DeSantis.
BARKER: At least he talks about climate change as actually being real, so that's good. And then he's putting money to it, and that's encouraging.
GREEN: In January, DeSantis proposed a billion dollars in grants to help communities like Satellite Beach.
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RON DESANTIS: The purpose of this is to tackle the challenges posed by flooding, intensified storm events, sea level rise.
GREEN: The legislature approved a version of the plan this spring. But as DeSantis looks ahead to a re-election bid next year and is seen as a potential presidential frontrunner in 2024, he's facing criticism for not doing more on climate change.
ANNA ESKAMANI: Coastal resiliency is of course important, but it's a Band-Aid when it comes to the larger issues at hand.
GREEN: Anna Eskamani is a Democratic state representative. Few states are more threatened by climate change than Florida. The Sunshine State faces extreme heat, drought, powerful hurricanes and significant property losses related to sea level rise. Yet Eskamani says DeSantis has done almost nothing to reduce the state's reliance on the fossil fuels that are responsible for the warming climate.
ESKAMANI: Even in these programs around incentivizing the hardening of homes or putting your home on stilts and things like that, that benefits people who can afford to put their homes on stilts, which are going to be more wealthy Floridians compared to the farm worker who's picking tomatoes in temperatures that are getting hotter and hotter.
GREEN: But DeSantis has made clear he's not, as he put it, a global warming person.
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DESANTIS: This idea, you know, of, quote, "global climate change has become politicized," my environmental policy is just to try to do things that benefit Floridians.
GREEN: That's DeSantis back in 2019 when he announced the state's first chief scientist and resilience officer with great fanfare. Both have since left. Thomas Ruppert of Florida Sea Grant, a research organization, says DeSantis' emphasis on infrastructure continues to ignore a much bigger problem - that for some communities, the investments will be futile.
THOMAS RUPPERT: We need to start talking seriously about what places can we not save and what is an exit strategy. Because we have no idea.
GREEN: In Satellite Beach, Courtney Barker hopes it will not come down to an exit strategy.
BARKER: It's personal to all of us because, you know, when you - I think everybody can look at their own hometown and, you know, there's - you can't imagine being anywhere else. And that's how most people feel here.
GREEN: She grew up in Satellite Beach. She hopes that with more state leadership on climate change, her children will be able to raise families here, too.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Satellite Beach.
CHANG: This story was produced in partnership with Inside Climate News.
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