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Politics

Ron DeSantis’ Environmental Switcheroo

The Florida governor once presented himself like an environmental moderate. Not anymore.

Ron DeSantis.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In April 2019, Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, visited the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium to formally name his state’s first chief science officer. “This idea of, quote, ‘climate change’ has become politicized,” he told the assembled press during the announcement. “My environmental policy is just to try to do things that benefit Floridians.”

Dismissal of the phrase “climate change” aside, it seemed like a new dawn for the Sunshine State: At least a Florida governor had an environmental policy. A self-proclaimed “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” DeSantis didn’t immediately look good for environmental and climate-related causes in the state of Florida. But he didn’t look like the worst, either.

In fact, arriving in Tallahassee on the heels of Gov. Rick Scott, who’d allegedly banned state agencies from using the phrase “global warming,” DeSantis looked downright promising. He represented a “180-degree turn from where we have been for the previous eight years in terms of addressing this critical issue from the leader of this state,” Miami Herald editorial page editor Nancy Ancrum, who’s taken a special interest in the state’s rising sea levels, told the southern Florida public radio station WRLN at the time. “I would give him a ‘B+,’ ‘A-.’”

It wasn’t just the creation of the chief science officer position and its implicit confirmation of “science” being a real thing that won over left-leaning skeptics. DeSantis also created the job of a chief resilience officer to “coordinate statewide response to better prepare for the environmental, physical, and economic impacts of flooding in Florida.” He signed the Resilient Florida Program to pay for adaptive infrastructure like seawalls. He took a keen interest in protecting the Everglades by okaying a $2.5 billion restoration effort. He fended off toxic algae blooms by attacking the state’s sugar industry. He moved to prevent offshore drilling and fracking by directing his Department of Environmental Protection to “adamantly oppose and ban fracking statewide.”

Though some remained skeptical — the Sierra Club pointed out that DeSantis voted against the environment “98% of the time in his three terms as a member of Congress” — most coverage was glowing and generous. Even the progressive magazine Mother Jonesreported with surprise that “the New Governor of Florida Is Not the Environmental Disaster Everyone Thought He’d Be.”

But when speaking at the aquarium in 2019, DeSantis was candid in his admission that climate change is politicized. And he knew well which side of that polarization he wanted to be on. While things like clean waterways (for fishing and recreation), protecting the Everglades (the natural pride of the state), and banning offshore drilling (beach communities love their oceanfronts!) were popular with DeSantis’ peninsular constituents, as the governor’s political ambitions began to stretch north of the panhandle, he has swung harder and firmer against policies that were otherwise savvy bets for the leader of a climatologically vulnerable state.

By 2021, DeSantis was leading 2024 straw polls and clearly beginning to make overtures to a national Republican audience. In June of that year, he signed a law preventing cities and towns in Florida from setting 100% clean energy goals by “banning a ban” on new natural gas hookups (he’d previously signed a ban that banned coral-reef-damaging sunscreens). He also eagerly joined in on the hysterical pile-on against banning gas stoves, although only 8% of his own constituents cook with gas.

Last year, DeSantis further called for IRS audits of every lawmaker who voted for the Inflation Reduction Act — an unserious troll that nevertheless landed him headlines in the right publications. Washington is “going after you,” DeStantis goaded conservatives, this time more seriously; he called the IRA a “middle finger” to Americans. He’s also run an aggressive (and national headline-grabbing) anti-ESG campaign, blocking state officials from investing money into funds that take into account environmental factors — this being the GOP’s latest ridiculous culture war and a dubiously enforceable one at that. “DeSantis has basically abandoned all of the environmental promises that he made earlier in his career,” Jonathan Webber, the political and legislative director for Florida Conservation Voters, told Mother Jones in the publication’s subsequent mea culpa.

DeSantis’ switcheroo on the environment has been called contradictory, “greenwashing,” and “stupid.” At Heated last fall, Emily Atkin saw DeSantis courting the oil industry with his zig-zagging rhetoric. The point was prescient. Since then, even Koch Industries, which didn’t back Trump in 2016 or 2020, has donated to the DeSantis PAC.

But the Florida governor needs to have national Republicans on his side, too, if he’s to win the presidency. And in the process of winning them to his camp, he’ll need to out-Trump Trump, who’s described himself as a great environmentalist while at the same time relished in boosting fossil fuels and raging against the IRA.

Perhaps some will consider it an encouraging sign that the two leading Republican candidates in the presidential race view climate-related issues as something, at the very least, to wink at. Notably, DeSantis hasn’t entirely abandoned talking up his environmentalism; his boasts about his stewardship made it into his campaign book and he chose as the moderator for his presidential announcement Elon Musk, the far-right-curious enfant terrible of the renewable energy transition.

But DeSantis’ otherwise opportunistic dismantling of his own (albeit touch-and-go) green record really should tell you everything you need to know about the Republican Party’s conservative base. For DeSantis to make a successful 2024 run, he doesn’t just need to cozy up to fossil fuels or bash Biden as a soft-hearted Dem. He’ll need to distance himself from, quote, “climate change,” and in doing so, turn his back on his own vulnerable, waterlocked state — even when he’s already let slip that he knows better.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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