Boots And A Bill: How A State Senator Aims To Unify Florida On Sea-Level Rise Projections

Jan 29, 2018

A state senator and congressional candidate says it’s time for Florida to have a unified strategy for sea-level rise.

To make his point this legislative session, he’s wearing rain boots in the Senate.

"Where I’m coming from -- a coastal district in Miami-Dade County -- this is part of the job now," said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez. "It doesn't have to rain very much and there's flooding."

The rain boots worn by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez feature the phrase "#ActOnClimateFL."
Credit WLRN News

The Miami native represents District 37, which includes parts of Coral Gables, Pinecrest, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami.

Rodríguez, a Democrat,  is running to fill the U.S. Congress seat being vacated by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who's retiring at the end of 2018. In the meantime, this legislative session, Rodríguez has filed a bill that would require builders using public funds to do sea level rise impact studies before starting construction.

The measure would also require Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to develop statewide best practices for communities dealing with sea level rise.

That could be a turning point in a country where many leaders refuse to acknowledge the fact that human activity causes global warming, and in a state that once made headlines after reports that officials were forbidden from using the term "climate change."

"In this kind of environment, adding sea-level rise as something we're going to aggressively tackle can be intimidating," Rodríguez said. "But to be honest with you... the biggest resistance to dealing with sea-level rise is not ideological. It's that many of my colleagues are simply overwhelmed."

Rodríguez spoke with WLRN’s Kate Stein.

Sen. Rodríguez: As a state legislator working with my colleagues, there have been some incremental changes that I think are positive in terms of preparing our community better for the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. But I was getting frustrated at how small and incremental these changes are. And so I decided this year to finally just file the bill that I really wanted to file, which is something that in my mind would be more transformative.

It's Senate Bill 542. It would say that you have to do long-term planning in order to draw state dollars down into your community for infrastructure improvements. But the other aspect of the bill is that the Department of Environmental Protection would, if this bill passed, develop best practices. You know, if you're rebuilding a seawall, or if you're making roadway improvements, how do you plan for 50-year time horizon with sea-level rise projections, etc.?

WLRN: A big part of this bill is collaboration and coordination between agencies. Presumably that would require agreement on numbers as far as how much sea-level rise we are going to see and the impacts of climate change. Do you see that's something that is politically feasible?

There is not uniformity. We don't all agree on exactly what we should be preparing for. What kind of storms, what kind of sea-level rise impacts, what kind of impact on our aquifer.

The idea of having best practices in dealing with sea-level rise is to have a uniform standard statewide. Once we do, different communities, different experts can say, it's not strong enough. It's too strong. We need to have that conversation.

And do you feel like that's going to happen now?

 I'm optimistic. It may not be a bill that passes this session, but the reason why I'm optimistic is that a lot of people are familiar with this idea that different state agencies were prohibiting their staff from talking about climate change. Now there is absolutely ideological resistance to the idea of confronting climate change.

But to be honest with you, at this point in time, the biggest resistance to dealing with sea-level rise is not ideological. It is: Many of my colleagues are simply overwhelmed. We are in a position where our public schools are underfunded, where we have critical issues in our criminal justice system that are not being dealt with, that have price tags associated with them. In this kind of environment, adding sea-level rise is something that we are going to aggressively tackle can be intimidating. There's a lot of science. It's a huge problem. There's a big price tag.

If we're going to really deal with it, part of the idea of this bill is to say, here are some concrete things we can do that don't require a lot of money but move the ball forward significantly.

 Is there a particular statistic or a particular something that you've seen maybe in your district that really drives home for you the urgency of addressing sea-level rise?

 I think what drives home the urgency of sea-level rise more than anything else is every time it rains. Growing up here in Miami, you know many of us remember times when it would rain very heavily and you wouldn't have massive flooding in large parts of Miami-Dade. That is something that every year is getting worse, something that none of us can deny. Those are strong words, but I think the evidence bears it out.

So on a lighter note, the boots. Where did you get those? Are they new? What have you written on them?

 The hashtag is "ActOnClimateFL." So, "act on climate" is a hashtag that's been used to basically say we need to take action. And I added "FL" at the end, obviously because we're in Florida and my focus is on the state Legislature.

I bought them [the boots] online. They are relatively new -- not so new because I have actually been using them in the district when I'm going to flooded areas. They're not as clean as they used to be.