Ron DeSantis portrayed himself as a conservationist while running for Florida governor, despite his voting record as a member of Congress suggesting otherwise.
Now that he’s been elected, unless a possible recount changes the results, he will have a chance to prove skeptics wrong by working to clean up the environmental mess left by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott.
The highest-profile problems are the blue-green algae blooms in South Florida waterways this summer and the red tide that continues to linger off Florida’s coasts, sickening people and killing fish and wildlife. Algae blooms also hurt tourism and a state economy that relies upon it.
Pollution from agricultural operations and development can cause these blooms to be longer lasting and more widespread. Scott made such problems worse by gutting environmental agencies and taking a hands-off approach to policing polluters. DeSantis said on election night that cleaning up the environment would be his first priority.
He can show he’s serious through his appointments to water management boards and other agency bodies. He should appoint scientists and other experts instead of developers, representatives of agricultural interests and others who are supposed to be regulated by such boards, as Scott favored doing.
In criticizing Big Sugar for polluting the Everglades during the campaign, DeSantis has at least shown independence from a special interest that controls too many Florida politicians. But he will need to do much more to repair the devastation to Florida’s environment.
He must reverse a steep drop in pollution enforcement cases that happened under Scott, rather than relying on “best management practices” and other voluntary efforts that have failed to clean up pollution. Protecting the groundwater that flows from the state’s springs and supplies our drinking water from both pollution and excessive pumping must be a priority.
Climate change also needs to be treated as the existential threat that it is, rather than the taboo subject it was in the Scott administration. Hurricane Michael showed how warming Gulf of Mexico waters are fueling more powerful storms, while sea level rise is further increasing their destructive power on Florida’s developed coastal areas.
DeSantis said he wasn’t a climate change denier during the campaign, but also expressed doubt about the extent of the problem. History will judge whether Florida finally got serious about shifting to renewable energy sources and preparing for the unavoidable consequences of a warming planet during his tenure.
Past Republican governors in Florida have made environmental issues a priority once in office, from Jeb Bush launching a springs task force to Charlie Crist setting goals to reduce carbon emissions. Even Scott belatedly threw money at the algae problem while running for the U.S. Senate.
But our current governor has also left DeSantis with a huge environmental mess, which provides an opportunity for DeSantis to show that his claims of being a conservationist were more than empty campaign rhetoric.
This editorial originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun.