Climate change czars coming to more states

By Paul Brinkmann
Mark Grafton throws away damaged items from his flooded house after Hurricane Irma struck in the Coconut Grove section of Miami in September 2017. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
Mark Grafton throws away damaged items from his flooded house after Hurricane Irma struck in the Coconut Grove section of Miami in September 2017. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 26 (UPI) -- At least six states named climate change czars or chief executives over the past year, signalling a new level of concern in the United States.

The new positions are appearing mostly in states controlled by Democrats. But Florida and North Carolina, both considered red or purple states, named chief resilience officers this year to tackle climate issues.


The name for most of the climate change czars, chief resilience officer, originated with the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project, launched partly as a response to Superstorm Sandy's damage in the New York area in 2012.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who enjoyed major support from President Donald Trump in the 2018 state elections, appointed a former deputy energy secretary, Julie Nesheiwat, on Aug. 1.


DeSantis also appointed the state's first chief science officer, Tom Frazer, a biologist who had been director of the University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment.

North Carolina Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, appointed Jessica Whitehead to the position in May. She took office in June. Other states with some type of climate change czar are Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, Virginia and Rhode Island.

In an interview with UPI, Whitehead said North Carolina is dealing with impact of three hurricanes in three years -- Florence and Michael in 2018 and Matthew in 2016.

"As we are recovering, we have to decide how do we do it longer-term, safer and better for the people of North Carolina," said Whitehead, a former specialist on coastal issues for Sea Grant, a federal network of universities.

Property buyouts are being offered to some people in low-lying areas of North Carolina that flooded repeatedly.

"A big question is, can we reuse that land for flood control or parks, and also where do people go when they move?" Whitehead said. "We want them to go somewhere less at risk, but there are issues in other places, too, like wildfires in the mountains and drought."


Mostly, she is focused today on networking with cities and counties and other state agencies to facilitate cooperation and prevent unnecessary overlap. Part of her job is to bring up difficult issues, such as the need to buy out property rather than help people rebuild.

"It's difficult, but I'm not the only one looking at those issues," she said.

In Florida, DeSantis is credited by environmental advocates for bringing an abrupt about-face on climate issues.

Previously, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that then-Gov. Rick Scott's administration had deleted the words "climate change" from state documents and that employees claimed they were forbidden from using the term. Scott is now a U.S. senator for Florida.

Colorado was relatively early in naming a chief resilience officer, in 2013.

The state originally designated the position as temporary, after disastrous flooding hit the Front Range region including Colorado Springs, Boulder and Fort Collins. Fires and droughts are the other big climate issues for the state.

The position was made permanent in 2018.

"There was talk about whether we still needed it," said Anne Mller, who currently holds the title. "A lot of local governments impacted by the flooding came out in support of keeping it longer-term. They saw it as invaluable to communicating among agencies and communities."


Besides disasters and climate issues, Miller's office also looks at problems that could hamper the state's ability to deal with disasters, such as lack of affordable housing or sustainable development planning.

In many cases, the new state officials tackling climate change have to catch up to local governments.

Jason Liechty, a senior environmental project coordinator with Broward County in low-lying South Florida, said Nesheiwat appointment is promising.

"We see greater emphasis on these issues, and some good words and small increases in funding," Liechty said. "Is it enough? No, but it's movement in the right direction. It remains to be seen how much authority they get."

Liechty arrived in South Florida in 2012. Broward and three other counties were working together as the Southeast Regional Climate Compact, because state and federal governments had been slow to act.

"Each county was doing it on their own, trying to ask for state and federal money," Liechty said. "There was a feeling like, we really are on our own and we have to band together."

South Florida, especially the beach areas of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach, have dealt with regular flooding of low-lying area during high-tide events, and with more beach erosion from storms.


During Hurricane Irma in 2017, images of waves rolling down streets in Miami's financial district were beamed around the world.

"The state really needs to consider sea-level-rise protection for roads and infrastructure. If it's not part of the plan, you're going to be throwing money away," Liechty said.

Dan Kreeger, executive director with the Association of Climate Change Officers, agreed that state leadership is especially needed in Florida.

"The state's maturity level regarding climate change has been held back, so the local governments are light years ahead of the state," Kreeger said. "They will have to make substantial strides in building leadership around the state to be a resource."

The Rockefeller Foundation provided grant funding to 100 cities around the world to develop new coping strategies for climate change. Resilience referred not just to building seawalls or disaster preparation, but also developing new energy strategies and a stronger social fabric that would help in long-term response to climate change.

The foundation announced this year that it was ending the 100 Resilient Cities project, but since then has indicated some of its functions may continue.

"We tend to equate climate change with acute shocks, like hurricanes and fires, but climate change is a steady ongoing change that will impact generations, so we need that kind of long-term leadership and response to it," Kreeger said.


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