Ron DeSantis denounces “woke” green investments, says he’s “not a global warming person” and has abysmal ratings from national environmentalists.
So it might come as a surprise to those outside the Sunshine State that the GOP governor — who’s widely expected to run for president in 2024 — has been working to brand himself as an environmental hero.
DeSantis identifies himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt” conservationist. He made issues like Everglades restoration, water quality and adapting to rising seas central to his first term as Florida’s governor. His efforts won him accolades from some environmentalists, and Florida political observers see his energy and environmental policies as part of what helped him coast to victory in his reelection bid earlier this month.
“For a leading Republican candidate for president, he’s got a hell of a record,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Florida Republican representative who pushed for bipartisan climate change policy during his tenure on Capitol Hill.
DeSantis’ critics, however, accuse him of “greenwashing” by touting his support for conservation funding and sea-level rise adaptation efforts while sidestepping efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.
Now that he’s under the spotlight as a likely 2024 presidential contender, DeSantis’ policy moves on issues across the board — including the environment and energy — are subject to increased national scrutiny. And DeSantis faces a choice: Does he tack to the right on energy and climate change or lean into the brand he’s tried to build in Florida as a conservationist who’s moderate on environmental issues?
“DeSantis is adept,” said Steve Schmidt, a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns and a DeSantis critic who co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
Schmidt thinks DeSantis “needs to take it down a notch performatively,” on the environment if he’s running in the Republican presidential primary. But Schmidt sees DeSantis’ track record on conservation playing well with some voters, including hunting and fishing groups. “He doesn’t have to make any adjustments on his environmental record,” Schmidt said.
The issue could set DeSantis apart from former President Donald Trump, who downplayed the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise when he announced his own 2024 presidential run last week.
DeSantis is “completely different from Trump,” said Curbelo, who recalled Trump telling him once on Air Force One that Florida had “nothing to worry about” when it came to sea-level rise. DeSantis has “managed to lead on the environment” without using “words like ‘climate change’ and ‘decarbonization,’” Curbelo added.
The Florida governor shies away from talking about the causes of climate change, a topic that can be polarizing among GOP voters.
“People when they start talking about global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways,” DeSantis said at a press conference last December. “We’re not doing any left-wing stuff.”
DeSantis’ critics don’t buy his attempt to portray himself as a green governor.
“Ron DeSantis is masterful when it comes to greenwashing,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. She views DeSantis as a political opportunist who boasts about channeling money toward universally popular environmental programs in the state but isn’t working to combat climate change.
“You can’t claim to be a pro-environment governor or lawmaker if you’re not doing anything to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and he is not,” Moncrief said.
DeSantis was no hero to environmentalists during his three terms as a Florida congressman.
His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is a paltry 2 percent.
That scorecard is based on his votes on Capitol Hill that were largely in step with GOP leadership on a broad range of legislation, covering everything from air pollution standards to grazing on public lands.
LCV’s state affiliate, Florida Conservation Voters, endorsed DeSantis’ Democratic rival, then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
The group’s view of DeSantis hasn’t improved since he moved into the governor’s mansion.
“He still is 2-percent Ron,” said Moncrief. “He has absolutely dropped the ball on addressing the climate crisis and on bringing clean affordable energy to the people of Florida.”
Other environmentalists — including some focused on the Everglades — backed DeSantis in 2018.
The nonprofit Everglades Trust endorsed the Republican in 2018 over the Democrat Gillum. The conservation group said at the time that “the Everglades and coastal estuaries are in desperate need of a hero — and they found one in Ron DeSantis,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. DeSantis narrowly defeated Gillum that year.
On Everglades restoration, DeSantis has been “an absolute champion,” Anna Upton, CEO of the Everglades Trust, told E&E News in an interview. “There will be no one who stands in his way on achieving what he promised to deliver for the environment.” The group endorsed DeSantis again in 2022.
DeSantis boasts that more than $3 billion has gone toward Everglades restoration and protection of Florida water supplies on his watch.
“His first term has been characterized by huge investments in Everglades restoration,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “The good thing about the environment in Florida is that it’s never been a partisan issue.”
Soon after taking office, DeSantis asked all nine members of the South Florida Water Management District Board to resign. He cited the desire for a “clean reset” on the board that’s central to Everglades restoration efforts.
DeSantis picked Ron Bergeron, who goes by “Alligator Ron,” to serve on the board as he restocked it. Bergeron, a Broward County developer and former member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, called DeSantis “an environmentalist” and “a conservationist” who “recognizes the importance of the environment at a very high level.”
Bergeron has been involved in Florida politics for “over half a century, mainly because I love Florida,” he said. “I want great leadership for future generations, and [DeSantis] is definitely the best I’ve ever seen.”
“He’s done such a good job, I offered alligator wrestling lessons,” Bergeron said, noting that the governor declined the lessons.
DeSantis won praise from the left for opposing drilling off the state’s coast and vetoing so-called net-metering legislation that would have limited how much money rooftop solar users could receive for selling excess electricity back to the power grid (Energywire, April 28).
He appointed the state’s first chief resilience officer to help the state brace for flooding and storms (Climatewire, Nov. 23, 2021).
The first person in that job, Julia Nesheiwat, left after a few months to join the Trump administration. Before she left her post, she prepared a report for DeSantis saying the state’s resilience efforts were “taking shape” but “disjointed,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.
DeSantis’ pro-environment brand doesn’t surprise some Floridians.
“Generally in Florida, it’s better to be seen as pro-environment,” said Mac Stipanovich, a political strategist who served as chief of staff to former Florida Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.
“And to do that, you are generally hostile to offshore drilling, you are generally hostile to the sugar industry around [Lake Okeechobee], and you are all about beaches and restoration. And then behind that screen, if you will, you can make business happy,” Stipanovich said.
‘Not a global warming person’
Asked about DeSantis’ environmental record, his office provided a one-page summary of his record. It touts Everglades restoration, water quality improvements and efforts to “prepare communities for the impacts of funding and intensified storm events.”
It doesn’t mention climate change — which is fueling more intense hurricanes — at all.
That’s in line with DeSantis’ approach to the issue. He talks about resilience but generally eschews the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” His office did not respond to a question about whether the governor views himself as an environmentalist.
“I would say human activity contributes to changes in the environment,” he said in 2018. “I am not a global warming person. I do not want that label on me,” WLRN-FM reported.
DeSantis has also gone to war over the sustainable investment movement. He announced in July that he wanted to restrict the state’s investment managers from advancing “woke ideology” by considering environmental or social factors when investing public money (Climatewire, July 28).
Fighting against policies he deems “woke” was a central theme in the run up to DeSantis’ reelection. The Florida governor signed legislation earlier this year known as the Stop WOKE Act, which limits how race and gender can be taught in schools and businesses.
Culture wars, not the environment, dominated DeSantis’ reelection campaign this year, said Moncrief.
DeSantis coasted to victory earlier this month against Democrat Charlie Crist, who previously served as Florida’s Republican governor.
“There was a perception that DeSantis wasn’t as vulnerable on environmental issues,” said Gil Smart, executive director of the Florida environmental advocacy group VoteWater.
DeSantis “has tried to style himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and to some extent I think that’s accurate,” Smart said.
The Florida governor hasn’t gone as far on environmental issues as some advocates would like, Smart added.
But he said, “It could be worse.”