Dunleavy: An Unlikely Environmental Edge
Governor DeSantis’ messaging focused on climate change adaptation strategies gives the governor an edge over other Republican presidential candidates.
As the presidential nominee process for 2024 barrels towards us, future candidates are deep into planning their campaigns, refining their messages and scheduling rallies. As Governor Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and his staff do the same, they ought to consider the governor’s somewhat brilliantly dexterous environmental policies. Governor DeSantis’ environmental strategies appeal to environmentally-conscious conservatives, giving him an edge over other Republican presidential candidates come 2024. DeSantis has successfully avoided being painted as economically damaging or leftist, which causes Republican and Republican-leaning voters to balk at voting for moderates or Democrats with strong climate change policies. In stark contrast to Democrats, Governor DeSantis’ environmental policies instead capitalize on fears of economic damage and “leftist” labeled policies. By assuring Republicans that his environmental policies will exclude leftist beliefs, DeSantis quiets these concerns.
Although DeSantis has not yet launched a presidential bid, Republicans should be prepared for DeSantis to be a competitor for the Republican nomination. Political pundits and much of the public alike expect his candidacy due to his rapidly growing popularity, campaign-style rallies in major cities and an uptick in big donations. A Quinnipiac University poll indicates that Republican and Republican-leaning voters favor former President Trump over DeSantis, with Trump earning 43% of the hypothetical Republican and Republican-leaning vote and DeSantis earning 41% of that vote. However, with the nomination process more than a year away, DeSantis has plenty of time to tilt the scales in his favor. With the right strategy, DeSantis can win over environmentally-conscious conservatives who have climate change on the top of their minds. Those voters would be unlikely to vote for Trump if Trump’s opponents call enough attention to his disastrous climate record, leaving those voters to decide between Biden or a Republican candidate.
Many Republican voters are concerned about the climate and support environmentally-friendly policy goals. More than a third of all Republicans and Republican-leaning voters and almost two-thirds of moderate Republicans think the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effect of climate change. Almost two-thirds of Republicans overall think the US government and businesses should do at least a moderate amount to address the effects of climate change, and nearly two-thirds of Republicans think the average person should do at least a moderate amount to deal with climate change.
Regardless, even Republicans who care about reducing climate change’s effects are concerned about the economic impacts of such policies. Only a quarter of moderate Republicans say climate policies help the US economy. Some Republican and Republican-leaning voters worry that Democrats and environmentalists are willing to cause energy poverty if it means reducing or cutting the use of fossil fuels. Reducing fossil fuel production and implementing additional taxes on fossil fuel companies, Republican politicians argue, would increase the costs of electricity and gas, making energy bills unplayable for many Americans. While pushing this narrative, Republican politicians of course neglect scientists’ findings that a clean energy transition will lead to trillions of dollars in savings for the US economy.
DeSantis’' climate change policies have focused almost entirely on adaptation strategies, allowing DeSantis to steer clear of fear-mongering surrounding mitigation policies. There are two approaches to addressing climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation tactics seek to lessen the severity of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while adaptation strategies strive to adjust to climate change’s current and future effects. By focusing exclusively on adaptation, DeSantis can address the effects of climate change without acknowledging humans’ role in creating and accelerating those changes. For example, in DeSantis’ first few weeks as governor, he signed an executive order that appointed a chief science officer and created the Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection. Throughout his tenure, DeSantis signed several bills that dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to fund projects to protect infrastructure from sea rise, storms and inland flooding. His allies have applauded his adaptation plans as bold and a sign of leadership that prioritized protecting Florida communities.
At the same time, DeSantis has done nothing to prevent further climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and opposes government interference in industry and emissions. It is a global scientific consensus that human action and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant cause of global warming, which causes the increasing severity and frequency of storms, hurricanes and inland flooding that plague Floridians. By not mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, DeSantis turns a blind eye to the root cause of the climate-induced suffering of Floridians. For example, DeSantis supported and signed a bill that banned local governments from pushing for state utilities to use clean energy, and he blocked the state pension fund from considering environmental, social and governance metrics when making investments.
Yet, his approach of completely excluding mitigation tactics successfully escapes right-wing critiques of stifling economic activity, as DeSantis’ policies avoid restraining industry and reject the idea of collective action to protect the environment. DeSantis’ policies thus appeal to the 20% of Americans who think human activity does not play a role in climate change and the 42% of moderate Republicans that think human activity contributes only some to the changing climate.
DeSantis’s anti-leftist narrative fits some Republican and Republican-leaning voters’ biggest worries about Democratic-led environmentalism. DeSantis works to create a hard boundary between his policies and Democrat’s climate policies, dodging Republican-leaning and Republican voters’ uneasiness about climate change concerns being exploited to achieve certain political agendas. In 2021, he answered a reporter’s question about climate change policies with, “What I’ve found is people, when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff.” He also warned, “Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology [into environmental policies].” More recently, DeSantis declared he is “not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists.”
DeSantis’s competitors in the 2024 presidential election will be put at a disadvantage if they neglect developing a clear environmental policy platform. His environmental plans are carefully sculpted to avoid conservative criticism and have strong follow through, making them appealing to Republicans and moderates.