Vance Herbener’s hometown of Port Charlotte was in the path of Hurricane Ian’s Sept. 29 sweep of Southwest Florida.
The 21-year-old UF environmental science senior and external vice president of the UF Environmental Science Alliance saw the community, which is about 40 minutes north of Fort Myers, left in shambles. It was leveled mostly by wind damage that left entire buildings as nothing more than debris drifting through the flooded streets.
The sight isn’t something Herbener will soon forget, he said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “I grew up there.”
The storm, one of the fourth-strongest to ever hit the state along with Hurricane Charley in 2004, is just one sign of a shifting Florida climate. As sea levels rise and temperatures climb, the effects of climate change continue to become evident across the state.
In the general election, calming these consequences is a top priority for climate-conscious Florida voters like Herbener. Candidates across the aisle have proposed legislative and executive action in response to mitigate these effects and prepare the state for the worsening conditions of climate change. But some voters say it isn’t enough as researchers warn of the impending consequences of a shifting climate.
Although experts say climate change doesn’t directly cause hurricanes, Esther Mullens, a UF professor who studies extreme weather and climate dynamics in the geography department, said the September hurricane may owe its severity to the climate crisis.
Evidence that climate change raises the frequency of hurricanes isn’t definite, Mullens said, but early studies of Hurricane Ian indicate higher atmospheric temperatures may have intensified the storm’s rainfall.
As Florida recovers from the hurricane, Gov. Ron DeSantis has mobilized state rescue and relief efforts. President Joe Biden has praised DeSantis for Florida’s aid distribution, adding they were “completely in lockstep” despite existing political tensions.
Former Rep. Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and DeSantis’ opponent in the general election, said he was confident in the combined capacity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state and the federal government to lead recovery efforts.
“It’s all hands on deck at a time like this,” Crist said. “It’s what people need.”
Attention is on the environment in the wake of the hurricane, but voters like Bob Tancig say climate change should always be a higher priority. Despite immediate effects, Tancig, a 69-year-old member of the Climate Reality Project and Gainesville resident, said most people don’t consider climate change to be as drastic of a crisis as it actually is.
“They talk about the climate crisis as one of these wicked problems, that the impacts are far to the future, and it’ll affect somebody else far away,” he said. “There is this sense I think people have that, ‘Well, it’s no big deal. What’s one or two degrees?’”
But those one or two degrees are a big deal, Tancig said.
The reality of the climate crisis is immediate, Tancig said. The damages brought by Hurricane Ian aren’t anomalies — they’re the new normal, he said. Soon, Tancig said severe storms will become commonplace.
Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, said several factors affect a hurricane’s severity. These storms thrive in warm, deep ocean water, which Hurricane Ian accessed once it reached the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, Shepherd said.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the areas most affected by a warming climate, Shepherd said, with water temperatures rising.
Rapid intensification cannot conclusively be attributed to climate change, but hurricanes are rapidly intensifying at a higher frequency, he said.
Irrespective of all these factors, storms will create a greater storm surge due to rising sea levels from climate change, he said.
Florida also suffers from the expanding bull’s eye effect, which considers the number of people who have moved into harm’s way. As development increases, more people will be concentrated in larger areas, leading to more severe damages to people and property, Shepherd said.
However, the political reality is that elected officials will continue to rebuild because that is what their constituents want, Shepherd said. Forcing people out of their homes has been ineffective historically, but rebuilding without proper adaptation techniques will inevitably land residents in the same position year after year.
Adaptation strategies face consistent and divisive challenges in Florida. In 2020, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers proposed a sea wall along six miles of Biscayne Bay in Miami. The decision received backlash from residents and climate scientists alike, and the plan to build the wall was scrapped.
In fact, sea walls might enable further intensification of developments in low-lying coastal areas leading to greater storm exposure, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Experts have also proposed rewilding the coast, not subsidizing coastal insurance and developing sustainable communities further inland, known as strategic retreat, as adaptive solutions.
Jordyn Golden, a climate activist and UF sustainability studies senior, said strategic retreat would prevent fatalities in barrier islands such as Sanibel, where the storm surge and winds were so severe they collapsed the only bridge into the island.
“I don’t think that they should be building on barrier islands that are naturally there to protect the state,” Golden said.
While extreme weather is a concern, voters like Tancig say clean energy is key to combating the climate crisis. He doesn’t advocate for living in caves or going completely powerless, but Tancig said he wants to see Florida make the transition to renewable energy in the face of global warming.
“We want to maintain this quality of life, this standard of living, but it has to be with clean energy,” he said. “The energy we’re using now is having these consequences.”
Less than 5% of Florida’s total energy output comes from renewable resources like solar power, and the state alone accounts for 7% of U.S. nonrenewable energy output as of 2020, according to studies from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Florida also doesn’t have renewable energy standards, which require utility and power companies to generate a certain amount of energy from renewable sources.
Elected officials are generally on Tancig’s side, demonstrating bipartisan support for renewable energy.
Crist vowed to put solar panels on one million Florida homes if elected. His platform highlights a transition to clean energy and emphasizes Florida’s natural solar resource.
DeSantis leans less toward total energy upheaval and more toward adapting to changing climate. The past four years of Floridian climate legislation have fallen under DeSantis’ resiliency efforts, which aim to prepare Florida for inevitable rising water levels and a changing climate.
DeSantis signed a state Senate bill last year that allocated more than $640 million to these efforts, more than $500 million to a statewide flooding and sea level rise resilience plan to propose projects across the state. The plan’s first year of analysis distributed almost $600,000 to Alachua County for drainage improvements to combat stormwater runoff and flooding, according to the legislation.
Despite the political efforts, voters like Herbener feel politicians and elected officials should do more to address the climate crisis. With effects already apparent, Herbener said candidates need to combat the changing climate sooner rather than later.
“Time is running out,” he said. “Getting to the problem is becoming more and more important.”
Fern is a junior journalism and sustainability studies major. He previously reported for the University and Metro desks. Now, he covers the environmental beat on the Enterprise desk. When he's not reporting, you can find him dancing to house music at Barcade or taking photos on his Olympus.
Heather Bushman is a fourth-year journalism and political science student and the enterprise elections reporter. She previously wrote and edited for the Avenue desk and reported for WUFT News. You can usually find her writing, listening to music or writing about listening to music. Ask her about synesthesia or her album tier list sometime.