Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed the state’s first chief science officer on Monday, marking what he called the state’s “commitment to science-based solutions.”
DeSantis appointed Thomas Frazer, a biologist who has been director of the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment since 2012 and previously worked as acting director of the UF Water Institute.
In the new position, he will coordinate Florida’s research, data and scientific work and make sure officials have the scientific analysis they need to tackle the state’s environmental problems.
Frazer’s research has looked at pollution’s effects on water. He’s also worked on research involving climate change. He’s been on the faculty advisory committee with the UF Climate Institute and served as chairman of the Climate Science Faculty Committee. Climate change will be a part of his office’s mission.
“We have to look at the facts of what is going on in the environment and can we bring science to bear on those changes happening now and in the future?” Frazer said.
Under DeSantis’ predecessor, fellow Republican Rick Scott, some state employees said they were discouraged from even using the terms “climate change” and “global warming.”
Asked whether he thought climate change was a threat to Florida, DeSantis said the issue was “politicized” but noted that he considers sea-level rise a serious threat.
“My environmental policy is just to do things that benefit Floridians. And the idea that you’re signing up for some type of agenda – I don’t want to … send a signal that that’s what I’m doing because I’m not doing that,” DeSantis said. “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to do what works.”
DeSantis said the appointment keeps with his promise to make “sound science” a Florida priority.
“As one of Florida’s leading environmental researchers, Dr. Frazer understands the unique water issues facing our state and the actions we must take to solve them,” he said Monday. “Since day one, my administration has been laser focused on addressing our pressing environmental challenges.”
On January 10, DeSantis signed an Executive Order that pledged to secure $2.5 billion over the next four years to restore the Everglades. It created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and promised to work with local communities to invest in green infrastructure. It also created the chief science officer position.
Frazer will have his work cut out for him. In July, Scott declared a state of emergency for several counties to help local governments deal with an unprecedented toxic algal bloom that killed thousands of marine animals, including dolphins and manatees. The bloom, which affected more than 100 miles of Florida shoreline, also sent people to the doctor with respiratory problems and eye issues.
For years, Florida has experienced red tides, but climate change is expected to make conditions more favorable for the bacteria, meaning these blooms will probably become more frequent and more widespread, research shows.
Florida is especially vulnerable to climate change and will need to spend billions to prepare, studies show. Warmer temperatures are expected to bring more insect-borne diseases, health problems like asthma and heat stroke, and more intense hurricanes and storms.
Sea level rise alone is projected to outpace the global average for Southeast Florida. The region could see nearly a foot more of water in the short term. There’s also a chance that more than $346 billion in property value will be below sea level by 2100, studies show.
The state has seen more flooding, more problems with infrastructure and challenges with basics like flushing a toilet, that could become increasingly difficult for thousands of residents who rely on septic tanks.
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Frazer said he’s honored by the appointment.
“Our environment and waterways make Florida unique,” he said. “I look forward to working with the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection on ways we can use sound science and research to improve our state’s water quality and protect the environment.”