The US state of Florida has become the first in the nation to appoint a chief science officer on the state level, to help address a range of problems ranging from water quality to rising sea levels due to climate change.
Governor Ron DeSantis has appointed Dr. Tom Frazer, former director of the University of Florida’s school of natural resources and environment, to serve under the state’s secretary of environmental protection and provide policymakers with an accurate and up-to-date scientific perspective on the state’s problems.
The move is seen as part of a wider reversal of former Republican governor Rick Scott’s hands-off environmental policies which included cutting the water management budget, stripping water quality protections, and frequently deferring to industry interests instead of keeping pollution in check. Scott also eliminated phrases like climate change and global warming from official discourse, according to The Guardian.
Critics say these moves worsened toxic ‘red tide’ algae blooms that have proven disastrous for both wildlife and tourism. The state is also facing rising sea levels that threaten to submerge the state by the end of the century, and an increased risk of strong hurricanes like last year’s Hurricane Michael, which was the first category 5 storm in the state since 1992. Some experts have warned of a total collapse of the state’s economy as a result of these environmental and climate pressures.
But Frazer, a veteran environmental scientist, envisions an opportunity for progress rather than a crisis.
“It’s a very exciting time in the state of Florida,” Frazer told The Guardian. “There’s a clear focus in this state right now on water quality issues, so that is my priority moving forward. Rising sea levels are a priority issue and factor prominently in how we’re looking at some of the other issues we’re dealing with.”
Frazer says he will help distill the findings and recommendations of scientists to help inform policy decisions on a state level.
“There is a lot of information out there and it’s distributed widely throughout the state. It’s important to harness that information, simplify it, provide it to individuals responsible for making policy and carrying out management actions, so in that regard science is intended to really inform those policy decisions.”
Among his first moves as chief science officer, Frazer will work with a new task force to address the algae blooms, which environmentalists say may have been exacerbated by agricultural runoff.
But in the long-run, Frazer’s biggest challenges may be climate-related. South Florida is among the regions of the US most vulnerable to climate change, with rising tidal levels, flooding, stronger hurricanes, disappearing coral, and extended mosquito seasons already affecting life in the state. Building resilience to climate change in such a vulnerable state will be a high priority as these effects intensify.
According to the state’s secretary for environmental protection, Noah Valenstein:
“The idea of having the first chief resilience officer is clear recognition of the importance of dealing with sea level rise and resiliency issues throughout Florida.”