While you were worrying about rising sea levels…
Glass half full or half empty?
Cary Pigman, a Republican state representative from a rural district in central Florida, acknowledged that changes in climate create the potential for increased risk of disease spread. He also acknowledged that financial problems in recent years have led to budget cuts. “It’s been far more than just belt-tightening,” Pigman said.
However, Pigman, who is also an emergency medical physician, is confident that Florida’s doctors will be prepared to handle any increase in mosquito-borne and other diseases. “This comes down to just increased awareness on the part of physicians that these diseases will become more likely,” he said.
Hence the principal job of the Department of Health, accoring to Pigman, is being being capable of monitoring disease levels and communicating risk potential to medical professionals, “so that providers know what to be looking for.”
Moreover, Pigman believes an improving economy will ameliorate the effects of recent cuts. “As the economy improves and state revenues improve, I think you’ll see some of that funding come back,” he said.
In an effort to gauge the views of policymakers on the health and economic impacts of climate change in Florida, Remapping Debate reached out to 21 sitting state senators and representatives.
We focused on legislators in relevant committees, such as Matt Hudson, chair of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, and Joe Negron, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Remapping Debate asked policymakers whether they acknowledged the disease and other health risks of climate change, as well as the attendant economic perils to the housing market, and what, if any, was the state’s responsibility in preparing for and responding to these threats.
Leaving aside those who cited scheduling issues and other conflicts, 15 either affirmatively declined to comment or simply did not respond. Hudson and Negron were among those who did not respond to repeated telephone and email inquiries.
The Florida Department of Health also told Remapping Debate that it was confident that, should there be an increased risk of disease transmission, it would be capable of dealing with the situation. But the Department of Health did not respond to our inquiry as to how it would be able to keep up in the face of reduced budgets, other than to state that it “continues to build partnerships in the private and public sectors at the local, state, and federal level to make sure we are prepared for these events.”
Some environmental and public health professionals do think the situation in Florida has begun to right itself since the early years of Scott’s tenure. Anamarie Garces, executive director of the public health nonprofit Urban Health Partnerships, points to the fact that the Department of Health recently obtained a federal grant, funded and designed by the CDC, devoted to studying the possible health consequences of climate change.
Garces also points to concerted efforts to address climate change and all of its possible effects on a local level, such as the Southeastern Florida Regional Compact on Climate Change, an alliance between four counties to develop preparedness, adaptation, and mitigation plans. Nevertheless, even to the optimistic, these efforts do not represent a solution. “I think there’s a lot left to do,” Garces said.
Others are more pessimistic and focus on the larger trend of disinvestment from public health and climate change preparedness. “I think the Florida Health Department, in its time, was regarded as one of the best health departments in the country,” said Morris, the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “The reality, however, is that, with the current governor, there has been a dramatic cutback in the health department budget.”
“I am concerned about the ability of the state of Florida to deal with more general public health issues,” Morris added. “My concern is the political judgment where, in an effort to cut taxes, the health department has had its ability [curtailed] to react to public health issues including, potentially, climate change.”
Pafford, the state representative from Palm Beach County, characterized Florida’s current legislature as unwilling to confront the realities of a changing climate. This, he said, is true even of pressing issues that the state is already experiencing, like sea level rise, and therefore especially true of more complex and distant challenges like increased disease risk. As to those, he said, “we’re not reacting at all.”