When it comes to using independent science to affirm what is happening in the real world, the State of Florida is abdicating its responsibility.

Miami, March For Science, April 22, 2017

Miami, March For Science, April 22, 2017

The direction comes from the top. One of Rick Scott’s first acts as governor was to slash the science budget of the state agency charged with Everglades restoration; the South Florida Water Management District.

Environmentalists had good reason to be alarmed. Restoring the Everglades ecosystem requires attention to biodiversity on the microscopic scale. It had been determined, after decades of litigation in federal court, that more than ten parts per billion of phosphorous, laid out by the ton by Big Sugar in its fertilizer run-off, and the Everglades dies. Firing the scientists is not a route to success.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine, From “Arks of the Apocalypse”, published a dismal essay on the state of the planet that resonates in the Everglades.

“There is,” he said, “a very intense feeling that we’re losing biodiversity quicker than we can understand it.”

That’s happening very intensely too in the Everglades. Decades ago a very public decision by Congress and the State of Florida lead to a massive investment using science to guide the restoration of Everglades biodiversity. It was called, at the time, the most comprehensive environmental restoration project on the planet. It also resonated with the emerging concern about global warming. One Glades activist, Joe Podgor, famously quipped, “Saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.”

A growing consensus among scientists holds that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by humanity’s impact on planetary ecosystems. We are responsible for the current die-off of species, not some asteroid or volcanic eruption.

In Florida we are responsible for massive damage to the Everglades. The main culprit: pollution by Big Sugar streaming out of 400,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee.

Future generations will examine what happened. According to a Sunday Tampa Bay Times report,

The head of the state agency overseeing the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration project said this week he will no longer let his employees cooperate with the top scientists who are supposed to be advising the project.

South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonacci declared at a public meeting Thursday that his agency will no longer work with the National Academies of Science — one of the nation’s premier scientific organizations — because science advisers there won’t “tend to their knitting.”

The report by Craig Pittman, “Everglades restoration project leader tells top scientists: Stay in your lane”, is a sharp reminder that the disintegration of federal authority for protecting the environment is providing cover for throttling independent science in the states by big polluters who control the levers of government.

Despite the fact that Floridians do want the environment protected, the current fad of lies and misdirection casts a pall on prospects ahead. The Times notes the phenomenon:

Academics have even taken to studying the psychology of this human response — one such book, for example, is titled “The Anthropology of Extinction: Essays on Culture and Species Death.”

Back in 2000, when the road map for the state federal partnership — costing billions — was established, the involvement of the National Academy of Sciences was the only point where environmentalists held hope for the massive plan to restore the Everglades. (I was chair of Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter Everglades Committee at the time.)

In other words, we knew — and decision makers agreed — that the complexity of Everglades restoration needed independent, fact-based assessments of progress; not just to ensure that results were being properly organized but also to be a truth-teller in the case that special interests railroaded billions of taxpayer dollars to line their own pockets while calling the theft something else. Like “progress”.

State politicians are reinforced by quid pro quo’s from Big Sugar. Their impulses, with respect to Everglades restoration, were intended to be balanced by federal interests: the US Department of Interior — with responsibility for America’s national parks — and the US Army Corps of Engineers, the earth-moving, canal building, river-channeling agency and cooperative partner of the South Florida Water Management District.

Since environmentalists were left on the sidelines in 2000 with Everglades restoration, leaving protection of the public interests to insiders, the question arose: who would vet, or ensure, that Everglades restoration was moving in the right direction, with the right sequence of projects and public investments?

The Everglades panel of the National Academies of Science was a sturdy and extraordinarily important part of the plan to reassure the public that billions would not be wasted or diverted to paper-over the profit motive of wetlands destroyers.

The NAS panels take their responsibilities with extraordinary care, substance and skill. Unlike Florida-centric science programs, where careers can be blown up if agency funders decide they don’t like one’s shoe size, the independence of the National Academies is foundational to the national interest in fact.

The National Academies of Science is America’s top collection of scientific minds. Congress created it in 1863 to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.” Election to its ranks is considered one of the highest honors in science.

Antonacci’s complaints drew no comments from his bosses at the water district, but Cara Capp of the National Parks and Recreation Association said he’s making a mistake.
“It’s disappointing to see the state of Florida turn its back on the scientific body that has contributed so much to our knowledge about the Everglades,” Capp said. She said her advocacy group “feels strongly that independent science must be the driving factor for restoring the Everglades. 

So did Congress when it approved the Everglades restoration program in 2000. One requirement that it put on the project was that the people building it frequently consult with scientists to make sure they were doing it right.”

Antonacci, Gov. Rick Scott’s former general counsel, has turned the South Florida Water Management District into an office extension of Big Sugar. He is taking aim at fact; a mini-version of the tragedy playing out in the nation’s capitol, where another ideologue — Scott Pruitt, head of US EPA — putting a chainsaw to the budgets of federal scientists studying climate change.

Antonacci’s suggestion that the University of Florida’s Water Institute could replace the National Academies is an insult to the voters and taxpayers.

Science matters, and in the face of unfathomable transformations we triggered in nature, we need to change course. Sadly, when changing course affects the profit margins of the state’s biggest campaign contributors, the State of Florida doesn’t have the guts to stand up for what ultimately sustains us all.  Only enlightened voters can rectify that injustice.