Anna Eskamani

Rights for the Environment?

Voters are getting philosophical and Tallahassee doesn’t like it. 

The United Nations released its updated report on climate change, sounding the alarms and making it fairly clear: Humans are the root cause of climate change, and it may be too late to reverse the damage. 

Each of the last four decades has been hotter than the last, warming at a rate that far surpasses what the natural rate of warming would be. According to the report, “the scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.” 

In order to stop the warming, humans would need to be carbon neutral by 2050. An ambitious goal that many countries are already working toward. 

Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani, is sounding the alarm too. In the Florida House, she is part of a small group of progressives prioritizing environmental protections. 

Her latest bill, HB 6003, would allow municipalities the authority to grant legal rights to their natural environments. After Orange County passed a Bill of Rights for its Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers—the first of its kind in Florida—republicans in Tallahassee passed a resolution preventing any municipality from granting rights to nature; HB 6003 would strike that resolution down. 

If the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights was legal, residents could sue on behalf of the rivers to stop any development or pollution that could harm the ecosystem. 

“When there is development or human behavior encroaching on the livelihood of an ecosystem, that ecosystem doesn’t always have a voice,” Eskamani said. “But as humans we can stand up for that ecosystem.” 

Eskamani noted the Bill of Rights grants standing to the county and its citizens to put forth legal action on behalf of the rivers, making it easier to litigate against polluters or harmful development. 

Orange County wouldn’t be the only locality to grant rights to the environment, as similar policies have taken hold in Pennsylvania, and in 2017 New Zealand granted personhood to the Whanganui River in order to grant it legal protections. 

Eskamani knows that in the Florida legislature, any bill by a Democrat often faces an uphill battle, especially a bill as philosophical as this,. “cCandidly, repealers, especially filed by a Democrat, are very unlikely to move, but we do it in an effort to send a message to our colleagues, and to send a message to the special interests: We’re not going to let you dismantle our environment.,” she said. 

TECO Energy, which services the Tampa Bay area, donated $100,000 to Gov. DeSantis’ reelection campaign this year. 

While there are no current efforts in Jacksonville to legally protect the St. Johns River, local groups are making progress on multiple other fronts. The St. Johns Riverkeeper, Scenic Jacksonville and the North Florida Green Chamber all successfully lobbied the city to hire its first resiliency officer. Former White House staffer Anne Colignese was hired for the position in July. (Colignese was not available for interviews at the time of publication.)

“It’s a step in the right direction because this person could have an impact on the city’s efforts to be greener,” said Green Chamber Executive Director Christina Kelcourse. The Green Chamber works with businesses to reduce water runoff, pollution and practices that harm the environment. 

Kelcourse notes that August is water quality month, and businesses can play a large part in the protection of the St. Johns River. “If you have contaminated things on your property or in warehouses, [you need to have]  stormwater management in place so that if a storm comes you’re not polluting the water if your business floods,” she said.

When will residents be able to sue polluters head on? Only time will tell. 

About John Aloszka