After nearly two years, Florida – often described as ground-zero for climate change and sea-level rise – once again has a dedicated Chief Resiliency Officer to oversee conservancy and environmental efforts.
Governor Ron DeSantis recently appointed Dr. Wesley Brooks to serve as the state’s next Chief Resiliency Officer. The CRO is a role that will see Brooks act as an intermediary between local and state agencies in the ongoing fight to make Florida more resilient to climate change. Julia Nesheiwat was the first person appointed as CRO after DeSantis created the position in August 2019. Nesheiwat relinquished the role after just six months, however, after she was selected by the previous presidential administration to serve as Homeland Security Advisor.
Since Nesheiwat’s departure, the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection has served in both capacities, leading some to question whether the governor would consolidate the newly formed position. Former DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein juggled both roles from March 2020 until June 2021 and was followed by his successor at the DEP, Secretary Shawn Hamilton.
After 21 months without a separate Chief Resiliency Officer, the Ocean Conservancy applauded the long-awaited appointment.
“Ocean Conservancy has for a long time been asking the governor’s office to fill this as a standalone role again like he originally intended,” said J.P. Brooker, Director of Florida Conservancy for the Ocean Conservancy. “Put it back as a standalone role with a standalone person in that role – not just having the DEP Secretary wear multiple hats – and give resilience the paramount importance that it needs.”
Brooker believes the position is vital to a state that he said is the first in the country to feel the effects of climate change. Florida’s wildlife, reefs and the Everglades feel the brunt of the ecological impact, while sea-level rise, harmful algal blooms and more severe tropical weather all adversely affect the state’s economy.
Brooker said Florida is at an environmental crossroads, and resilience intertwines into the many aspects of climate change. He added that having a person with the power to show how these issues are connected and the resources to properly address them cohesively is critical for the state to avoid disaster.
“There are so many different municipalities and local governments and state-level initiatives on resilience,” explained Brooker. “Having a chief in place will bring all those threads together, weave them together, and hopefully give Florida a fighting chance of dealing with these resilience issues head-on.”
Brooker relayed that the Ocean Conservancy has previously worked with Brooks, and he is a known commodity in Florida environmental politics. Brooker is eager to continue working with the new chief and called him a great pick for the position.
Since January 2020, Brooks has served as Director of Federal Affairs for the DEP. He is credited with developing and implementing the Clean Water Act, reauthorizing the Coral Reef Conservation Act and has worked to expedite Everglades conservancy projects. Before his work with the DEP, Brooks was a member of Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff.
Brooks received bachelor’s degrees in both political science and biology from Duke University before earning his doctorate in ecological science from Rutgers University.
Brooker appreciates Brooks’ background in science and looks forward to the new resilience officer finding evidence-based solutions to avoid an environmental crisis. Brooker also noted that initiatives the state legislature has recently funded will keep Brooks busy from his first day on the job. These initiatives include hiring additional staff at the DEP and creating the Florida Flood Hub at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. Another immediate focal point will be a report on the state of affairs for Florida’s resilience programs.
“I think Wes (Brooks) is going to be charged with taking on a lot of those duties and ensuring that Florida is meeting its promises and the promises the legislature set out in terms of resilience in this most recent session,” said Brooker.
Brooker said Brooks also needs to be a visionary and predict new threats as they emerge. Brooker added that from his point of view, the state’s issues always come back to water quality and warming water. Adapting to new situations as they manifest is of the utmost importance, and Brooker used the sudden deaths of over 1,000 manatees and the loss of tens of thousands of acres of seagrass this year as examples.
“Not just adaptation, but mitigation too, and trying to pioneer a way forward for Florida to mitigate against climate change,” stated Brooker. “That will also help make us resilient, and I think that’s going to be a key function of his and should be a key function of his.”
Most of all, Brooker believes that having allies in Tallahassee to help bring awareness and cooperation from the local to the state level is critical for protecting Florida against the severe threats it is facing.
“We’re really looking forward to working with Wes to make that a reality,” said Brooker. “We know these problems are happening, and I’m frankly glad that there’s someone in this role again.”