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Student-Led Climate Action Is Flourishing In Florida

Above photo: University of Florida students at a September climate demonstration in Gainesville. Instagram/Climate Action Gator.

Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to block the clean energy transition.

University of Florida students are adopting Green New Deal measures and showing how public schools can lead on climate.

The University of Florida made history last month when its student senate became the first at a public university to pass a climate resolution in support of Green New Deal policies. The “Green New Deal for UF” is a statement of support for bold, progressive climate action put forward by students at a time when the far-right holds a near monopoly on power in the state.

“This is big news for the climate movement at universities — not just in Florida, but everywhere,” said Cameron Driggers, a UF freshman. “It’s a first of its kind resolution that pushes back against the narrative that some states are lost causes for climate action.”

Driggers is part of a new generation of young Florida activists resisting the extreme policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority. From defunding diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in higher education to discouraging institutions from divesting from fossil fuels, numerous DeSantis policies have targeted universities and put students at the center of Florida’s culture wars. Yet, even in the face of such obstacles, student activists are making forward progress.

A broad alliance of student groups, organizing as the Green New Deal for UF Coalition, rallied in favor of the recent resolution. This widespread showing of support was crucial at a school where student government politics — like Florida politics generally — is often deeply divisive.

“The Green New Deal resolution passed by unanimous consent, despite the fact that there are two major parties on campus, and the ostensibly more progressive one is the minority,” Driggers said. Key supporters included Sunrise Movement Gainesville, Climate Action Gator, Planned Parenthood Generation Action at UF, Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Pride Student Union.

“Our student government is one of the most powerful in the country,” Driggers explained. “It controls an annual budget of over $20 million, and the student body president has voting power on the school’s Board of Trustees. This gives students a lot of discretion to implement climate solutions on our own and to push for change not just from outside the administration, but from within.”

A growing student-led movement

Driggers got his start as an activist in high school, organizing against the state’s infamous HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law by DeSantis in 2022. Driggers worked to help organize class walkouts, protests at local school board meetings and a successful campaign to vote out a school board member opposed to giving students access to LGBTQ-friendly books. These experiences helped impress on him how student organizing can have an impact — but also how the traditional nonprofit organizing model in Florida can fail to effectively harness young people’s power.

“I’ve talked to many student activists who feel their efforts have been coopted or even exploited by big nonprofit organizations that try to tell us what to do,” Driggers said. In response, he and other leading Gen Z activists in the state founded Youth Action Fund — a new, youth-led nonprofit that supports student activism in Florida. The organization, which launched last fall, provides stipends of up to $1,000 for student organizers as well as advice and mentorship.

“Our goal is to center distributed organizing and put power in the hands of young people themselves,” Driggers said. “Instead of building a campaign and begging students to join, we turn that model on its head. Students come to us and tell us what they want to make happen. By helping people organize around issues they’re passionate about, we’ve been able to grow much quicker than other organizations.”

In January, Youth Action Fund helped coordinate a statewide lobby day called Reclaim Florida’s Future, which brought over 200 youth to the state capital to urge their representatives to support climate-friendly policies. While many legislators weren’t as receptive as students hoped, the experience was instructive.

“Our members got to see just how challenging Florida politics can be, and what kinds of people are in charge of the state,” said Melanie Schepmans of Sunrise Gainesville, which was also involved. “It helped them understand how bad the situation is and how widespread climate change denial is in state government.”

Like Driggers, Schepmans got her start as an activist in high school before coming to the University of Florida. Now she, Driggers and a broad coalition of other activists and campus groups are pushing for the school to act on climate amid state-level gridlock — partly through the Green New Deal resolution. Although not itself binding, supporters see the five-part resolution as a step toward far-reaching change. It calls on the university to adopt a revised climate action plan, guarantee transparency regarding the school’s current investments and carbon emissions, divest from fossil fuels, ban money from fossil fuel companies for research, and support a just and clean energy transition.

“As a major public university, UF plays an important role in Florida state politics,” Schepmans said. “And with that leadership comes responsibility. We should set a good example for how universities in Florida and beyond can address the climate crisis.”

Students at UF have taken inspiration from recent climate wins at higher education institutions elsewhere in the United States — such as New York University, which committed to divest from fossil fuels last fall. However, UF presents a very different organizing environment from many of these schools.

“I noticed a pattern of climate action moving forward at more affluent, elite institutions,” Driggers said. “This can make it seem like it’s only possible to win at rich schools. We wanted to break that mold and show change can happen at a public university in Florida.”

UF’s powerful student government can take some steps to implement goals of the resolution on its own. For example, it can fund electrification and decarbonization of certain campus buildings over which students have direct jurisdiction. However, other actions require authorization from the university administration or Board of Trustees. This puts the Green New Deal resolution at the center of student efforts to push back against the DeSantis administration’s extreme agenda.

The DeSantis effect

Life at the University of Florida is very different now from 15-20 years ago, when the school was on the cutting edge of efforts to combat the climate crisis.

“We’re the only one of the country’s top 10 public research universities not to have an updated climate action plan,” Driggers said. That’s a stark turnaround from 2006, when then-UF President Bernie Machen was one of the first signatories to the President’s Climate Commitment, an action that paved the way for release of the first UF Climate Action Plan in 2009. In 2021, the Office of Sustainability led the effort to develop an updated plan. However, adoption of what’s now known as the Climate Action Plan 2.0 stalled after current UF President Ben Sasse — formerly a Republican U.S. Senator from Nebraska — took the helm at the school last year.

Despite his prior lack of experience running a large university, Sasse’s appointment was par for the course in a state where powerful figures aligned with DeSantis are regularly elevated to influential roles in the public university system. In addition to blocking climate action, Sasse eliminated 13 full-time DEI positions earlier this year. That move was a response to a 2023 edict from the Florida Board of Governors prohibiting the use of state or federal funds for DEI programs. (Most members of the Board of Governors for the state university system are appointed by the Florida governor’s office).

“Between climate action getting blocked and DEI programs being gutted, we’re facing a real ‘students versus administration’ dynamic,” Driggers said. “At other universities, students can take for granted that decision makers believe climate change is happening, even if they aren’t doing what’s necessary to address it. But here, some administrators think the problem’s a communist hoax.”

Such a stance is out of step with public opinion in Florida. According to a poll released last October by Florida Atlantic University, 90 percent of Floridians believe climate change is occurring, while 69 percent support state-level climate action. Meanwhile, a vibrant climate and environmental movement in the state belies Florida’s recent reputation as a hotbed of anti-progressive politics.

“I was born in Florida, but moved away at a young age,” said Campbell Al-Khafaji, president of the UF student group Climate Action Gator. “I gained a lot of preconceived ideas about the state while I was away — from its people and government to the natural environment. But there are so many groups doing work on conservation and climate action here. Now, as a student at UF, I’ve fallen in love with Florida.”

The DeSantis administration’s attempt to turn climate action into a type of bogeyman seems to have little to do with public opinion, and is more related to the fact that in modern Republican Party politics, blocking the clean energy transition has been wrapped up with a host of other conservative priorities.

“We have to be very intentional about framing and messaging around climate,” Schepmans said. “Florida framing means relating our causes to things the people in charge care about, which might mean finding compromises that are a step in the right direction.”

At UF, the fight for climate action is far from over, but student climate activists are eager to build on the work they’ve done so far. Copies of the Green New Deal resolution will be delivered to President Sasse, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, DeSantis and other university and state decision makers.

“A good first step for our school would be to adopt the Climate Action Plan 2.0, which was developed with expert input and is tailored specifically for UF’s needs,” Al-Khafaji said. “From there, we can work toward goals that will take more time, like fossil fuel divestment and transparency.”

How the UF administration will respond to the most unified call for sweeping climate action students have put forward remains to be seen. With Sasse at the helm, getting the university to take bold action will be an uphill climb, but students are already plotting their next steps.

“We just got back from spring break after winning with the resolution, and we’re jumping right into planning,” Al-Khafaji said.

What is certain is that a campus-based climate movement is thriving in Florida, even as the state’s leaders attempt to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

“In Florida, we’re fighters,” Schepmans said. “And this Green New Deal campaign has taught us we can persevere and actually win. I want students across the country to know that regardless of your administration or what state you live in, students can get things done for the climate.”

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