In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Julia Nesheiwat, a former professor and State Department official who is currently serving as Florida’s first chief resilience officer. Nesheiwat elaborates on the unique challenges Florida faces, as a sprawling, populous state with many coastal communities potentially imperiled by climate change. Discussing the diverse responsibilities of her role, Nesheiwat explains how she works alongside leaders from government, academia, and the private sector to devise proactive solutions to climate challenges and encourage collaboration across the whole state.
Previously, Nesheiwat has served in combat with the US Army; earned her PhD from Tokyo Institute of Technology; and lectured on the geopolitics of energy, climate, and technology at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Stanford University, and the University of California, San Diego. Fittingly for the Florida resident, Nesheiwat likes to go stand-up paddleboarding and surfing.
Listen to the Podcast
- Seeing firsthand the effects of climate change: “My first government job and being in the military really opened my eyes to how the environment and climate issues really tie into the nexus of our foreign policy, our economic policies, our national security overall … It hit me first when I was deployed right after 9/11 in various combat zones and having to see firsthand—local villages and communities affected by the turmoil, whether it’s a natural disaster or a manmade disaster, not having running water, not having the resources necessary.” (1:44)
- What a chief resilience officer does: “[The governor] created this brand-new role last summer, where he was looking for a statewide coordinator to look at ways that we can bring in all our departments and agencies to focus on issues such as sea level rise, intense storms, aging infrastructure … all the issues that Floridians have had to deal with.” (3:42)
- Working together to resolve climate challenges: “There are no borders when it comes to these issues, and it’s certainly too expensive to go at it alone. So seeing [communities] be able to work in a collaborative way and seeing that forming across the state to really help offset some of these issues—it’s truly progressing.” (12:40)
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. This week, I talk with Julia Nesheiwat, the first chief resilience officer for the state of Florida. Dr. Nesheiwat has served in combat with the US Army. She got her PhD from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, her MA from Georgetown University and her BA from Stetson University in Florida. She has lectured on the geopolitics of energy, climate, and technology at the US Naval Postgraduate School, at Stanford, and at the University of California, San Diego. She loves to go stand up paddle boarding and surfing, and with this wonderful set of historical experiences, we're very pleased to have her join us for this episode where she's going to elaborate on how she's helping support Florida's resiliency efforts by coordinating across communities and organizations throughout the state. And together, working to cut red tape that tends to stall environmental efforts related to climate change response. Stay with us. Dr Nesheiwat, thank you so much for joining us here on Resources Radio.
Julia Nesheiwat: Thank you for having me.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well you have had a fascinating set of life experiences that have led you to where you are today. And I'm wondering, just to kick us off, if you could tell our listeners just a little bit about what steered your professional life towards working in environmental issues.
Julia Nesheiwat: Oh, thank you. Throughout my career and background, I've had the opportunity to wear many hats in many roles, but it's been amazing to see how interconnected these issues are. Starting off, just even with my first government job and being in the military for example, really opened my eyes to how the environment and climate issues really tie into the nexus of our foreign policy, our economic policies, our national security overall. And it hit me first when I was deployed right after 9/11 in various combat zones, and having to see firsthand—local villages and communities affected by the turmoil, whether it's a natural disaster or a manmade disaster, not having running water, not having the resources necessary, experiencing power outages—how can these folks really focus on security issues overall if they don't have the basic resources behind them? So it really hit home as I moved along in my career and in various assignments throughout the world and in the United States, on how interconnected these issues really are, whether it's at the state level, federal level, or down to even the local community level.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and I find it wonderful that after all of this rich set of international experiences, you've actually ended up back in Florida, which I believe is your home state. Is that right?
Julia Nesheiwat: Correct. Yes. I grew up in Central Florida, in Lake County and it's great to be back here and getting to travel all throughout the state reacquainting myself. I tend to forget how vast our state is, we're completely surrounded by water, a lot of our communities, 80 percent I believe, live on the coastline. So Florida is certainly unique on many levels.
Kristin Hayes: Well, so you're actually the first person, I believe, to hold the role of chief resilience officer for the entire state of Florida. So I wanted to start by asking you to describe that role. What are your core responsibilities? What was your mandate when you stepped into that role?
Julia Nesheiwat: Yes. Well absolutely, you're exactly right. Thanks to the governor's leadership, he created this brand new role last summer where he was looking for pretty much a statewide coordinator to look at ways that we can bring in all our departments and agencies to focus on issues such as sea level rise, intense storms, aging infrastructure, looking at impermeable services, all the issues that Floridians have had to deal with, particularly in situations of flooding, damaging homes and businesses. So being able to really carefully plan within the local state and federal with multiple stakeholders at the hand, it was a role where I would bring folks to the table to be able to strategize and coordinate and if anything, build partnerships with all these types of stakeholders, even down to the local communities.
And then finally being able to just advocate for high priority initiatives, for example, when we look at projects throughout the state—how do you really set apart what needs to be done; what are the lessons learned; how can you build on best practices; how do you bring in the funding that's needed, the state's competing with other states when it comes to federal funding. So being able to really harness that, bringing that together in a coordinated, holistic approach—it was really important for this role and understanding the importance of building that collaboration, if anything.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me because I imagine that responsibility for resilience actually lives across a tremendous number of state level departments and agencies, and having someone at the epicenter of that would be a really important part of having a coordinated strategy.
Julia Nesheiwat: Yeah and it's not just government to government, so I'm looking at working with the private sector, a lot of NGOs, a lot of our universities here in the state, and academia writ large, all have a role when it comes to looking at planning and focusing on implementation for what we have to face.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that's fascinating. So another question for you, over what timeframe are you thinking about your work? In other words, are you working to prepare Florida communities for sea level rise and those intense storms over the next 20 years? Or is your mandate, are you thinking about this in a much longer timeframe than that?
Julia Nesheiwat: Well I would say we absolutely should look at the long-term focus when it comes to these issues, but at the same time it helps to have a plan for the next 10, 20, 30 years when it comes to rising sea level, for example. So to be able to really prepare for what's coming, where communities can at least set up the right resiliency steps in place for that next storm. Our hurricane season is very, very long, between June and November and so whether you're dealing with the storm or preparing for the storm or even a recovery aspect of that, there's various levels of projections that we have to look at. And it's important that we look at those challenges and take them in consideration, especially when there's available technology and innovation that could be part of those solutions.
Kristin Hayes: Well we've mentioned sea level rise a couple of times and I just wanted to dive into that particular topic in a little bit more detail and ask if you can give us a broad overview of what the effects of sea level rise are in the state of Florida today. I think many of us non-Floridians, we've seen some examples with some media reports about sunny day flooding, where flooding is actually not even necessarily associated with an extreme weather event, it's just happening on a regular basis now. So how else is sea level rise actually manifesting itself in Florida today?
Julia Nesheiwat: Absolutely. I mean you're exactly right, there are certainly concerns with, of course, sunny day flooding and with issues with—for example, our septic tanks, heavy rains, king tides, that are impacting our state, all relevant to all the communities, even if you're not living on the coastline, we're experiencing it both, as well, inland. And by the way, with the fact that there's saturation issues from a storm that might've even passed a week after, so really trying to get an understanding of all the vulnerability assessments that are out there, and these compacts and coalitions that have formed throughout the state to address these issues. But you're exactly right, it's no longer about that hurricane or because of a severe thunderstorm, we are seeing these projections of rising sea level. The science is there, the data is there, we're seeing it firsthand, as the sea level rise impacts even our seawalls, and building on other solutions.
Kristin Hayes: And you mentioned earlier that, as I'm assuming all of our listeners will know, although perhaps it's worth noting anyway, that Florida is in fact pretty much completely surrounded by water and that seems to present some, I won't say unique, but extra challenges. Right, there's much more coastline, there are that many more coastal communities. But I imagine there are still things that Florida can learn from other states and potentially does learn other states, so can you say a little bit about how Florida compares, and if you do have ways of learning from your peers in other places.
Julia Nesheiwat: Absolutely. As I mentioned, there are a lot of lessons learned, and we're no stranger to these challenges. I've already been talking to various states, especially in Southeast part of the nation, about how we are going about putting these resiliency plans in place, creating a statewide strategy to serve as more like a guiding policy, if anything, being able to identify targets and goals that are tangible and that can really impact a community. Whether, again, if it's about highlighting a particular project—even just the basics of creating a list of all the correct points of contacts that focus on these issues, understanding who within the department of transportation, or with working with environmental protection, and having that catalog of individuals, and regional and state actors that can come together when you look at the steps to create a plan that's holistic and really collaborative, and that standpoint.
So I hate to beat a dead horse here, but that's really what it comes down to, as opposed to being in this reaction mode, being able to be proactive with a true, like I said, holistic plan that takes into consideration all of these challenges, is a great first step and I think that's something any community or any state could certainly learn from and benefit from.
Kristin Hayes: So one more sea level rise question for you in particular, we recently had a guest on Resources Radio, Bob Litterman and Bob is, he's leading a task force for US federal financial regulators on climate risk. That's certainly his area of expertise. And he actually mentioned that he thinks markets are starting to price in climate risks for coastal property. So I just wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Are you seeing or do you anticipate maybe in the coming years, a noticeable effect on coastal property values or investment in Florida, given some of these emerging and growing risks?
Julia Nesheiwat: Yeah, look, we must certainly take in consideration how do we protect our property and our property values. It's certainly an economic impact that certainly is taking shape, and so it's helpful to really include climate projections with any of that planning overall. So we're definitely looking into that as we see a way to protect, and understanding the financial risks behind it.
Kristin Hayes: So let's move on and talk about some of the strategy development, and some of the solutions that your team has been putting together. So what are some of the activities that you expect, given the conversations that you've had and the thinking you've done, that you expect coastal communities will need to take to reduce their exposure to some of these risks, and do they vary a lot around the state?
Julia Nesheiwat: Yes. So I've been down in South Florida for example, down in the Miami area, Fort Lauderdale area, Tampa and Naples, and then comparing that to a little bit more of what's happening in the Northeast part of the state, for example, up in Jacksonville. You're seeing communities both individually and regionally conducting these assessments—whether they're in a flood prone area, or projected to be—understanding the risks and the exposures. It's just a good first step. And then mitigation is another piece of that, and that's a key when you look at the various activities that are being done in a collaborative way.
So, as I mentioned earlier, to see a lot of these communities and cities come together in a regional way where they're forming these compacts with multiple counties involved, to really share the information and the data. There are no borders when it comes to these issues, and it's certainly too expensive to go at it alone. So seeing them be able to work in that collaborative way and seeing that forming across the state to really help offset some of these issues, it's truly progressing.
Kristin Hayes: And what are some of the elements of plans, if you could mention any of those in particular, the elements of plans that communities might be putting together?
Julia Nesheiwat: Oh yeah. I mean, for example, looking to improve some of the flood protection systems that might be available out there with the technologies and innovations, understanding with the aging infrastructure, what needs to be updated, what may need to be replaced, whether it's in storm surge challenges with stormwater projects overall, understanding the funding behind that. And then another area that I talk quite a bit about when I'm out there is, how are we benefiting and really taking advantage of the fact that we have a lot of natural infrastructure, so you have living shorelines for example, that could really benefit and help, even be much more cost efficient than a regular seawall when we're looking at our sand dunes, when we're looking at mangroves and our sea marshes, I mean there's so much opportunity from that standpoint.
So being able to take some of those measures into play, taking those steps, incorporating that in the municipalities and in the counties, I think is a part of it. And then of course the budgeting and planning overall, you need to make sure that you have something set aside for that, and understanding there will potentially be another storm, and how do you properly prepare for that. So even just a checklist could go such a long way with these communities.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. Certainly the financial considerations are just as important as the actual preparatory steps that a community might want to take. So that makes a lot of sense. So at the risk of asking you to call out one particular community, although in a positive way, but can you give us one example of a community comes to mind in the state of Florida that has really pulled all these pieces together and developed a clear plan to enhance their resilience, something that you think might perhaps be a model for other communities?
Julia Nesheiwat: Yeah, yeah. I had the opportunity last fall to attend a mayor summit on flooding, for example, that was sponsored by the American Flood Coalition. And it was great to hear about where some communities have advanced in their plans and steps taken, or moving forward towards those efforts. And I was really impressed to see, for example, the city of Del Rey, who actually did a cost assessment of the vulnerabilities that they had, particularly when it came to flooding in their communities. At the end of the day you can have these vulnerability assessments, but if you don't have the cost associated with it, that can be just as challenging. I love to see what Broward County has been doing, and in Fort Lauderdale they've come up with some great tools that can actually track real-time flooding issues, and I thought that was a great example in addition to all the other projects they've been doing.
And then finally I was recently in Pinellas County, in the St Pete area, and the fact that they've created these web-based tools that can list the projections and also just the resources that are necessary for any community wanting to build upon, or development area, to take some resiliency measures. And they had a whole array of websites and lists that could at least help someone who's starting from scratch, whether it's even at the individual home level or at the business level. But it was really impressive to see that they've taken steps already to invest in these web-based tools.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that actually makes me think of one other question that I wanted to ask you as well, which is about, it seems like this kind of planning requires a tremendous amount of data. It requires data about costs of particular measures that a community might take. It requires data about the science behind climate change and the impacts that it might lead to. And so you mentioned earlier that in addition to working within the states, you work with academia, you work with the private sector—where are you generating or where are these communities generating all that data? That's probably a very large question to ask you, but can you speak to some of the sources of the information that's really feeding this decision making?
Julia Nesheiwat: Absolutely. So in addition to what's available by NOAA and FEMA, there are some scenarios out there that provide the projections and the metrics, and other communities have taken outside sources as well to create their own assessments for the communities. So there's not necessarily a baseline, but I will say we do have a wonderful chief science officer as well who's helping us with some of those metrics. And so being able to work closely with him, and being able to disseminate some of that information, or at least point folks in the right direction of how they can obtain some of that data and that science that's available. It's just really interesting to see, there's no lack of information out there. The science is there, the data is there, it's just how we use it. And so being able to do that and tailor that into these assessments that can lead to a really good adaptation plan and mitigation plan is what makes this effective.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and as you mentioned, making that data, compiling that into tools that people can use through web-based interfaces. And I think half the battle sometimes is just putting that data into a format that people can actually take advantage of and not have to search through background databases but, but really have those visual aids and the types of tools that make them good interfaces for the public.
Julia Nesheiwat: Certainly, and I was going to just add, that's something else that my office is looking at. We're hoping to help, especially for certain communities that may be starting from scratch—I mean you don't need to be a technical expert to make these plans in place. So we're able to maybe send out some teams to help folks and walk them through these types of steps and how you can use that data and that information. So there's a lot available within our department of environmental protection, for example, we've got an office of Resilience and Coastal Protection, and they've been able to take folks out there and provide some of the training available. So it's great to see that and being able to connect and help facilitate those folks to those resources.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, I'm sure that's both a very important and probably quite fulfilling part of your role I would imagine, is working with communities and sharing knowledge and really expanding the set of possibilities to help the state be more resilient.
Julia Nesheiwat: Absolutely. I mean look, Florida is to me again, being back here and just seeing the beauty and the nature of it all and there's such great opportunity, it's not all gloom and doom. There's great ways in how we can really think strategically with the growth and how we look at the tourism industry for example, and how we can really truly address these economical, physical and environmental challenges that we will continue to face. So there's no doubt that that opportunity is there and we can certainly build upon that and Florida can certainly help lead the way.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and just one other, I want to circle back to one other point that you mentioned too, which is the state does have a tremendous amount of natural infrastructure that can actually help with resilience. And I wondered if you could just say a little bit more, you mentioned a few of those types of features before, but is there anything more you can add about the types of natural infrastructure projects that are underway in the state, either restoration or construction or ...
Julia Nesheiwat: Oh, certainly. Like for example, I’m partnering with our Department of Environmental Protection, they've got programs now to look at our wetlands and our beaches, wastewater treatment. Working with our Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, looking at how we protect our sea turtles, our coral reefs, from that standpoint. But then we're also looking at our Department of Transportation that has the technology underway to look at critical infrastructure. But with regards to the natural infrastructure, a lot of that is a way to improve that community resilience, and I think by building a repository of case studies, that can be helpful. But with regards to any specifics, like I said, to me the biggest ones, and I've gotten to see firsthand in some site visits, is the beauty of our mangroves and being able to help protect those areas that can serve as a true buffer from flooding, I think is just a great example.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well if you need other folks from other states to come and explore those natural features so that we can share the information elsewhere, I'd be happy to volunteer.
Julia Nesheiwat: Oh, fantastic. We'll take you up on that offer.
Kristin Hayes: So I guess I just have two final questions for you. Both of them are advice questions, but the first one is specific to your role. And if you were giving a piece of advice to, let's say a state that didn't yet have a chief resilience officer role, but was looking to create one, and given your experience to date, what's the piece of advice that you might give to another state that was looking to build a role like this one?
Julia Nesheiwat: I think first and foremost is it's not about reinventing the wheel, these are issues that have been ongoing for a number of years. So I would say my first piece of advice would be, you've got to build those partnerships, number one, you have to think about this from a holistic standpoint. Take stock, take inventory of some of the initiatives that are already out there and the successes that are out there, so we can really understand where you are and how you can truly plan for the future. It's about developing those relationships, I think, is a great starting point, and building on the successes of various offices within your state. So again, you don't necessarily start from scratch from that standpoint. And then use that role to really be effective in the sense of helping to cut some of the red tape and the bureaucracy that could be stalling a resiliency project, for example.
Try to synthesize the findings. I mean you mentioned that earlier with the data. Take the information from the state, regional, and local level, and look at that research, and being able to put that together, maybe even creating a one-stop resiliency shop and try to centralize that, because it can be really discouraging to have to maneuver your way through various websites that take you to various areas, and it's not always easy.
And then I guess another piece of advice would be there's a lot of projects out there and there's a lot of great ideas, and so you have to really be a little bit more targeted when you think about the investment opportunities, the economic impacts of that. And again, being able to advocate for your state when it comes to the federal funding, there's quite a bit of programs out there. I mean we were really surprised, whether it's through the Small Business Association, whether it's through FEMA, agriculture, EPA, I mean there's just so much out there that's available and so there's no reason why we can't be able to identify concrete projects and build from there as well. So there's a lot of building blocks if you think about the future for your respective state, so using that best data and that innovation can really unlock that potential for adaptation and mitigation.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. This idea that we can all learn from each other and therefore save ourselves some time, and move towards action more quickly. I think it's true across a range of climate strategies, but it seems like adaptation, it's particularly relevant for folks to learn from experience of those who've come before them. So great. Well, Dr Nesheiwat, thank you again for joining us. I just want to close with our regular ending feature for the podcast, which we call Top of the Stack. And I was wondering if you could recommend for our listeners something that you've read or watched or heard, like a podcast, recently, related to the issues that you work on that you think might be really interesting for others to enjoy.
Julia Nesheiwat: Oh yeah. I came across a great article called “Master the Disaster,” and it touches a little bit about why CFOs have to initiate natural catastrophe preparedness, and looking at that from beyond. I think that was a great article, I think from FM Global put that out in this report, but it was very interesting to see some of the analysis from that standpoint, even when you're looking at the effects of certain hurricanes for the past number of years and other weather disasters that took effect and that affected some of the financial impacts or the volatility, for example, because of inaction.
And then the other book I just started reading was The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul. It just came out actually I think last spring and I thought it was also, so far from what I've seen, a great compilation, if anything, about looking at some of the incentives that are out there on what happens if you plan versus what you don't plan, when it costs so much when you think about all the issues with the coastal amenities, looking at our roads and our bridges and our buildings, and how that affects these communities, especially after a hurricane. So it's a good way to think about when you think about these coastlines again, what are the clashes and the dynamics between the economic interests and the nature behind that, to dealing with issues with regulators and developers.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Yeah, that's a book that I've actually heard mentioned before, so given the second reference to it, it's definitely something I'm going to have to check out myself. But thank you again for joining us on Resources Radio. It's really a pleasure. I hope we have a very non-existent hurricane season for you guys this year, so you won't have to be dealing in real-time, but it's good to know you're prepared.
Julia Nesheiwat: Absolutely. I appreciate it. Have a great rest of the day.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Thanks so much.
Julia Nesheiwat: Take care.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.