Sea level rise. Unprecedented super storms. Toxic algae blooms.
The effects of climate change on Florida’s environment have become increasingly overt in the last decade. However, activists like Aliki Moncrief are reminding us that while global warming is a human-made phenomenon, it can also be solved by people working together. As the executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, her mission is to keep citizens informed of the threats of climate change.
Moncrief is Fluent in Floridian. Born in Greece, she grew up in South Miami before attending Emory University for undergrad and Harvard Law for her J.D. She has used her legal education to fight for the environment through the Department of Environmental Protection Enforcement Division and by spearheading The Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative in 2014.
In this episode of Fluent In Floridian, Moncrief sits down with us to discuss her career path, the impact Florida Conservation Voters has had on voter awareness, and what she expects from the new administration in Florida.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast featuring the sunshine state’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m Chris Kate, and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, our executive producer April Salter, the CEO of Salter Mitchell PR talks to Aliki Moncrief, the executive director of Florida conservation voters. One of Florida’s leading political voices for protecting Florida’s environment. In their conversation they discuss water, energy, climate change and other pressing environmental issues for Florida. They also talk about Floridians can advocate for and be good stewards of their environment. And you can hear it all right now.
April Salter: Good morning Aliki, we’re so glad to have you here at Fluent in Floridian. Aliki Moncrief, the executive director of the Conservation Voters of Florida. Tell us a little bit about your background Aliki, I know you come from … You hail back to Greece in your origins and a little bit of military background. So tell us a little bit about that.
Aliki Moncrief: Sure, well first off, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to speak with you this morning. So yeah, you’re right, I was born in Greece. My mother is Greek and actually lived there until I was three or four years old. She met my father who was in the air force at the time. And so yeah, it’s interesting because I never lived for any portion of my childhood or adult life in Greece, but I feel very much influenced. My mother and I are very close and I would say that of all the people in the world who sort of shaped me and my ethics and my world views, it’s definitely my mom.
So coming to the United States I did always feel a little bit like a fish out of water. Sometimes I would look at things a little differently than others did. And I attribute that often to my mom’s way of thinking and looking at the world. But came to New York, my dad was from New York and so they quickly realized after just a few months there that that was going to be an uphill kind of life in terms of raising a young family.
April Salter: In New York City.
Aliki Moncrief: New York City, exactly. It’s expensive, I think they sort of looked around and said well it’d be nice to have a backyard. And we can’t really afford a backyard in New York City. So like so many now millions of people, they set their sights on Florida and moved us to Miami. My father because of the GI bill was able to go to the University of Miami for college. And so we lived in student housing. I remember all of those … I don’t know if folks remember back in the late 70’s there were all these huge concrete art structures that also served as playground structures. So I remember those fondly. So yeah, that’s kind of the early years.
I can certainly go on to how did I get to Tallahassee. I’ve now lived in Tallahassee longer than I lived in Miami. And I actually consider Tallahassee my … People talk about soul mates, I feel like Tallahassee is a place where I was meant to be. I really love living here.
April Salter: There’s a lot to love about Tallahassee.
Aliki Moncrief: There really is.
April Salter: There’s so many beautiful areas to explore and I think a lot of people don’t really understand that about Tallahassee, but once you get out into the outlying areas and see the springs and the hiking trails and all that, it’s just a great place to be.
Aliki Moncrief: Yeah and all of that’s super accessible, within a 35, 45 minute drive you can be on the gulf, at a beach, on a river, hiking in Pine forest, you can be jumping in a spring, biking on any number of trails, bird watching. And it’s all within a really accessible radius. So it’s pretty incredible here I think.
April Salter: Great. And so thinking about the kind of Greek background, Greeks are known to be a kind of debate culture. Where there’s a lot of activism and a lot of passion around issues. Do you find that you harken back to some of that activism from your Greek side?
Aliki Moncrief: If I could … 150%. Now in my adult life, whether it’s in the personal context with friends or in professional life, I tend to sort of see the best way at getting to an answer or the best way to solving a problem is often through debate. You put an idea out there, you tear it down, you pick it apart, you find the holes. Actually it’s funny because my mom and I oftentimes we would get into these debates about any number of issues. And we would, voices would be raised and arms would be moving and a lot of emotion.
April Salter: Passion.
Aliki Moncrief: A lot of passion. And by the end of it, we would actually land on a spot where we were sort of arguing the same thing. And we would say, wait a second, we’ve been, that’s what I’ve been saying the whole time.
April Salter: I agree with you.
Aliki Moncrief: Exactly. But we came at it from different angles. And so we were able to sort of explore the full sort of range of an issue. So that’s absolutely true. It’s definitely part of how I … I feel like it’s part of my DNA.
April Salter: And so environmental politics is very much like that where people feel very passionate about the environment but look at it from many different angles. Tell us a little bit about how you got started in the whole environmental community and sort of what brought you to this point.
Aliki Moncrief: Sure. Well I actually attribute my career … And my entire career has been in environmental work. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I did grow up in a place where nature was very accessible. I went on my bike pretty much every day that I could get outside and get on my bike and get away from whatever. I was out in nature a lot in Miami. It was very accessible. I was very aware from a young age as I think most folks who grow up in Miami are that there’s this incredible world heritage site right in our backyards, the Everglades.
And even though I never went to the Everglades as a kid really, because my parents were not campers. They were very urban, big city people. Athens and New York City, even though I didn’t grow up camping and hiking and doing all those things, there was just sort of this understanding that this incredible resource was out there. And the connection for me came in a more urban setting with riding my bike and things like that. And also was a huge animal lover. My very first book in kindergarten that my mom got me or it’s my first book that I remember was this huge encyclopedia of world wildlife and it weighed like 20 pounds.
So I think I came to environmental advocacy and environmental policy through those kind of formative experiences as a kid. Being outside a lot and then just loving animals and having a passion for wildlife. Realized early on that if I wanted to be an advocate, lawyer was probably the way to go. And then obviously having debate in my blood sort of probably also pushed me in that direction. So I went from Miami all the way up to Massachusetts to go to law school.
April Salter: At Harvard.
Aliki Moncrief: Yes, I did go to Harvard. And again, it was a great environment for debate. The Socratic method, that’s a way to make sure that you know what you’re talking about. So became an environmental lawyer and just really wanted to figure out all the tools that I could bring to my passion, which is protecting the environment.
April Salter: It seems like you really hit your stride with the amendment one when we were really fighting for the water and land legacy that ultimately passed. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and the way that you worked with organizations and maybe the shift that occurred as a result of that?
Aliki Moncrief: Sure. So having worked in the environmental community in Florida prior to amendment one, I saw that sometimes the dynamic is that … And I think it’s in any community where folks agree on a lot. But the things that they disagree on tend to divide them. Amendment one sort of stood out to me as an opportunity for Florida’s environmental community to really get on the same page with something. Something that was proactive that was going to bring more funding for water and land conservation.
April Salter: And this was in …
Aliki Moncrief: So 2011 is actually when [Will Averger 00:08:47] who’s with the trust for public land who has a lot of experience doing not just constitutional amendments but lots of ballot, referendum type of things all over the country. He started doing the homework in terms of okay, let’s get a lawyer, let’s start drafting language, let’s start testing, poll testing, see what the public thinks about this. Is this even a viable path forward for conservation funding? So in late 2011, all of the groups around the state, Autobahn, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land, Nature Conservancy, everybody got together and tried to figure this out. So I immediately jumped on board and when I was offered the opportunity to be the first staff person for that campaign of Florida’s environmental community, I was just like, where do I sign up? This is great. Everyone’s signing from the same song book. We’re working on something proactive. We’re starting to dip our toes into politics because obviously a constitutional amendment, you’ve got to talk to voters and get them to say yes.
So fast forward to 2014 and after a quarter of a million signatures being gathered by volunteers, which is the part that I oversaw in those early months of the campaign, to four and a half million voters saying yes, we want more funding for our conservation lands. 2014, 75% of voters said heck yeah.
April Salter: Yeah.
Aliki Moncrief: So we then took that win and tried to get the legislature to implement it faithfully, which has been … We’ve seen some ups and downs over the last few years. But I’m now in the roll of Florida Conservation Voters, which is the successor organization to that entire campaign effort.
April Salter: And we have a new governor and new legislative leadership in 2019. And we’re looking forward to the session. What are your thoughts about where Florida stands with the implementation of amendment one? And what do you think needs to be done next?
Aliki Moncrief: So I think that since 2014 when it passed we’ve been making some incremental improvements in terms of the money being allocated the way voters wanted. That first year was pretty abysmal. The legislature allocated about a third of the amendment one money to existing expenses. And so there was a little bit of a lottery, education lottery sort of feel to it. 2016 they took the step to allocate a quarter of the amendment money to Everglades restoration. So that was a step in the right direction because the Everglades was certainly part of what all of the environmental community envisioned when crafting the amendment. Last year we saw Senator Bradley put 100 million towards Florida Forever, which again was an incremental step in the right direction.
I think the environmental community is looking more for restoration of that program to the $300 million a year level like we had for 20 years. So we’re making some incremental improvements but we have a long way to go I guess. And you asked where are we at with amendment one implementation, and I think that’s where we are.
April Salter: And so from a broader perspective, in terms of the health of Florida’s environment, which I think there’s a lot of people focused on. A lot of people are concerned about. What are your thoughts about what is the current status and what are the most important issues going forward?
Aliki Moncrief: Well I think if you ask any Floridian especially Floridians living in coastal communities or who follow environmental issues, which is many of us, obviously water quality is top of mind for everyone. And it’s unfortunate that we have to live through essentially an ecological crisis of red tide and blue green algae for it to sort of rise to the level of sort of kitchen table talk. But I think that’s absolutely one of the most important issues that we’re facing. The other one that doesn’t get quite as much attention is climate change. Particularly on our coastal communities, people are already feeling the effects.
It’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s already happening and how bad will it be? So I think we have to tackle climate in this state because we’ve got what is it, 1300 miles of coastline. So all 1300 miles are potentially affected by sea level rise. We are on top of a sponge of water with our aquifer. And 90% of us rely on that sponge to get fresh drinking water. So if the seas are rising and encroaching on that incredibly precious resource, that’s a problem. You’ve got flooding, which leads to sewer overflows, septic overflows. So there’s this whole parade of horribles unfortunately that our state is facing if we don’t act now.
And in fact yesterday I was talking with someone and we somehow we were talking about the need to sort of tackle climate change. Not just in terms of adapting ourselves so that we can weather the changes that are coming. But also how do we make the problem less bad by cutting our emissions and whatnot. And we’re like, it’s not go big or go home, it’s go big or no home, really if we don’t tackle this problem.
April Salter: And what do you think some of the most important steps would be in that regard? What would you like to see?
Aliki Moncrief: Sure. I think Florida, we are the sunshine state. We get less than 2% of our power from the sun, which is incredibly underutilized. We need to get super aggressive on transforming our electricity sector from fossil fuels to clean energy sources like the sun. I think we need to tackle our transportation sector. We need better public transportation. And we need more electric vehicles and that sort of thing. I also think there’s some opportunities to actually look at how our conservation policies and funding can help sequester carbon. So forests and mangroves and wetlands, they actually pull carbon out of the air. And so we should be planting more trees. We should be protecting our mangroves and restoring them.
Soils too, so there’s an angle here for farmers to step up and by adopting practices that nourish the soil, enhance the soil. They can actually be a part of the solution. I think it’s an all hands on deck. We have to look at every single way that we can be cutting our carbon and our methane emissions because we only have 12 years according to the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change.
April Salter: Many people, many Floridians are concerned about Florida’s environment. What would you say to them that they can do to really make a difference? How can they advocate? How can they be good stewards in Florida?
Aliki Moncrief: Fortunately there are lots of opportunities to be good stewards of the environment in Florida. I would say that the number one thing that always jumps to my mind first is be an informed voter. We have elections every two years and in some places we have it more frequently than that when we’re talking about local elections. So I think Floridians need to be informed about when I’m facing a decision on who’s running for city commission or who’s running for my state house of representatives, or senate or what have you, they need to know. They need to find out who’s going to actually be good on environmental issues. So I think voting, engaging in that process. But I don’t actually think voting is enough. I think folks need to go one step further and engage others to vote and beyond voting, folks need to show up at meetings. When the department of environmental protection or the city commission has an agenda item that’s going to talk about whatever the subject is, banning plastic bags, putting more money towards parks so that everyone can have access to parks.
Whatever the issues are, folks need to show up and say, hey this is important to me. Because if lawmakers and decision makers don’t hear from the public that this is front of mind, unfortunately the folks in the room who will say what they want, they’re not asking for a greater environmental protections, they’re typically asking for reduced environmental protections. So vote, get engaged in local opportunities to chime in on environmental issues. One thing I … A lot of times folks I think gravitate towards what can I personally do? Can I try an electric car? Can I go vegan? Can I stop using plastic straws? Those things are all incredibly important, and they feel really good. Those to me, that’s the gateway. Those things should be the gateway to actually taking action on policy because if we don’t have both a bottom up and a top down approach. So if folks, we need both.
We need people taking personal responsibility and doing things in their daily lives to make a difference. But we also need people to be demanding of their state leaders that they enact policies to make sure that everyone is trying to do that.
April Salter: So another constitutional amendment that received a lot of attention was the anti-solar amendment one that could be the single biggest upset in Florida’s modern political history. It certainly looked like it was on the way to passage. Can you talk a little bit about what you think happened there and what lessons learned may have come from that?
Aliki Moncrief: Sure. That was one of the most exciting and sort of nail biter campaigns that I’ve ever been involved in. As you said, the monopoly utility industry, by the end of it they had pumped in $30 million to essentially trick voters into thinking that by signing their petition and by voting for amendment one that they would somehow be bringing more solar to the state and that they would be giving people energy choices. When in fact the opposite was true. I think the pivotal moment in that campaign came when there was a political operative who worked for the monopoly utility industries. He was caught on tape basically saying, hey, guess what? The strategy here is to trick voters. We’re doing some “political jujitsu.” [Mary Ellen Cross 00:19:40] did an incredible job of elevating that.
And [Mina Herald 00:19:43], Tampa Bay Times, and then we at Florida Conservation Voters and others picked up the ball and ran with it. So from our part, we sent over half a million pieces of mail … Actually no, it was a million pieces, two pieces to half a million people basically saying we quoted “political jujitsu.” This is what’s happening. You’re being tricked. We put all the resources that we could muster into getting the word out and letting folks know that this was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Which is actually how they … The Florida supreme court articulated this amendment as being. And so that was the pivotal moment. And it was exciting because it was a true David and Goliath kind of win when people knew that they were being fooled, they weren’t having it.
April Salter: What’s next on the agenda for the environmental community?
Aliki Moncrief: That’s a big question. I guess we’re in a good place in the sense that the new administration is setting a good tone for really good intentions and some good ideas on moving the ball forward for the environment in Florida. There are a few missing pieces. For example, the climate change side of the coin that has to do with emissions isn’t as clearly articulated I don’t think in the new administration’s plan. But all that said, the tone has been set and I think the next four years it’s going to be all about citizens and groups like mine at Florida Conservation Voters really holding our lawmakers accountable to those grand promises.
April Salter: And Aliki, finally we always close with a couple of questions, a couple of the same questions for all of our guests. First of all, do you have a favorite Florida sports team? I don’t see you as a sports fan, but are you closet …
Aliki Moncrief: I tend to enjoy the sports that I can participate in. Football’s way out of my range. I’m not good enough to play basketball. So the sports that I tend to gravitate to are the ones I can participate in with my family. So rock climbing, my older daughter is just becoming an incredible rock climber over at Tallahassee rock gym. And she goes like three times a week. My younger daughter is doing capilara, which has been a really enjoyable experience because it’s an incredible martial …
April Salter: What is that?
Aliki Moncrief: Yeah, so capilara is a martial art that originates from Brazil. There’s a really strong musical component because essentially when enslaved people in Brazil wanted to practice doing martial arts they had to disguise it. And so there’s sort of the appearance of it’s dance when it’s actually really a defense and fighting martial art.
April Salter: Oh interesting.
Aliki Moncrief: So it’s really exciting, yeah. Yeah, so yeah, you’re right I’m not … When it comes to the big sports, I tend not to gravitate there. But people will have to forgive me for that.
April Salter: Okay. So what Florida person, place or thing do you think deserves more attention?
Aliki Moncrief: I think that all eyes should be on I think they’re called generation Z now at this point. We’re past millennials. They have been so I think already transformative to our society. And it gives me such hope for the future because they’re not afraid to say here’s what we think is right, here’s what we think is wrong. They’re not afraid to stand up and take action. So I think that it’s not one person, it’s this generation Z that’s upcoming that’s really going to transform our world.
April Salter: And I know that you’ve traveled all over the state. You’ve seen many wonderful places. For you, what is your favorite Florida location to visit? It could be a city, a restaurant, or a place to visit?
Aliki Moncrief: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Hands down whenever anyone asks me this question, the place that comes to my mind is Saint Joe state park. My family and I have been going there every single Thanksgiving for over a decade. We camp there. I think part of why I love it is I grew up in Miami thinking that Miami had the most beautiful beaches in the world. In Greece when I’ve gone to visit my family, Greece has some incredible beaches, but Saint Joe has these dunes, this dune system that’s like two story high dunes. And nine miles of beach that you can sort of just walk along and pretty much have to yourself oftentimes.
April Salter: That’s definitely one of my favorite places as well. It’s so beautiful.
Aliki Moncrief: Yeah. It’s so incredibly beautiful. It’s unfortunately with hurricane Michael, a lot of the camp grounds and the cabins and the wilderness trail aren’t accessible except for by boat. So this past Thanksgiving we didn’t go. But it’s really an incredible place. Migratory birds, it’s really fascinating.
April Salter: Finally Aliki, who is a Florida leader that you admire? This could be somebody from our past, from our history or somebody who’s up and coming now.
Aliki Moncrief: I would have to say, and I don’t know if she falls in the category leader although I think a lot of people would say she does, is Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She with the stroke of a pen, with several strokes of a pen really …
April Salter: A lot of hard work.
Aliki Moncrief: A lot of hard work really opened people’s eyes to the importance of protecting our natural world and the Everglades in particular. So the fact that she did so as a woman so long ago, I think sort of just adds extra special importance because I think she did it against all odds in some ways. So perhaps not surprisingly, because of my environmental background I would have to say Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
April Salter: She was an incredible person.
Aliki Moncrief: Yes.
April Salter: Well thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciated the time with you and best of luck in the coming months and years.
Aliki Moncrief: Thank you so much. I couldn’t be more excited to be here. Thank you.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway with the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communication, social media, advocacy and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.