Florida In the Center of Climate Change Debate, Most State GOP Leaders Stay Silent

Flooding in Miami Beach and across the country put climate change back into national debate. (Photo maxstrz/Creative Commons)

Flooding in Miami Beach and across the country put climate change back into national debate. (Photo via maxstrz/Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Climate change’s impact on Florida has been in the news recently, following the release of a new scientific report, the National Climate Assessment, which listed Miami as one of the cities that will be most critically affected by changes. In the wake of the report, President Obama urged action, while Florida’s Republican Senator questioned the science behind the report, and the Sunshine State’s Republican leadership remains quiet on the issue.

According to The New York Times:

Speaking to Al Roker of NBC News, in an interview scheduled to be shown Wednesday morning on the “Today” show, Mr. Obama said “This is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now. Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires — all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.”

In the Northeast, the report found a big increase in torrential rains and risks from a rising sea that could lead to a repeat of the kind of flooding seen in Hurricane Sandy. In the Southwest, the water shortages seen to date are likely just a foretaste of the changes to come, the report found. In that region, the report warned, “severe and sustained drought will stress water sources, already overutilized in many areas, forcing increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers and plant and animal life for the region’s most precious resource.”

For instance, large parts of Nashville were devastated by floods in 2010 after nearly 20 inches of rain fell in two days. Last year, parts of Colorado flooded after getting as much rain in a week as normally falls in a year. Just last week, widespread devastation occurred in the Florida Panhandle from rains that may have exceeded two feet in 24 hours.

The new report emphasized that people should not expect global warming to happen at a steady pace, nor at the same rate throughout the country. Bitterly cold winters will continue to occur, the report said, even as they become somewhat less likely. Warming, too, will vary. While most of the country has warmed sharply over the past century, the Southeast has barely warmed at all, and a section of southern Alabama has even cooled slightly.

In a separate Times article published the same day, the paper took a focused look on Miami Beach, Florida where flooding is becoming a common occurrence.

A new scientific report on global warming released this week, the National Climate Assessment, named Miami as one of the cities most vulnerable to severe damage as a result of rising sea levels. Alton Road, a commercial thoroughfare in the heart of stylish South Beach, is getting early ripples of sea level rise caused by global warming — even as Florida’s politicians, including two possible contenders for the presidency in 2016, are starkly at odds over what to do about it and whether the problem is even real.

“The theme of the report is that climate change is not a future thing, it’s a ‘happening-now’ thing,” said Leonard Berry, a contributing author of the new report and director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University. “Alton Road is one of the now things.”

Sea levels have risen eight inches since 1870, according to the new report, which projects a further rise of one to four feet by the end of the century. Waters around southeast Florida could surge up to two feet by 2060, according to a report by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. A study by the Florida Department of Transportation concluded that over the next 35 years, rising sea levels will increasingly flood and damage smaller local roads in the Miami area.

The national climate report found that although rapidly melting Arctic ice is threatening the entire American coastline, Miami is exceptionally vulnerable because of its unique geology. The city is built on top of porous limestone, which is already allowing the rising seas to soak into the city’s foundation, bubble up through pipes and drains, encroach on fresh water supplies and saturate infrastructure. County governments estimate that the damages could rise to billions or even trillions of dollars.

In and around Miami, local officials are grappling head on with the problem.

While local officials scramble to deal with flooding and climate change issues, federal and state officials are having mixed reactions.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has vocally supported cutting carbon emissions across the country. He even held a meeting with Miami Beach residents about the city’s flooding problems. However, Nelson is one of the very few political leaders in the state even talking about the issues.

According to the Times, leaders in the GOP won’t even answer questions about climate change.

…Three prominent Florida Republicans — Senator Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush and the current governor, Rick Scott — declined repeated requests to be interviewed on the subject. Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush are viewed as potential presidential candidates. Political analysts say the reluctance of the three men to speak publicly on the issue reflects an increasingly difficult political reality for Republicans grappling with the issue of climate change, particularly for the party’s lawmakers from Florida. In acknowledging the problem, politicians must endorse a solution, but the only major policy solutions to climate change — taxing or regulating the oil, gas and coal industries — are anathema to the base of the Republican Party. Thus, many Republicans, especially in Florida, appear to be dealing with the issue by keeping silent.

“Jeb likes to take positions on hot-button issues, the same with Rubio,” said Joseph E. Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “On immigration they are further mainstream on that than the rest of the G.O.P. But on this, Republicans are dead set against taking action on climate change on the national level. If you have political aspirations, this is not something you should talk about if you want to win a Republican primary.”

Over the past year, Mr. Rubio has signaled his skepticism about the established science that fossil fuel emissions contribute to climate change. When asked in a 2013 Buzzfeed webcast interview if climate change posed a threat to Florida, Mr. Rubio responded: “The climate is always changing. The question is, is manmade activity what’s contributing most to it?” He added that “I’ve seen reasonable debate on that principle” and “if we unilaterally impose these sorts of things on our economy it would have a devastating impact.”

But in 2008, while serving in the Florida State Legislature, Mr. Rubio supported a bill directing the State Department of Environmental Protection to develop rules for companies to limit carbon emissions.

As governor from 1999 to 2007, Mr. Bush pushed several environmental initiatives, particularly efforts to protect Everglades National Park, which scientists say is highly vulnerable to encroaching seawaters. Political scientists say that Mr. Rubio’s shift and Mr. Bush’s current silence on the issue appear to reflect the position of lawmakers who are mulling transitions from the state to the national stage and the realities of satisfying their party’s base in the 2016 primaries.

Several days after the Times published it’s article with attempts to get Rubio on the record, Rubio said on ABC’s “This Week” that he didn’t think humans were even causing climate change.

Via The Los Angeles Times:

“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” Rubio said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy,” he added.

…Rubio said he doesn’t agree that actions humans take today could affect how the climate is changing.

“Our climate is always changing,” Rubio said. “And what they have chosen to do is take a handful of decades of research and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that’s directly and almost solely attributable to manmade activities.”

Back in 2010, Rick Scott said he didn’t believe global warming even existed. He said he had yet to be “convinced” that climate change is a real thing.