Climate Change Is Undeniable. So Why Is the GOP Still Denying It?
Florida could be underwater in a few decades. Can Republicans win the battleground state if they refuse to heed environmental warnings?
MIAMI — Florida is waging a quixotic battle against climate change that becomes immediately and aggravatingly apparent when driving anywhere in Miami. Endless orange traffic cones, flashing detour signs, and car-swallowing pits clog the streets as the city tries to rebuild overloaded sewer systems and literally raise roads above the encroaching flood waters.
Sitting in his cramped, cluttered office at the University of Miami, geophysics professor Chris Harrison squints at a rising red line on his computer monitor. It shows sea levels in Key West, which have risen 2 mm per year on average in the last hundred years or so. No longer: Now they’re rising by 3 mm each year — bad news for a place where the highest elevation is 345 feet. So is Miami eventually doomed to a watery death?
“Well, yes,” he said.
Climate change was long seen as a problem only future generations would have to deal with. Turns out, it’s already here. Global temperatures in February broke all previous records. Countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea face a drought not seen since the Crusades. It’s so warm that snow was imported to run the Iditarod dog race in Alaska.
Even as the evidence of climate change grows stronger, though, the Republican Party steadfastly refuses to discuss it. On Capitol Hill, the number of GOP climate skeptics in Congress has grown from 169 last year to at least 180 now, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. On the GOP campaign trail, the issue is basically invisible. Republican candidates have faced questions about the Islamic State, Supreme Court vacancies, and hand size, but figuring out how to deal with the fate of a rapidly warming planet has gotten short shrift.
And little wonder. Front-runner Donald Trump famously dismissed climate change as a hoax dreamed up by China to steal jobs. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the chairman of a Senate subcommittee on science, calls climate change a “pseudo-scientific theory” and a “religion.” And Sen. Marco Rubio, Miami’s hometown boy and the Republican establishment’s last dwindling hope of preventing a Trump nomination, scoffs at worries the state he represents might cease to be.
“I don’t have a plan to influence the weather,” he dismissively answered a question about climate change at a town hall in New Hampshire.
Rubio and his rivals can get away with it because GOP primary voters simply don’t seem to care very much about the environment. Only about 14 percent of conservative Republicans consider climate change a “very serious problem,” compared with 76 percent of liberal Democrats.
For the tiny gaggle of Republicans worried about climate change, its absence on the campaign trail and especially in televised debates has been, paradoxically, a blessing.
“I am actually thankful that climate change has not really come up at these debates,” said Bob Inglis, an evangelical and former Republican congressman from South Carolina, who, since losing his seat in 2010, has turned himself into a one-man show clamoring for action on what he sees as the most urgent threat facing the party — and the nation.
“We’ve avoided the disaster of out-and-out denial,” said Inglis, who “sweated bullets” when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was questioned on his views of climate change late last year.
In Florida — ground zero for climate change’s impact on the United States — it’s harder for Republican politicians to ignore the issue when their constituents are constantly flooded out of their homes, streets are impassable, and projections point to the state all but disappearing by the end of the century. Twenty-odd mayors of Florida cities, including a handful of Republicans, sent a plaintive letter to news outlets ahead of this week’s presidential debates, pleading for a question about climate.
They got one — in the Democratic debate on Wednesday. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont both dived in and offered their usual prescriptions, including an extension of the policies that President Barack Obama has pursued, like limiting the use of coal and favoring renewable energy, despite unrelenting Republican opposition.
In the Republican debate the following night, moderator Jake Tapper said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado had asked for the candidates — including Rubio, whom he’s endorsed — to acknowledge the “reality of the scientific consensus” of man-made climate change and pledge to take action.
Rubio said he has “long supported mitigation efforts” to deal with rising sea levels in Florida, but indicated that whether human activity has contributed to climate change is still an open question. “As far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there’s no such thing,” he reiterated. He noted his family lives in Miami, but said legislation that’s been proposed by the president and others to lessen damage to the environment will be paid for by families like his — and won’t work. “The cost of doing that is going to be rammed down the throats of the American consumer, the single parent, the working families who are going to see increases in the cost of living.”
The few GOP lawmakers willing to talk about climate change quickly find themselves in an awkward position within their own party. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, 36, is one of the youngest members of Congress. He represents Florida’s 26th District, encompassing the Everglades and Key West. Audaciously for a freshman lawmaker who came into office during the party’s sweeping midterm wins in 2014, he has put climate change front and center; last month, he created the first bipartisan climate change caucus in the House. After initially backing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, he shifted his endorsement to Rubio. But his support isn’t full-throated — his surrogate status doesn’t keep him from hitting Rubio, or his rivals, for refusing to take climate change seriously.
“I think all of the GOP presidential candidates have failed to offer conservative, market-based solutions to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating human impact on the Earth’s climate,” Curbelo said in a statement sent to Foreign Policy after declining requests for an interview.
“This is unfortunate, especially in the case of the two Floridians, one of whom remains in the race,” he said. “I hope at some point Marco Rubio will show some strong leadership on this issue. Floridians deserve it.”
The man who hopes to win the Senate seat Rubio is giving up to focus on running for president certainly takes it seriously. Patrick Murphy, a Democratic congressman who represents a chunk of southeast Florida, has made climate change the clarion call of his campaign. He has gotten endorsements this month from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I believe it is going to be a real differentiating factor between myself and whomever the Republican opponent is,” Murphy told FP. When he talks climate change on the stump, half the room tends to blow him off as partisan — until he explains why it’s a local issue. “Then you get 99 percent of the heads nodding, people agreeing, saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a problem.’”
He figures that in Florida, zeroing in on climate change is an asset, not a liability. Paraphrasing the president, he said, “If you want to deny this, go for it. You’ll be in the extreme minority.”
There’s a reason that Floridians are especially worried. The state is low-lying and built of limestone, which is porous. The dikes and barriers that for centuries have shielded countries like the Netherlands from creeping seas simply won’t work here, because water will seep in from below. Warmer temperatures and melting ice have raised sea levels dramatically just in the last century — and sea-level rise is accelerating.
For Republican candidates who live in the kind of neighborhoods that are most threatened by climate change, including Rubio himself, presidential politics are increasingly getting swamped by reality.
“They can’t dismiss it. It’s high tide in Miami, and water is coming into their front yards,” said Inglis, the former congressman. “But hopefully experience is going to take us out of that tissue-rejection phase.”
- Credit: Joe Raedle / Staff
Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole
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