Florida Will Be the First State to Swing on Climate

With rising seas a doorstep reality in Florida, the political swing state will be the first to swing on climate change.

This piece was first published in Forbes on September 24, 2019. It is reprinted with their permission.

Worry over climate change is making its way up the political food chain, and the state where the issue is climbing fastest is Florida.  Of the 25 U.S. cities most vulnerable to rising seas, 22 are located in the political swing state.  Miami, where sunny-day flooding has become routine, ranks number two globally in terms of expected economic losses due to climate-related flooding.  With each hurricane season, Florida seems to have ever more near misses like the recent Hurricane Dorian that are clearly fatal bullets dodged.  As 2017’s Hurricane Irma and 2018’s Hurricane Michael attest, the state isn’t always so fortunate.

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that the Sunshine State is one of a minority of U.S. states without a renewable portfolio standard that would require it to get a certain minimum amount of its energy from carbon-free renewable sources like wind.  Florida ranks eighth among states in solar energy potential, yet generates just 1% of its electricity from the sun.  

It’s also notable that Florida’s highest-ranking political leaders, it’s two Republican senators and a Republican governor, still hem and haw over the connection between human activity and global warming.  The state’s senior senator, Marco Rubio, continues to label anyone taking climate change as seriously as it ought to be as “alarmists” and “leftists.”  It’s unclear whether he’s ever said those words while looking a Miamian in the eye.  

Former governor Rick Scott famously forbade the state’s environmental regulators from using the term climate change.  As Florida’s newest senator, he has evolved to accept the climate phenomenon out of political expediency.  

Yet both he and his replacement in the state capitol, Ron DeSantis, have so far elected to limit their response to climate change to resilience projects, such as sea walls, while steering clear of initiatives to address the root problem of carbon dioxide emissions.  Such efforts would require them to concede, tacitly or explicitly, the human role in climate change and, by extension, the possibility that humans could do something to stop it.  But key political donors like Americans for Prosperity Action (funded by the Koch Brothers), which spent $1.2 million backing Scott’s gubernatorial bid, would likely not be impressed.

A peek below the icing on Florida politics to the cake underneath — a moist cake due to flooding — reveals the political dynamics that are fast making it an impossibility for elected officials to flat out deny climate change.  Ft. Myers, which suffered major damage from Hurricane Irma, is a center of Republican support that favored Donald Trump by 22 points in the 2016 presidential election.  

It’s unsurprising that the region is represented by a Republican in Congress.  What is surprising, however, is that the same representative, Francis Rooney, has bucked party discipline by pushing legislation to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.  His congressional seat remains secure all the same.  

Florida’s most famous Republican climate pioneer, former congressman Carlos Curbelo, introduced a carbon pricing bill back in 2017.  Curbelo lost his re-election bid in 2018 to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who campaigned in part on the idea that her opponent wasn’t doing enough to address Florida’s myriad environmental issues, which include a red tide that decimated fisheries and certain parts of the state’s tourism business.  (The author of this article, a yearly vacationer to Sanibel Island, noted with surprise the emptiness of the condo complex parking lot last December).  

And Florida’s press has taken note of Floridians’ rising climate angst.  Three of the state’s largest newspapers, in Miami, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, have launched a media collaborative chronicling the struggle against increasingly frequent flooding and climate change more broadly.  A Quinnipiac University poll released in March found that 66% of Florida voters were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that they or a member of their family “will be personally affected by climate change.”

So, while climate obfuscation persists at the highest level of Florida politics, dynamics at the local level are becoming ever clearer, and the clarity is that politicians will not be taken seriously by their constituents without acknowledging and acting on climate change.  

Does this mean that Florida, a purple state with 13 million registered voters on which national politics have over the past 20 years frequently pivoted, will swing Democratic over climate change?  Locally, Florida voters can make peace with the cognitive dissonance presented by a pro-climate action Republican, the example being the 19th district’s Rooney. 

But national politics are a different animal.  The Republican party will for the foreseeable future offer conservative Florida voters little opportunity to meaningfully address the root cause of rising seas and more ferocious hurricanes with candidates that simultaneously hold the conservative party line on issues such as health care and immigration.  The party of Trump, at the national level, isn’t built to accommodate both.

“The climate crisis is now visible, and it’s only going to get more visible,” says Rafe Pomerance, the Washington lobbyist who brought climate change to national attention in the 1980s, and whose story was chronicled in The New York Times Magazine a year ago.  Today, Pomerance works with ReThink Energy Florida, a clean energy advocacy organization.

“If 50,000 votes make climate a pivotal issue, the Democrats could win Florida in the 2020 election.”

So, in the presidential election of 2020 and thereafter, conservative Floridians will have to make a choice.  Vote in response to the rising seas, or to everything else.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.