Gov. Rick Scott meets with scientists but remains silent on climate change

Scientists arrived hoping for a ‘leadership’ moment from the governor on climate change but left concerned that his silence means he wants to continue to do nothing.

08/19/2014 2:19 PM

08/20/2014 10:26 AM

Gov. Rick Scott listened to five of Florida’s top climate scientists Tuesday as they urged him to show leadership and develop policies to offset the impact of human-induced climate change to the state.

But the governor whose campaign strategy has been to say nothing on the issue — except to say that he is “not a scientist” — stayed true to his plan. He would not comment, question or commit to whether he believes the experts’ warnings deserve his attention.

“Thank you all,’’ Scott said as the scientists finished their presentations within the 30-minute time period set aside to meet with them. His policy aide, Noah Valenstein, thanked the scientists for attending, and the governor exited the room. Next on the governor’s schedule was “staff and call time,’’ his aides said.

The scientists, who are the top in their fields at the University of Miami, Florida State University and Eckerd College, had asked for the meeting a month ago to explain the urgency of developing a more activist set of policies to mitigate the impact of global warming.

Scott initially announced that his staff would meet with the scientists but he agreed to personally meet with them only after former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor and climate change believer, announced he would personally meet with the experts.

“This is not complicated,’’ said David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, before the meeting. “We teach this to 18-year-olds every year and I’ve been doing it for 25 years. It’s not hard science.”

He said he hoped the meeting would be a “moment for leadership” from the governor and a “moment to demonstrate to his constituents that he cares.”

Seated in a circle in the governor’s Capitol office, the scientists made their case, one by one, as the media recorded their comments.

Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami, showed the governor a map of Miami Dade and Broward counties that depicted how two feet of sea level rise — projected by 2048 — will swallow much of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and nearly all of the state’s barrier islands.

Jeff Chanton, professor of oceanography at Florida State University, detailed how human activities have changed the composition of the atmosphere since the industrial age — a timeline etched into carbon dioxide deposits captured in layers of polar ice.

John Van Leer, associate professor of ocean sciences at UM, spoke about how the ocean traps the globe’s warming temperatures, melting the polar ice cap and expanding the volume of water in a two-pronged assault on Florida’s shores.

“As scientists, we’re map makers,” said Hastings of Eckerd College. But the governor, he said, was “the navigator” and “we need strong leadership from your office — and from you in particular — to minimize the impact.”

And, in an obvious appeal to the governor’s constant focus on jobs, the scientists also donned their business hats.

“There is a geo-thermal industry, which could happen here to replace a lot of the energy we’re using in air conditioning,” said Van Leer, adding: “the longer you wait the cost of the solution goes up about 40 percent a decade.”

Finally, the scientists spoke of the current costs of doing nothing: Sea level rise has caused flooding in Miami Beach at high tide, salt water has encroached into drinking water, and warming temperatures and increasing salinity are destroying coral reefs.

The governor did have some questions.

He asked the professors to explain their backgrounds, describe the courses they taught and where students in their academic fields get jobs. But Scott, who said in 2010 that he has “not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change” showed no sign that his skepticism about human-induced climate change had shifted.

“There was, in fact, no acknowledgment of the issue nor was there any reflection of the seriousness of the issue,’’ Hastings said after the meeting. “I’m concerned he might not do anything.”

Each of the scientists commended the governor for allowing the meeting, and Hastings encouraged the governor to develop an action plan. Florida must reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 38 percent by 2030 under new Environmental Protection Agency rules. Scott has until Oct. 15 to comment on the rules. A plan must be in place within two years.

“Florida is uniquely positioned to be a leader — in how to adapt and how to mitigate the effects of climate change,’’ Kirtman said.

But Scott and his aide sat silently as Hastings urged the governor’s office to “develop a transparent process” to prepare the plan that “brings all the stakeholders together.”

The easy solutions, Hastings said, are to reduce or eliminate coal-fired power plants, increase efficiency to wean the state off carbon-emitting natural gas and oil-fired power, and to develop more alternative energy options.

None of those options are embraced by the state’s electric power industry, however. Scott’s reelection campaign has received more than $800,000 from Florida’s largest electric utility, Florida Power & Light and its parent company NextEra Energy, while the Republican Party of Florida has received more than $700,000 from the energy giant.

Reducing carbon emissions in Florida by 38 percent “is an ambitious goal,’’ Hastings said after the meeting. “It will take some work and thought and I’m not convinced at this point that he is putting that thought into it.”

He added, however, that he is an optimist and “maybe in the next few weeks we’ll see some evidence of that.”

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