President Barack Obama on Wednesday paid his first visit to the Everglades, delivering an Earth Day speech that tied the threat of rising seas pose for the imperiled River of Grass to wider climate change risks across the nation.
But his choice of South Florida as a venue also was clearly calculated to make political points. Voters will elect Obama’s successor in 18 months, and the Republican field so far is teeming with would-be candidates, including two from Florida, who question whether climate change is man-made, despite significant scientific scholarship concluding that it is largely a result of carbon emissions.
In a speech delivered at Everglades National Park, the president also got a subtle dig in at Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has come under fire for ordering state staffers to avoid the term “climate change.”
"Climate change can no longer be denied...cannot be edited out of the conversation," Obama said. The governor, who declined an invitation to join Obama on his Glades tour, has denied such a mandate exists.
Before his speech, the president and park rangers walked the Anhinga Trail, the park’s most popular tourist stop, passing baby alligators, sleek cormorants and a pair of black vultures, which are infamous for occasionally eating the rubber off of visitor vehicles.
Obama said he could think of "no better place" to spend Earth Day and extolled the virtues of the Everglades, remarking that it provides habitat for both alligators and crocodiles.
"I'm told this is a good thing," he joked.
In addition to making an economic, public health and national security case for confronting the risks of climate change and rising seas, the president was in South Florida to tout his administration’s record on tackling environmental problems, including imposing a historic cap on carbon pollution and spending $2.2 billion on Everglades restoration projects. , the administration said.
Obama was expected to reveal new conservation efforts in four areas of the country, including Southwest Florida. And in a move some say is long overdue, the National Park Service will designate as a national historic landmark Douglas’ cottage in Coconut Grove, which several years ago sparked a contentious fight between preservationists and neighbors. The pioneering preservationist is largely credited with sparking Everglades restoration.
Obama’s decision to focus on climate change in South Florida also could have campaign implications by pressuring Republicans into a more robust debate of a touchy subject for the GOP. Among the climate-change skeptics are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Miami. While Obama is not expected to single out any presidential contender, a trip to Bush’s and Rubio’s backyard will hardly go unnoticed in the early days of the 2016 campaign.
“This is not an effort necessarily to go to anybody’s home state,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday before the speech. “This is an effort to raise this debate, and the truth is those Republicans that choose to deny the reality of climate change, they do that to the detriment of the people that they’re elected to represent.”
Scott on Tuesday called on the federal government to speed up funding to Everglades restoration, which the White House admits has been slow from the outset, before Obama took office. The state has invested $1.9 billion in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, nearly a billion more than the feds.
“President Obama needs to live up to his commitment on the Everglades and find a way to fund the $58 million in backlog funding Everglades National Park hasn’t received from the federal government,” Scott said in a statement. “This has caused critical maintenance delays in the Everglades to linger for over a year.”
Earnest suggested Scott make the funding request to the GOP-controlled Congress — and referred to the governor’s criticism as “a little rich” given the Scott administration’s aversion to the term “climate change.”
Obama’s visit comes at a critical time for Everglades restoration, which has dragged on for nearly 15 years.
Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved a land conservation amendment to buy land for restoration projects, yet state lawmakers have balked at using the money to buy about 46,000 acres on a deal that expires in the fall.
Restoration work is also becoming more critical as impacts from rising seas begin taking a toll on the wetlands. This week, scores of scientists meeting in Broward County revealed new research that showed even more dramatic changes in store under climate change projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that predicts increases in temperature, sea level and ocean salinity.
Protective mangrove coasts could disappear, studies found, and soils collapse under increasingly salty conditions, allowing Florida Bay to grow and the Everglades to shrink. The wetlands, which provides much of South Florida’s freshwater, are already half their original size.
“We’re at this key moment where there’s crucial public recognition,” said Florida International University ecologist Evelyn Gaiser, who has been invited to meet with Obama after his speech. “The exposure in South Florida is an opportunity to provide a global model.”