As Democrats turn their eyes to South Florida this week, they should know that there’s no greater issue facing this region than climate change.
And that’s why, in the opening debates of the 2020 presidential election cycle, they must talk about this existential threat.
For South Florida, sea-level rise isn’t some far-off dystopia. It’s already happening. In the next 15 years, experts expect the ocean to rise another 6 to 12 inches. Unless serious action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, roughly 30 percent of Miami Beach and 25 percent of Key Biscayne will be chronically inundated by 2045. That’s the lifespan of a mortgage that a homeowner might be paying off now.
Our recognition of this reality goes beyond Miami Beach’s dramatic $650 million action to raise city streets or Miamians agreeing in 2017 to fund $200 million in resiliency projects.
This is real money. It’s being spent or mulled today by local governments to grapple with an ever more evident threat. The question is, are the men and women who wish to be our next president ready to be as serious as South Florida’s mayors and commissioners?
If one of the 20 candidates debating in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday is sent to the White House, how will he or she lead America through this challenge that’s so quickly altering our globe?
There’s been far too little talk on the campaign trail about this overriding menace. And there’s no better place to start than in this most vulnerable of states, where $26 billion in residential properties are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045, according to the scientists’ group. Where 2018’s Hurricane Michael, packing the power of today’s supercharged hurricanes, devastated the Panhandle with $5 billion in property insurance claims and $1.5 billion in crop losses. Where warming waters are killing coral reefs and fueling toxic red tide and algae blooms.
But of course it’s not just Florida. Wildfires are setting the West ablaze as never before. Record floods and monstrous tornadoes are devastating Midwestern towns and farms. Melting ice and permafrost are changing the very nature of the Earth’s polar regions. Drought and crop failures are forcing massive migrations of beleaguered people in the Middle East and Central America, their displacement upending the usual politics of Europe and the U.S.
And yet — astoundingly — even as the crisis mounts, the Trump administration seems determined to worsen it. This White House has pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, rolled back federal standards on emissions for vehicles, power plants and factories and propped up the dying coal industry. It belittled the 2018 National Climate Assessment, which pointedly declared that, “The world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause,” and forecast a catastrophic possible 6-foot increase in sea levels by 2100. Now it seeks to undermine climate science itself, for example by arranging for the next National Climate Assessment to be reviewed by a panel headed by a noted climate change skeptic.
The administration is fighting a tide of public opinion. Over the past five years, the percentage of Americans “alarmed” about climate change has more than doubled, to 29 percent; another 30 percent are “concerned.” Meantime, there’s been a 40 percent drop in those who are “doubtful” or “dismissive,” for a total of just 18 percent. It’s a “profound shift,” says Professor Edward Maibach of George Mason University, which conducted the survey with Yale University.
Attitudes have changed greatly in Florida, too. For eight years, Republican Gov. Rick Scott brought the state derision for allegedly banning the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” The yawning denial of a problem so pressing was why the editorial boards of the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, along with WLRN Public Media, began to work collaboratively last year to blare as noisily as possible that sea level rise is a real and present danger. Our “Invading Sea” project has won national awards. More important, it has helped plant the issue in Florida’s consciousness.
We now have a Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who despite being a Donald Trump acolyte is advertising for a high-ranking Chief Resilience Officer, someone who will work to “prepare Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise.”
Still, a majority of Republicans deny climate change is happening. That’s in stark contrast with Democrats. In a CNN poll in April, 96 percent of Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents said that it was either very important (82 percent) or somewhat important (14 percent) for the Democratic nominee to take aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.
An issue this important to Democrats demands discussion in these debates.
Climate change has never factored into a presidential race before. In 2000, even Al Gore steered clear of the topic, although he’d become famous for raising early alarms about global warming. But now Democratic voters say they’re hungry for action — although recent defeats for carbon-tax proposals raise doubts as to how much voters are willing to pay or sacrifice to avoid climate disaster.
All the while, more greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere. Last year, in fact, emissions jumped the most in seven years.
It all means the candidates must be asked how, specifically, they would address this problem.
It’s too bad that one of those candidates, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, who specifically pins his campaign on the issue, didn’t get his wish for a debate focused entirely on climate change. According to BuzzFeed, 14 of the 23 candidates have signed a “no fossil-fuel money” pledge and 11 have vowed to tackle climate change as soon as they get into office.
Well, how? Push for a society-shaking program like the Green New Deal? Institute a carbon tax with citizen rebate, as U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Palm Beach and Broward counties has proposed? Use the federal government’s vast purchasing power to kick-start green industries?
Preventing a rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over pre-industrial levels, the target of the Paris climate agreement, will be extremely difficult. However, if nations stick to the goals, then 93 percent of Florida’s at-risk homes would avoid chronic flooding by the end of the century and some of the worst foreseeable effects on this region would be avoided, according to Union of Concerned Scientists. Fail to meet those goals, and it’s easy to imagine the collapse of property values, even an exodus from the state.
Yes, putting a lid on global temperature rise will be tough. Yes, political opposition will be fierce. But the next president must try — and try mightily.
The seekers for that job must tell us how they intend to do it. Miami is the place for that.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of the editorial boards of the the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, with reporting and community engagement assistance from WLRN Public Media. For more information, go to InvadingSea.com