climate change

US elections: Florida mayors put climate change on the agenda

No US state is as vulnerable to sea level rise as Florida. Photo credit; Ed Wrzesien via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Prior to the recent Florida Democratic and Republican Debates, last week, 21 mayors in the state of Florida published a letter in which they asked the moderators of the debates to make climate change one of the issues discussed.
Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida who at the time of the debate was still running for the Republican nomination ( though he withdrew from the race briefly after the Florida primary, as he failed to win his home state), and the Governor of the state, Rick Scott denies the reality of human-induced climate change. In fact, Rick Scott was involved in a controversy last year. It emerged that he had told officials in the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to avoid mentioning climate change or global warming in any official communications. In theory, he was baring his staff from discussing climate change.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who are both running to be the Democratic nominee, have a pro-tackling climate change agenda, but so far debate moderators have largely ignored the issue.
The letter signed by the Florida mayors stated: “We, the 21 undersigned mayors from throughout Florida, are concerned about sea level rise and climate change, and the severe impacts it is having on our communities. We are equally concerned that so little attention has been paid to these issues in the presidential debates. It would be unconscionable for these issues of grave concern for the people of Florida not to be addressed in the upcoming debate you will be hosting in the state.“
Among the questions that the mayors had put forward was the issue of infrastructure to combat and prepare for future sea-level rises, for example, “ As President, what investments will you make to protect our coastal assets and economy from the growing impacts of sea level rise and climate change?`”
Low-lying Florida is at the forefront of the battle with climate change, and thus their next question was: “What are the specific policies you would put in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help protect the future livelihoods of Americans like those in Miami from the worst  impacts of climate change?”
The last question they wanted to be debated touched on Rubio’s stance on climate change, in which he has said that it does not matter what the US does on the issue. But with the US having joined the other huge carbon emitters, China and India, in signing the Paris Agreement, the letter asked, “As next President of the United States, what policies would you put in place to ensure that America delivers on its commitment?”

The mayors` questions did, in fact, have an impact and were addressed in the Democratic debate, but even before the moderators asked the questions came up on several occasions, prompted by Sanders.
The Senator first mentioned the issue in a passing remark alongside his other trademark issues such as income inequality and poverty.  And again, over an hour into the debate he turned to the issue stating: “I don’t take money from the fossil fuel industry because they’re destroying this planet. Because of the emissions of carbon, they have created this terrible climate change we’re seeing.”
Clinton got in on the act too when she said: “we do have to combat climate change, and no state has more at stake than Florida. And the best way to do that is not only to enforce the laws we have, but also the Clean Power Plan that President Obama put forward, and that I support, and the Paris Agreement, which I think was a huge step forward in the world.”
Finally, the moderators addressed the question. They say that over two dozen mayors have raised the issue of rising sea levels and climate change, which impacts their communities while showing a map of projected sea level rises, and say that no state has more at stake than Florida and no city more so than Miami.
“But”, the moderator stated, “many Republicans claim that this is not a man-made problem, Senator Sanders, is it possible to move forward on this issue if you do not get a bipartisan agreement, and what would you do?” Sanders moved on to launch a verbal attack on the Republican candidates for their climate denial: “When you have Republican candidates for president who are telling you that climate change is a hoax, which is Donald Trump`s  and other candidates` position, what they’re really saying is we don’t have the guts to take on the fossil fuel industry”.
Senator Sanders moved on to an analysis of climate denialism in the Republican party and how they’re locked into vested interests, “what candidates are saying is that we stand up to the fossil fuel industry? If you have a Republican candidate who wants to shift away from fossil fuels, he would lose all his campaign funding from the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry.” But the moderator was not happy with Sanders answer, said, “you have just described the problem, but what would you do about it? To which Sanders replied, ”The way I would move forward, is how we’re moving forward in any other area. No President, not Bernie Sanders can do it all himself. Do you know what we need? We need a political revolution in this country. When millions of people stand up and tell the fossil fuel industry that their short term profit is less important than the health of this planet, then we will win”
However, unsurprisingly Hilary Clinton offered a different model: “First of all I was proud to have a number of mayors from Florida campaign for me. I had a chance to talk to some of them about this issue, it is a really serious one, there isn’t much time left to do the several things I will move quickly to do. You can see already what is happening in Miami, on Miami Beach with tides rising. We do have to invest in resilience and mitigation while we’re trying to cut emissions and make up for this fact that this is clearly man- made and man- aggravated. There are certain things that the President has done through executive action that I would certainly support, no matter what Republicans say. They would look to repeal them, I would maintain them and act on them.”
But Clinton could not resist a dig at Sanders, saying: “The Clean Power Plan is something Sanders has said he would delay implementing.  That would make absolutely no sense.  We need to implement all the President’s actions, and quickly move to make a bridge from coal to natural gas to clean energy. That is how we’re keeping the lights on while transitioning to a clean energy future.” But she added that she thought she could win bipartisan support on resilience, “you just have to look at insurance levels,” hinting that working on cross-party financial support to protect communities from flooding from was something she could do.
Unsurprisingly Sanders was unhappy with Clinton’s remark.But he did not move to rebuff or deny the claims that he was looking to delay the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, “you’re looking at the Senator who introduced the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate. I hope Secretary Clinton would join me if we’re serious about climate change in imposing a tax on carbon, and on the fossil fuel industry. And making massive investment in energy efficiency and sustainable energy. And while we’re on energy, I hope you will join me in ending fracking in the United States”.
His last sentence was a crowd pleaser and tapped into his critic of Clinton for not wanting to dismiss fracking.
While the sentiment from both Clinton and Sanders was similar, that climate change is human-made and an urgent issue, the rhetoric was different from the Republican debate when questions on climate change were raised from the audience.
The only candidate to seemingly accept the reality of climate change was Ohio governor John Kasich. He said that he did believe humans contribute to climate change though he did not put forward any solutions, just saying that, “we want to dig coal, but we want to clean it when we burn it.” He called for more solar energy, wind energy and the developing of renewables: “you can have a strong environmental policy at the same time that you have strong economic growth”.
Marco Rubio said that while the climate is changing there is no evidence to suggest that humans are influencing this. He also said there is no way to ensure that countries around the world comply with climate regulations. And he had some strong words to say about Obama’s climate regulations, decrying a war on coal, “these laws that people are asking us to pass will do nothing for the environment and will hurt the economy”.
Compared with the Democratic debate, climate change filled very little space in the Republican debate, and no solution was proposed by any candidate. Of course, discussing solutions might be hard as hardly any candidate recognise it is a problem. Environmentalists have differing opinions on what is the best method for tackling climate change. But they can take encouragement  from knowing that both Democratic candidates believe that it is not only a problem but a massive one that we must tackle.
Both debates highlighted that the USA is miles away from achieving cross-party agreement on the issue, leaving environmentalists with little choice. We have only the Florida mayors raising the issue of climate change in their communities. Do they feel that their voices were adequately heard?
As expected; in the Democratic race Hillary Clinton won Florida, while Donald Trump in the Republican race, positioned himself in a formidable leader position by convincingly winning the state.

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