Tidal floodwaters submerge a street in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September 2015.
A bipartisan group of Florida mayors has pushed climate change onto the agenda for today’s presidential primary in that state, citing impacts such as tidal flooding. Here tidal floodwaters submerge a street in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September 2015. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With today’s delegate-rich Florida primary up for grabs in the race for the presidency, some of the state’s Democratic and Republican mayors have successfully elevated climate change as an issue in the contest. In a letter, an op-ed, and other communications, they have called the Sunshine State ground zero for warming impacts that include more tidal flooding, severe storm surges, and saltwater intrusions into aquifers.

Armed with evidence from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that sea levels off the coast of south Florida increased by about 23.5 centimeters (9.24 inches) between 1913 and 2014 and that mean sea level there could rise about another 2.9–4.8 meters (9.6–15.6 feet) by 2050 according to a study by the Risky Business Project, a bipartisan group of 21 mayors successfully pushed concerns about climate change into the Florida presidential election primary debates last week.

Fifteen of the mayors signed on to a 21 January letter to Marco Rubio and a similar letter to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was still a presidential candidate at the time. Then, 21 mayors signed on to another letter to national debate moderators. Two mayors from the same group also wrote an op-ed that ran in the Miami Herald. Several mayors told Eos that they hope voters consider climate change when they go to the polls today.

“It is incumbent on those of us in local office to elevate these issues to the presidential candidates.”

“It is incumbent on those of us in local office to elevate these issues to the presidential candidates,” Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest, in Miami-Dade County, Florida, told Eos. She said that people in Florida are concerned about climate change because “we are living it.” Lerner, a Democrat, added that with much of Florida at or near sea level and on a porous limestone base, seawalls or dykes are not a permanent solution to safeguarding the communities, infrastructure, and the economy. “Coastal Florida is getting washed away with storm surge and high tides and hurricanes, and the ability to plan for the future and look at solutions that have been addressed elsewhere is limited.”

Climate Change and the Debates

During last week’s Democratic and Republican debates, the moderators asked candidates to specifically respond to concerns about climate change that were raised by Florida mayors. During the 10 March Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton called for strong measures against climate change. In the 11 March Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) commented, “There’s never been a time when the climate has not changed. I think the fundamental question for a policy maker is, is the climate changing because of something we are doing and if so, is there a law you can pass to fix it?” Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) said he believes people contribute to climate change and that environmental rules and a good economy can go together. The other Republican candidates, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), didn’t respond during the debate but have been dismissive of climate change.

Jim Cason, the Republican mayor of Coral Gables, a jurisdiction near Miami, told Eos that Kasich’s response was better than that of Rubio, who “again denied any role for humans in climate change and seemed to be resigned to a ‘que sera, sera’ policy [of] nothing we can do about it.  He offered no solutions for his home town [of West Miami] other than resignation.”

Climate change “is an existential issue for us,” Cason said. South Florida “is ground zero.”

In the 9 March op-ed, Cason and Miami mayor Tomás Regalado wrote, “As staunch Republicans, we share our party’s suspicion of government overreach and unreasonable regulations. But for us and most other public officials in South Florida, climate change is not a partisan talking point. It’s a looming crisis that we must deal with—and soon.”

Heads in the Sand

Cason told Eos he feels at odds with many Republicans on the issue of climate change. “I think they’re wrong. I think that, yeah, I want to be one of those who says, ‘You guys have got your heads in the sand. Start being responsible on this issue.’” He said the Florida state government is “in denial.” To deal with climate change, mayors “are the ones who are going to have to either adapt, mitigate, or walk backwards” to more inland areas, he said. What’s more, “we need to prepare our residents for some things they may not want to think about so that they can make up their own minds how they are going to manage the risk,” he said.

“We want to make climate denial a liability for every candidate running for election or re-election in every race.”

Several nonprofits worked with the mayors to push the issue of climate change into the debates. Brant Olson, campaign director for ClimateTruth.org, a group based in Oakland, Calif., told Eos, “Our hope is that at the very least when voters go to the polls that they will have an awareness of where the candidates stand on climate change and will be able to decide for themselves whether those positions align with their own.”

The window of opportunity to mitigate the worst effects of climate change “is shutting, and I do not think the average voter understands,” added Caroline Lewis, executive director of the CLEO Institute, a Miami-based group that focuses on climate change resilience and that also worked with the mayors. “We want to make climate denial a liability for every candidate running for election or re-election in every race.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Florida mayors spotlight climate change as U.S. election issue, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO048201. Published on 15 March 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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