Florida Gov. Rick Scott skirted addressing climate change in his state’s gubernatorial debate Wednesday, after being prompted by his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.
The two candidates were asked a question about how they reconcile their religious beliefs — both are Methodist — with scientific facts. Crist took that question as a way to pivot to climate change, calling Florida “Ground Zero” for climate impacts and assuring the audience that, in his view, “It is pretty clear that man is contributing to the problem.” Crist then pointed out Scott’s refusal to take a firm stance on the issue during the campaign.
Scott didn’t use Crist’s prompt as a way to clear up his views on climate change — instead, he talked about his religious upbringing and his record of environmental spending.
“My faith is very important to me and my family. When I think about problems, I think about solutions. Let’s take global warming. What we’ve done since I was elected is focus on the solution,” Scott said. “We have spent $350 million to deal with sea level rise. We have spent $100 million to protect coral reefs. We have increased funding by 45 percent for beach nourishment…my faith is important to me and I believe in it, but I am also going to try to solve any problems I think need to be solved.”
Scott’s choice to highlight his administration’s environmental investments when faced with questions about climate change is one that’s become common throughout his campaign. When the Miami Herald asked Scott about his views on climate change in May, Scott responded, “Well, I’m not a scientist. But let’s talk about what we’ve done,” before launching into an overview of his administration’s flood prevention spending. When the Miami Herald reporter pressed him further, Scott responded again with “I’m not a scientist,” then talked again about protecting the Everglades and preventing flooding. Scott has also failed to mention climate change in his future environmental plans: in August, the governor unveiled a re-election plan for environmental issues, which outlined $1 billion in investments but didn’t mention climate change.
And despite Scott’s focus on his religious credentials during the debate, the governor has been hesitant to work with one prominent Christian group. Evangelical Environmental Network, a Christian organization that maintains that addressing climate change and taking care of the environment is in line with Christian values, sent Scott an invitation to meet with the group’s president, Rev. Mitch Hescox, in July.
“Our shared belief in Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, protect the vulnerable (“the least of these”), and care for God’s creation,” the letter stated. “These commands are directly linked to a great moral threat to humanity, climate change.”
Scott’s office hasn’t taken up the group’s offer, however, reportedly telling Hescox via email in August that the governor’s schedule was full. Hescox has since delivered a petition, which asks the governor to act on climate change and was signed by 60,000 “pro-life Christians,” to the governor’s office.
“I’m a lifelong registered Republican. I’m a conservative at heart,” Hescox told ClimateWire. “I would love to see the governor follow his faith to see this is not a political issue and draw everybody together.”
In addition to his refusal to to say whether he still doesn’t believe the reality of climate change, Scott’s record on other environmental issues has spurred criticism. The Miami Herald condemned the governor’s secret hunting trip to U.S. Sugar Corp’s King Lodge, and chastised Scott for accepting $534,000 in contributions from the sugar company. Florida’s sugar industry has been accused of avoiding payments that would help clean up phosphorus pollution — much of which stems from sugar cane fields — in the Everglades, an avoidance of payments that some say have passed the cost on to taxpayers. In July, the governor was also found to have owned stock in a company that wants to build a 474-mile natural gas pipeline into Florida.
Scott’s continued refusal to take a stand on climate change is in spite of the fact that Florida — especially South Florida — is one of the most vulnerable states in the country when it comes to sea level rise. According to the White House’s National Climate Assessment, Southeast Florida is a region where “just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean.” Miami, which has already grown used to high-tide, “sunny-day floods,” will experience eight times as many of these floods by 2030, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report.