by Kiley Kroh and Jorge Madrid
Tonight, the four remaining Republican presidential contenders head to Jacksonville, Florida for the final debate before the battleground state’s January 31st primary.
Although the candidates’ energy platforms are firmly anchored to the “drill, baby, drill” platform, the call to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, and the denial of climate change, those messages won’t necessarily resonate with Floridians. The state has long been wary of offshore drilling, and south Florida ranks among the nation’s most vulnerable areas to climate change-induced flooding and erosion.
Given the importance of these environmental issues for Floridians, here are five key themes to keep in mind for tomorrow night’s debate:
- Clean energy
- Sea-level rise
Here’s why each of these five are important:
Tourism is Florida’s leading industry, employing around 1 million people and accounting for more than one-fifth of the state’s total sales tax revenue and 9.3 percent of the GDP. Oil spills and other disasters are inevitable consequences of offshore drilling, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster took a huge toll on Florida’s economy.
In the immediate wake of the spill, for example, “many Panhandle hotels and restaurants reported seeing sales down by 50 percent in the peak summer months.” Newt Gingrich is in favor of lifting restrictions on offshore drilling, Rick Santorum is calling for more drilling, and Mitt Romney has pledged more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Santorum flubbed a similar question on Tuesday night.
How will the other candidates fare if asked to address the contentious issue of offshore drilling in Florida’s waters and its potential impact on the industry that drives the state’s economy?
A 2011 survey found that 65 percent of Floridians consider protecting and restoring the Everglades to be “very” or “extremely” important, with 84 percent of these voters ranking “very important” the freshwater drinking resource supplied to one in three Floridians by the Everglades.
In addition to their ecological value, the Everglades are also a powerful potential economic engine for the state. A 2010 study finds that a significant investment in Everglades restoration will generate an increase in economic welfare of approximately $46.5 billion, a 400 percent rate of return on the initial investment, as well as create over 442,000 jobs. In sharp contrast, the Republican frontrunners have spent much of the campaign spewing vitriol against the main agency in charge of Everglades restoration, the Environmental Protection Agency. Gingrich has proposed abolishing the EPA, while Mitt Romney calls the EPA “a tool to crush the private enterprise system.”
Will the candidates reverse course on their EPA bashing?
3. Clean energy
More than 100,000 Floridians were employed in the green economy in 2010, with solar energy being the fastest growing clean energy segment in the state in the last decade according to the Brookings institution. According to the Solar Foundation, Florida ranked number six in cumulative installed solar capacity and solar jobs, supporting 4,224 jobs in solar sales, manufacturing, installation, or related activities. Florida is also ranked number 6 in installed solar capacity, with 73 MW in 2010. The city of Gainesville, Florida, is a world leader in per-capita solar installation — beating out Japan, France, China, and even sunny California in installations per resident.
This striking success sharply contrasts the view of Republican front-runners who have spent their time on the campaign trail by bashing green jobs and denouncing clean energy policies that will sustain future growth in the industry. Clearly, these frontrunners are out of touch with the 89 percent of Americans who think it is important for the U.S. to develop and use solar energy, as a Kelton Research poll finds.
Will the candidates change their tune on clean energy?
4. Sea-level rise
The impact of sea level rise, a result of climate change, is already being felt in Florida. Almost half of Florida’s beaches, which attract thousands of tourists each year, are already eroding enough to have an impact on existing development and recreation areas. Salt water intrusion is a major concern, threatening to contaminate the freshwater supplies that provide drinking water for much of South Florida. According to an analysis by the American Security Project, real estate losses are projected to cost Floridians $11 billion in 2025 and yearly costs to this market may more than double by 2050 to $23 billion. All of the Republican contenders have dismissed or questioned climate change science, calling it a “hoax” or “junk science.”
How will they address the very real threat it poses for Florida’s economy and the health of its residents?
According to a National Marine Fisheries Service 2008 regional report, Florida generated over $ 5.7 billion in sales, 108,600 jobs, and $3.1 billion in income impacts from the fishing industry in the Gulf. Over 54,600 jobs were supported in West Florida alone as part of the recreational fishing industry. After the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Gulf coast fishermen experienced nearly a 40% drop in landings overall between 2009 and 2010. This represents a $62 million loss in dockside sales. The fishing industry, and the jobs it supports, are dependent on healthy oceans and threatened by habitat loss, sea level rise, and offshore drilling activity.
How will the candidates protect the existing jobs and industries at stake?
Kiley Kroh is associate director for ocean communications at the Center for American Progress; Jorge Madrid is a research associate on the energy team at the Center for American Progress.