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Florida Republican for governor wants to have it both ways on climate

"I'm not a global warming person. I don't want that label on me."

Gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis (R-FL). CREDIT: Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis (R-FL). CREDIT: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Amid increasingly tight polling in Florida’s gubernatorial race, Republican Ron DeSantis is emphasizing his environmental bonafides, even as he refuses to fully acknowledge climate change. That green push comes as his opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, continues to net support from environmental advocates and organizations.

During a visit to the Everglades on Wednesday, DeSantis touted his commitment to the numerous environmental issues facing Florida, a coastal and low-lying state where climate issues are a leading concern. Sea-level rise in particular poses a  catastrophic risk for South Florida and DeSantis singled out the issue — even as he pushed back on embracing long-established climate science.

“I am not in the pew of the global warming leftist,” DeSantis told reporters, calling himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.” This was followed by him reportedly emphasizing, “I’m not a global warming person. I don’t want that label on me.”

Still, he went on to acknowledge the realities of South Florida. “The sea rise may be because of human activity and the changing climate, maybe it is not, I do not know,” DeSantis said. “What I do know is I see the sea rising. I see the increase in flooding in South Florida. I think you would be a fool to not consider that is an issue we need to address.”

The staunchly conservative candidate rolled out his environmental platform in conjunction with the Everglades trip, part of an effort to generate momentum going into November’s general election. Among other key points, DeSantis emphasized a commitment to addressing Florida’s “red tide” crisis, a toxic algae bloom that has devastated marine life and local businesses hard, in addition to threatening the health of some coastal residents.

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The algae crisis has become a major campaign issue and DeSantis pledged to form a task force to study the algae. He also committed to banning fracking and drilling off the state’s coast, in addition to curbing water discharges from Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake. Runoff from the lake has been seen as a potential source of the algae now plaguing Florida’s coast.

The Trump-endorsed Republican moreover touted his close relationship with the president, arguing that the connection could bring in additional funding for the Everglades. Still, on the environment he appeared willing to seemingly break with the White House agenda, which has largely touted fossil fuels and overseen regulatory rollbacks. On Thursday, DeSantis rejected the president’s dismissal of the official Puerto Rican death toll following Hurricane Maria, a nod to the growing power of the island’s voters in Florida.

Green themes are set to appear as a prominent fixture for DeSantis: his website proclaims the candidate will “be a champion for protecting our environment on day one,” a pledge that comes before his subsequent promises, including “stop illegal immigration” and “end judicial activism.”

But DeSantis’ sudden about-face on green issues isn’t likely to win over progressives. He has been dubbed a “sham environmentalist” by Democrats, who point to his environmental record. As a U.S. representative (he resigned this month in order to focus on his gubernatorial aspirations), DeSantis earned a lifetime score of only 2 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, which assigns scores based on environmental votes.

By contrast, DeSantis’ opponent, Andrew Gillum, has positioned himself as decidedly more progressive when it comes to environmental issues. Gillum’s campaign website lists the environment as a leading priority and the candidate has called for a plan to transition Florida entirely to clean energy in an effort to protect the vulnerable state from fossil fuels. He also criticized the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement and has repeatedly warned that climate change poses a leading danger to Florida.

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While Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee, has at times been seen as a centrist, he has defined himself as a staunch progressive in the current gubernatorial race, winning an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Green groups have embraced Gillum’s candidacy as well — he has earned endorsements from Florida Conservation Voters (FCV), the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida (DECF), and the action arm of progressive environmentalist group 350.org.

Even those who haven’t endorsed Gillum have openly contrasted his climate views with his opponent. In response to DeSantis’ Wednesday comments that he was “not a global warming person”, the progressive group Climate Hawks Vote tweeted, “need a reason to support Andrew Gillum for [Florida governor]? WOW.”

Gillum has also emerged as a climate leader on a very localized level. The day before Florida’s primary election in August, residents in Little Haiti told ThinkProgress he is one of the only candidates who has expressed concern regarding the neighborhood’s displacement crisis.

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The Miami neighborhood has suffered from what residents call “climate gentrification,” as developers seek to build in the area, which is at a higher altitude than the city’s vulnerable beaches, displacing its current communities in the process of attracting wealthier, whiter newcomers.

Climate gentrification is far from the only environmental crisis flying under the radar in Florida. Farmworkers in the state are also suffering the impact of increasingly deadly heatwaves and drought, along with the resounding ramifications posed by more frequent hurricanes and other natural disasters. These phenomena have all been linked to climate change.

With environmental issues set to dominate in November, both DeSantis and Gillum are likely to continue pushing their green qualifications. That’s especially true for DeSantis — recent polling in the state showed Gillum leading his conservative opponent by four points.