Florida Republicans confronted with climate change as midterms loom

Climate change poses an outsized threat to the state. Increasingly, conservative lawmakers are being asked to respond to that.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he leaves Speaker Ryan's office on Thursday, June 21, 2018, as House GOP leadership tries to find a path to pass immigration legislation. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he leaves Speaker Ryan's office on Thursday, June 21, 2018, as House GOP leadership tries to find a path to pass immigration legislation. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Caught between recovering from a devastating, unprecedented hurricane and an ongoing algae crisis, Florida Republicans are increasingly facing pressure to address climate change from constituents as election day draws near — but many have found themselves floundering on the issue.

Pressure to discuss climate change has accelerated in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which has killed at least 21 people so far in Northwest Florida and reduced some areas in the Panhandle to rubble. Amid an election cycle that has largely centered environmental crises, all eyes are increasingly on Florida Republicans, many of whom have a lengthy history of downplaying climate change and its risks.

But when asked about the relationship between warming ocean waters and an uptick in deadly and historic hurricanes, several Republicans have tried to deflect the issue.

“Look, scientists are saying that humanity and its behavior is contributing toward that,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday when asked on CNN if climate change is caused by people. “I can’t tell you what percentage of that is human activity. And I think many scientists would debate the percentage of what is attributable to man versus normal fluctuations.”


Acknowledging sea-level rise, which directly threatens Florida’s coasts, Rubio said that “how we manage water” will need to change, before adding, “but I’m also not going to destroy our economy.”

But experts have said climate change could cost the United States more than any other country except for India. And at least one study has found that global warming is costing the United States $250 billion per year.

Rubio isn’t up for re-election, but other Republicans are less comfortable, without much help from the top of the party. In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, President Donald Trump downplayed climate change and accused climate scientists of having a “political agenda.”

While climate scientists largely agree that no single natural disaster can be attributed to specifically to climate change, warming waters have allowed hurricanes to become more dangerous and more deadly. That includes last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeastern Texas, along with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. This year, warm waters allowed Hurricane Florence to become massive and then to hover over North Carolina, submerging the state.


Floridians are very familiar with this trend. Hurricane Irma last year hit the state’s citrus crop hard and left many vulnerable communities struggling. Hurricane Michael, helped along by warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico, has been far worse. Arriving far later in the year than is typical, the storm made landfall as a perilous Category 4 hurricane, destroying the town of Mexico Beach and leaving Panama City reeling. 

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), the co-founder of the controversial bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, has long touted himself as a Republican leader on climate issues. But like many Republicans in Florida, Curbelo is facing scrutiny over his response to Hurricane Michael.

“Those of us who truly care about #climatechange must be sober when discussing its connection to #Hurricane Michael or any other storm,” Curbelo  wrote on Thursday, amid rising concern over the hurricane. “Florida has had hurricanes for centuries. There’s no time to waste, but alarmists hurt the cause & move our fight for #climatesolutions backward.” 

A number of experts, including climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, expressed concern over Curbelo’s comments and emphasized the link between hurricanes and warming waters.

Curbelo — who often asserts his belief in climate change — appears to be trying to pivot away from his initial comments. Curbelo is vulnerable and virtually tied with his opponent, Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who has called South Florida “ground zero” for climate change and warned that the area is increasingly in danger from hurricanes.


In subsequent comments made to Politico, Curbelo on Monday called Trump’s climate denial comments “disappointing” and said he hoped the president’s mind would change after touring destroyed areas of Florida and Georgia.

But after travelling to hurricane-hit areas this week, the president appeared unswayed, asserting to reporters that the United States has “the cleanest air on the planet” and referring to himself as an “environmentalist” even as he painted action on climate change as a blow to U.S. businesses.

Curbelo’s evasive approach is popular with some other Republicans too.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents much of the western Florida Panhandle, acknowledges sea-level rise and its connection to climate change. But he has also previously called for abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency and has repeatedly stopped short of supporting bills that would tackle global warming. In the days since Michael hit, he has remained silent on any connection to climate change, despite the storm’s making landfall not far from his district. The representative was not readily available for comment to ThinkProgress on the issue.

Gaetz’s district is safely Republican, but inaction on climate change in Florida could cost Republicans elsewhere as the problem arrives on their doorsteps and becomes harder to avoid.

Michael’s threat to Florida’s midterm elections began to play out before the storm even made landfall, with Democrats and voting rights groups suing in advance to extend the state’s voter registration deadline. In the hurricane’s aftermath, the disaster has left devastated communities demanding answers — but for many lawmakers, the issue of climate change isn’t one they’re ready to entertain.

In a dead heat with Democrat Andrew Gillum, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist” and pledged to address issues like sea-level rise in South Florida. But while Gillum, currently the mayor of Tallahassee, has a history of discussing climate change, DeSantis emphasized in September that he is “not a global warming person” while seeking to distance himself from the issue.

Gillum has temporarily halted his campaign to focus on recovery from Michael and scrutiny over the candidates’ climate records is only likely to increase. Regardless, in the days since the hurricane, DeSantis has largely avoided any conversations about global warming. Neither the Gillum nor the DeSantis campaigns had responded to requests for comment from ThinkProgress on the link between climate change and Hurricane Michael at time of publishing.

But it’s not just the hurricane that’s prompting these environmental questions. Michael’s unfolding tragedy coincides with a relentless two-pronged toxic algae crisis, which has seen the state grappling with both “red tide” — the algae blooms devastating Florida’s coastline and producing a rust color — and the blue-green algae that has similarly invaded the state’s waters.

While the state has always experienced algae blooms, the current onslaught has grown out of control, hitting the economy hard in addition to killing off marine life and causing headaches and nausea in humans.

Scientists have said the algae is likely caused by a multitude of factors, including nutrient-laden agricultural runoff, but Karl Havens, director of the Florida Sea Grant Program at the University of Florida, told ThinkProgress in August that warm air and waters are also likely playing a role.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), currently running to unseat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D), has also left the campaign trail to focus on the state’s recovery in the wake of Michael, leaving his wife Ann in charge. Scott, quiet on climate issues, has touted his commitment to Florida’s environment even as his campaign has embraced contributions from fossil fuel interests. But the algae crisis is proving to be a harder issue for the governor to shake.

During his first term as governor, Scott cut $700 million from Florida’s water management districts, and green groups have largely decried his broader cuts to Florida environmental efforts along with his back-and-forth stance on offshore drilling.

Floridians see the algae crisis as part of that legacy. During a campaign event in September, the senate hopeful was confronted with protesters yelling, “Hey hey ho ho, red-tide Rick has got to go!”

Scott and Nelson were initially scheduled to debate on Tuesday, an opportunity for the candidates to be pressed on climate issues, but the sparring match has been postponed due to the hurricane. Gillum and DeSantis have similarly postponed their own debate plans amid Michael’s ongoing fallout.