The Fight To Hear Debate Questions On Climate Change In A State Struggling With Sea Level Rise

Podiums line the stage before the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER
Podiums line the stage before the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER

Both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will be headed to Miami next week in advance of their next primary debates. Local Floridians, already on the front lines of climate change as rising seas spill into their neighborhoods, want them to talk about climate change.

Cindy Lerner is the Mayor of Pinecrest, a coastal suburb of Miami. She and 14 other South Florida mayors sent letters to GOP candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush (before he ended his campaign) asking to meet with them about climate change. Both candidates agreed when Lerner went to New Hampshire to make the request in person. Bush has since ​dropped out of the race, and she is still trying to schedule a meeting with Rubio next week.

If that doesn’t work out, Lerner and her fellow mayors want climate science, policy, and impacts to be a part of the discussion on a much larger stage.

“There may be a prime opportunity to get the questions presented in a much broader forum, actually, to all the candidates” at the debate, Lerner told ThinkProgress on Friday.

It’s very distressing, to say the least, and clearly shows their lack of capacity to lead the country.

Lerner and 20 other Florida mayors — some Democrats, some Republicans — sent letters to the moderators of the Univision/Washington Post Democratic debate on the 9th, and the CNN/Salem Radio/Washington Times Republican debate on the 10th.


The letters cited the mayors’ concerns about sea level rise and the lack of attention paid to climate issues in past debates. “It would be unconscionable for these issues of grave concern for the people of Florida to not be addressed in the upcoming debate you will be hosting in the state,” they wrote. Specific questions address strategies for reducing emissions, investing in coastal infrastructure, and how American innovation can spur solutions to the climate crisis.

There have been 17 debates total since this presidential election cycle kicked off, but energy and climate questions rarely come up. Three days after almost 200 nations around the world signed a historic climate accord in Paris, CNN failed to ask the Republican candidates about it during a debate focusing on national security and foreign policy. One Republican debate was hosted in Cleveland, Ohio last year, and there were no questions about climate change — but Canada held a prime minister debate a few hours drive over the border which featured over a hour’s worth of energy and climate discussion. Though the Democratic candidates will much more often bring up climate change and energy during their debates and get a few more questions about it, it is still a rare thing.

Lerner said it was “puzzling” that such an important issue so rarely comes up in debates, given how clear the science is about the urgency climate change presents to so much of the country.

“It’s not just the scientists, it’s the insurance industry, it’s the military,” Lerner said. “I can’t tell you how many generals and retired admirals are saying this issue is a top national security priority. So why wouldn’t they be asked, as Commander-in-Chief, ‘what are you doing to shore up all of our bases?’”

The cities represented in the letter to the debate sponsors include Tampa, Coral Gables, Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, Miami, West Palm Beach, and Fort. Lauderdale. Lerner spoke about the need to support local governments because “we’re the first responders — we’re the ones that have to be prepared.”


Sea level rise in Florida threatens coastal infrastructure, fresh water supply, real estate, beaches, and tourism. There is a coastal real estate bubble that threatens U.S. taxpayers with trillions of dollars of losses if Florida does not take action to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. Yet Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection was unofficially banned from using the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainability.”

Asked what it’s like to be on the front lines dealing with the omnipresent climate impacts, and having to watch some presidential candidates ignore, question, or ridicule the subject, Lerner said “it’s very distressing, to say the least, and clearly shows their lack of capacity to lead the country.”

Lerner did not have much hope for either the GOP frontrunner Trump or fellow Floridian Rubio on climate change.

“I don’t think anybody can imagine what any aspect of this country will be like under a Trump presidency,” she said.

Both Democratic candidates have strong plans to address climate change and transition to renewable energy. The GOP is another matter. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) believes climate change is a a religion, Donald Trump cites snowfall in winter as evidence it is not happening, and Sen. Rubio referred to the Paris climate accord as an “unfunny joke” while questioning mainstream climate science.


“We know someone like Marco Rubio has spent the last couple of decades in South Florida. He came out of this city, he was a city councilor in West Miami. He knows the impacts we’ve been dealing with for at least the last 10 years. We don’t have to show him. We all know he knows better.”

“He’s decided that his role is as a climate denier, for ideological purposes.”

Lerner believes one of two factors will succeed in breaking the logjam in Congress on climate action: money, or another horrible disaster. “It’s going to either take another Hurricane Andrew or Hurricane Sandy that will be incredibly destructive, and the cost, which could have been minimized had there been more proactive planning and protections,” she said. “Or it’s going to be the insurance industry and the mortgage industry coming in and saying ‘you’re not doing anything that needs to be done to minimize risk, and they’re going to start refusing to insure people for 30-year mortgages.’”