July 21, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Florida Officials Out of Step

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr./Madam President, this is the 107th time that I have come to the floor to urge my colleagues to wake up to the threat of climate change.   All over the United States—state by state by state—we are already seeing the real effects of carbon pollution. 

The American people see it.  Two-thirds of Americans, including half of Republicans, favor government action to reduce global warming; and two-thirds, including half of Republicans, would be more likely to vote for a candidate who campaigns on fighting climate change.

Polling from the Florida Atlantic University shows that more than 73 percent of U.S. Hispanics think global warming is a serious problem.  Sixty-two percent of Republican Hispanics are concerned about this. 

And, I’ve said this before: if you ask Republican voters under the age of 35, they’ll tell you that climate denial is “out of touch,” “ignorant,” or “crazy.”  Those are the words they selected in the poll—not my words. 

So we might expect Republican presidential hopefuls to incorporate climate action into their campaign platforms.  We might expect the Republican candidates to address this problem in an honest and straightforward manner.  

But we would be wrong.

What have we seen from the Republican presidential hopefuls?  Candidates avoid any serious talk of climate change, even as their own home states face climate and ocean disruptions.  In the weeks ahead I will look at the Republican presidential candidates on climate change, and their home states.

Today I’ll look at Florida:  home to 20 million Americans, including two of the top Republican presidential candidates;  a swing state with 29 electoral votes  Florida is a major political prize.  It’s also ground zero for climate change.  With over 1200 miles of coastline, Florida is uniquely vulnerable, for instance, to sea level rise.

So what do Florida’s two Republican presidential candidates have to say about climate change?  It seems they’re not sure.

“I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural.  It’s convoluted,” says former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. 

“[T]here’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing,” says Florida’s junior senator.  “The question is: what percentage of that . . . is due to human activity?” 

Scientists tell us that warming is “unequivocal,” and that human activity is the dominant cause of the changes that we have seen—indeed, the only plausibly valid explanation. 

Both presidential hopefuls from Florida have invoked the classic denial line, “I’m not a scientist.”  Well good thing, then, we’re not elected to be scientists.  We are elected to listen to them.  And if these Floridians were listening to their own best scientists, they could learn a lot. 

In fact, 42 scientists from Florida colleges and universities wrote an open letter to their state officials.  “It is crucial for policymakers to understand,” they wrote, “that human activity is affecting the composition of the atmosphere which will lead to adverse effects on human economies, health and well being.”  Not so convoluted after all. 

The letter continued:

The problem of climate change is not a hypothetical.  Thousands of scientists have studied the issue from a variety of angles and disciplines over many decades.  Those of us signing this statement have spent hundreds of years combined studying this problem, not from any partisan political perspective, but as scientists—seekers of evidence and explanations.  As a result, we feel uniquely qualified to assist policy makers in finding solutions to adapt and mitigate so we can protect the people of this state and their enterprises and property.

So it’s okay if you’re not a scientist.  The scientists are here to help.

While my Senate colleague from Florida is unsure about his home-state climate science. He seems much more certain about the economics of policies to curb carbon pollution like cap-and-trade.  “I can tell you with certainty,” he has said, “it would have a devastating impact on our economy.”

I would suggest that the Senator from Florida take a closer look at the facts, because his position on these two issues boils down to wrong and wronger. 

I know this because my home state is one of  nine Northeastern states that require utilities to buy carbon emissions allowances.  The proceeds are directed back into the regional economy through things like energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.   And we have the results.  Just from 2012 to 2014, the program generated $1.3 billion dollars in economic benefits for New England and it saved consumers over $400 million in energy costs.  And it cut carbon dioxide emissions in the region by a quarter.

Mr./Madam President, the Republican candidates from Florida are running against facts—and against the opinions of experts and local leaders in their own home state.

In a June 19 editorial, the Sun Sentinel praised Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on climate change and its call to swift action, because of the threat climate change poses to South Florida.  The editors wrote, “The pope’s declaration puts pressure on [the candidates] . . . because they are Floridians . . . and because they aspire to be national leaders.”  It continued: “Candidates who aspire to be inclusive, effective leaders cannot see . . . science through a political lens.”

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, explained Pope Francis’s message to the Miami Herald. “What the pope is saying is, ‘Let’s talk about this,’” he says.  “And that requires—whether you’re Democrat or Republican or left or right—it requires that you transcend your particular interest or ideological lens and look at the issue from the common good.”

And for Florida, that common good is imperiled by climate change.

South Florida has seen almost one foot of sea level rise in the last 100 years.  The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact isa bipartisan coalition of four South Florida counties.  Those counties predict that the waters around Southeast Florida could surge up to another two feet in less than fifty years. 

[South Florida Sea Level Rise Chart]

I visited Florida on my climate tour last year and heard firsthand about the threats climate change poses to the Sunshine State from Glenn Landers, senior engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Everglades Division.  He has worked on water resources and restoration projects in Florida for nearly twenty years.  This is the map he used to show me what just two feet of sea level rise means for South Florida.  There is a lot less of it. 

Florida is home to some of the country’s top universities and research institutions.  The Florida Climate Institute is a network of scientists and research programs from eight universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State, and the University of Miami.  The group is dedicated to “climate research in service of society.”  These are some of Florida’s brightest minds.  Recognizing businesses’ and communities’ need for useful data and solutions based on Florida’s unique characteristics, the Florida Climate Institute publishes research to help improve understanding of the increasing climate variability in the state.  If Florida’s leaders respond responsibly to the changing climate, writes the group, “Florida is well positioned to become a center of excellence for climate change research and education and a test bed for innovations in climate adaptation.”

Responsible public officials in the state are already taking action.  My friend the senior senator from Florida took the Senate Commerce Committee to Miami Beach Town Hall to examine the dangers posed by rising seas. 

Here’s what the Miami Herald said about his effort to raise awareness about the threat to his state:

South Florida owes Sen. Nelson its thanks for shining a bright light on this issue.  Everyone from local residents to elected officials should follow his lead, turning awareness of this major environmental issue into action.  It is critical to saving our region.

In Fort Lauderdale, Mayor Jack Seiler is working with NOAA, state and Broward County officials, and the South Florida Regional Planning Council to protect his city from flooding and climate change. Yet on climate change, Florida’s own presidential candidates have got nothing; no plan.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine [le-VEEN] showed me the huge pumps his city has installed to pump out the flood waters that come in on high tides and with storms.  Each pump can move 14,000 gallons of water per minute.  But Florida’s presidential candidates have no plan.

Mayor of Monroe County Sylvia Murphy—a Republican—has put climate and energy policy at the heart of her 20-year growth plan for the county.  Why?  Her county covers all of the Florida Keys and some of the Everglades.  She’s going to lose a lot of it, if we don’t get ahead of this.  She also sees what’s happening to the reefs offshore.

Yet, despite the overwhelming consensus of scientists in their own state, Florida’s Republican presidential candidates have got nothing.  The junior Senator from Florida even suggested that we should wait for China to take action before we address this problem.

Mr./Madam President, the junior Senator from Florida on foreign policy has spoken often about the need for American leadership on issues of global importance, saying that America must “continue to hold this torch” of peace and liberty.  Earlier this year, Jeb Bush echoed that sentiment, saying, “American leadership projected consistently and grounded in principal has been a benefit to the world.”  Fine words.

It is our responsibility as a great nation to set an example for others to follow, not to sit back and wait for others to act.  Failing to act on climate change would both dim our own torch and give other nations an excuse for delay. Failure, with the stakes this high, becomes an argument for our enemies against our very model of government.  

The question is why Republican presidential candidates continue to refuse to engage on climate change.  They ignore their own home-state universities, mayors, local officials, and civil engineers.  Why, when the evidence is so plain?  Why the pretense that climate solutions are bad for the economy.  Why can’t they credibly speak about America’s responsibility to lead?  Why would they have us ignore one of the most pressing global issues of our time? 

I hope, for their sake and for ours, that they soon will wake up.

I yield the floor.