Florida: Candidates shortsighted on climate change’s long-term impacts

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

In 1925, Florida’s breathless land boom appeared headed for collapse. While profits soared on paper, investors told heartbreaking tales of unscrupulous real-estate scams. New York newspapers posted staff writers to Florida. Amid grievous stories of lost savings and dashed dreams, states such as Ohio passed “blue sky laws” to protect citizens from swamp-selling conmen. Bankers began to cut back Florida loans. Buyers became spooked.

That October, Florida Governor John W. Martin led a delegation to New York for a press conference to fix what Florida Chamber of Commerce President Herman Dann called “one of the biggest problems” destabilizing real estate markets: “Truth in the news which comes or purports to come from Florida.” Martin invited journalists to the Waldorf-Astoria for a luncheon program, “The Truth About Florida.” The state was sound, insisted Dann, and working to get rid of the few “fictionalists and self-serving plungers” causing isolated misery.

But Florida was not sound. The land boom collapsed in early 1926, shattering lives along with the state’s real estate and financial industries. By responding more vigorously to perception of the crisis than its underlying causes, Florida’s leaders helped send the state into the Great Depression three years before the rest of the nation.

Nearly a century later, politicians are again neglecting the fundamental volatility facing Florida. This time, it’s climate change—and, with it, rapidly rising seas in a state where a vast majority of residents live in coastal counties. “Florida stands to lose more homes—and real-estate value—to sea level rise damage than any other state in the nation this century,” reported the Miami Herald’s Alex Harris, the first full-time climate change beat reporter in Florida, in June. Flooding and storm surges are worsening as the seas rise; one study found that one in five homes swamped by storm surge last month during Hurricane Florence would have stayed dry if not for climate-driven sea rise.

Watching Florida’s midterm candidates respond to the toxic algae and Hurricane Michael calamities ravaging the state feels like a throwback to 1925: they are pledging aid for tremors, while skirting or denying a much larger fault line. CNN’s Jake Tapper opened Sunday evening’s gubernatorial debate with a question on climate change, cleaving a basic and important distinction: Democrat Andrew Gillum pledges to restore focus to the issue in Tallahassee, and Republican Ron DeSantis is willing to talk about “resilience” but denies the scientific links between warming and weather extremes. Yet just two weeks from the general election, neither Gillum and DeSantis, nor their counterparts in Florida’s US Senate race, have come close to articulating the vision and solutions the state will need to tackle what has become its existential threat.

Helping people see alternative futures is perhaps the most important work of climate reporting, in Florida and beyond.

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Republican Governor Rick Scott, locked in one of the nation’s tightest US Senate races with incumbent Bill Nelson, has spent eight years downplaying both the threat of climate change and the need for bold thinking on how Florida should develop—and re-develop—in order to adapt. He dismantled Florida’s quarter-century-old growth management laws and the state’s major land-planning agency. Retired employees of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection say they were made to strip the words “climate change” from public presentations during Scott’s tenure. Scott has denied that he banned use of the term. But like Governor Martin one hundred years before, it’s clear that he has worked harder on Florida’s sunny perception than on its long-term realities.

Vying to replace Scott as governor, Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, released an environmental platform that would re-establish the state’s comprehensive growth-management system and restore annual climate summits and other priorities eliminated by Scott. But Gillum’s climate platform is only three paragraphs long—much shorter than his plan for the toxic algae emergencies plaguing Florida’s freshwaters and beaches.

Journalists are trained to beware shiny distractions, hold candidates accountable for voting records, and not publish vague platforms without fleshing out details. Bruce Ritchie, environment reporter at Politico Florida, says that’s difficult when candidates limit their responses to what will play well in a soundbite. And such responses are unlikely to trump the roar of an airboat engine: DeSantis released his environmental platform during an airboat trip in the Everglades with a colorful former state wildlife commissioner named “Alligator Ron” Bergeron.

Responding to Floridians’ outrage over toxic algae, DeSantis has made clean water the centerpiece of his campaign. But as a representative of Florida’s Sixth Congressional District, he voted in favor of critical environmental legislation only 2 percent of the time, according to his scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters. DeSantis also rejects climate scientists’ increasing confidence in the links between warmer seawater and stronger hurricanes. While not a climate-change denier, DeSantis told the press in  September, “I’m not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists.”

Longtime Herald environmental reporter Jenny Staletovich says even in a region where sunny-day flooding has vanquished climate doubt among political leaders (with the odd exception of Miami’s US Senator Marco Rubio), there are stark differences in candidates’ proposed solutions. “Resilience” can mean wildly different things, from planned retreat to continuing coastal building with pumps and seawalls. At the very least, she says, candidates should articulate opportunities for government to address climate change and sea rise at the level of office they seek—local, state, or federal.

In the wake of a devastating hurricane like Michael, reporters should press candidates for their ideas about how, and where, we rebuild—and who pays. After his debriefing on the storm’s catastrophic damage to Tyndall Air Force Base, Senator Nelson called immediately for rebuilding, with no equivalent call for scrutiny of disaster planning and response that may have left billions of dollars worth of fighter jets in the path of the storm. At least Nelson stressed that Florida, at ground-zero for climate change and its impacts, “is going to have to adapt to that in our future building standards and our location of structures,” rather than repeating the development mistakes of the past.

Once the hurricane victims are safe and secure in the Panhandle, their devastated communities offer an opening to important conversations about how Florida can reimagine its coastal buffers, landscapes, and towns to best adapt to the rising seas and coming storms. Helping people see alternative futures is perhaps the most important work of climate reporting, in Florida and beyond. Ask candidates: What policies do you recommend for cleaner energy and more-efficient transportation? What are your top five solutions for making the state more resilient in a warming world?

Back in October 1925, after lunching at the Waldorf-Astoria with Governor Martin and Florida business leaders, Henry Luce, who’d just co-founded Time magazine in part to fight the rise of the post-truth America he could already see, filed a short musing on Florida. The state, wrote Luce, “is a sunny state; her ground is rich, her seas warm, the hearts of her sons blithe. But the milkmen of Florida do not leave bottles of champagne on the stoop with their morning deliveries…[and] checkbooks do not grow on trees in Florida.” Investors, he concluded, “have a right to know all sides of the Florida story.” So, too, do today’s voters.

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Cynthia Barnett is an environmental journalist and author specializing in water and climate. Her most recent book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, was long-listed for the National Book Award. She is Environmental Journalist in Residence at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.