With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on his state last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott, flanked by men in camouflage fatigues, issued evacuation plans with the urgency of a military order.
“This is going to kill people,” he said at one point. At another: “There are no excuses. You need to leave. Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.”
As the storm made landfall in the Caribbean and southeastern United States over the weekend, Hurricane Matthew did kill people–19 people died in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and at least 900 people are known to have perished in Haiti so far. Before it made landfall, the hurricane was the strongest to threaten the continental United States in nearly a decade, though it eventually weakened to a Category 1 by the time it moved up the East Coast.
Scientists believe that warmer ocean temperatures created by climate change had been fueling its power–both intensifying it more quickly and sustaining its strength far longer than other storms in the modern record. “It isn’t a coincidence that we’ve seen the strongest hurricanes in both hemispheres within the last year,” Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Democracy Now. (In February, Tropical Cyclone Winston was the strongest ever in the southern hemisphere). MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel told CNN that, with climate change, we would expect to see more Category 4 and 5 storms in the future.
Matthew is just the latest and most tragic example of why Florida is not a but the political battleground state for climate change. Lately, the state is a hot mess of climate change-linked apocalyptic disasters. The CDC has issued an unprecedented travel advisory for pockets of the state, due to the spread of the Zika virus, which is also enabled by climate change. In Miami Beach, tidal flooding–i.e. floods that are not even linked to heavy rain–has quadrupled over the last decade, a harbinger of the unabated sea level rise that could put more than 900,000 Florida homes underwater by the end of the century (by far, more than any other state). This year’s outbreak of sludgy toxic algae, exacerbated by warmer water, was so bad on both Florida coasts that a state of emergency was declared in four counties, as the algae sickened people and killed wildlife and fish.
The United States today is trapped along fierce partisan lines on the issue of climate change. Democrats correctly say it is the most urgent challenge of our time, while Republicans say it is a Chinese hoax–and it’s a cycle of partisanship that feels impossible to break. On the eve of Hurricane Matthew this week, as Republican governors like Scott and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley told millions of people to evacuate or risk death, conservative commentators Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh seeded weather conspiracies, with Drudge wondering if the “govt has been lying . . . about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate.”
If this toxic political dynamic is ever to break–and it will have to break at some point as climate change worsens–Florida, as both a political and climate battleground state, is one of the best bets to lead change. As a state that is neither firmly Republican or Democrat, it is consistently a major swing state in presidential elections, and as climate-linked disasters get worse, it is possible to imagine the the climate denying voters and politicians finally being forced by reality to pull their heads out of the sand.
There are already early signs of this. Unlike Louisiana, another climate change frontline state–but one that is firmly held by conservative politicians with deep links to the oil industry–Florida has seen signs of bipartisanship on the climate issue. In February, two south Florida members of the House of Representatives, Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Ted Deutch, formed the first-ever bipartisan climate change caucus. The Citizens Climate Lobby, a group that helped get it off the ground, says it creates “a safe place” for politicians to talk to each other on the issue. The group now has 20 members, and out of the seven Republicans, three are from Florida.
Republican mayors are also taking the issue seriously, from smaller towns like Coral Gables to Miami. In January, Miami’s Tomas Regalado was one of 15 South Florida mayors who implored then Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to take climate change more seriously.
“We are in ground zero, and we need to have our candidates from Florida address the issue,” Regalado told the Miami Herald. “We don’t have any leverage with the Trumps and the Christies or the Cruzes of the nation, but I think that they are closer to home,” he said of Bush and Rubio.
Voters, however, will have to be more demanding to force any real shifts. Traditionally, Florida voters do care about the environment, but climate change hasn’t yet risen to a level of top concern, except in some southern coastal areas, says University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. Rubio, who is now re-running for his Senate seat and leads in polls, includes no mention of renewable energy in his platform and hopes to block Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but devotes an entire section of his site to Everglades restoration and the state’s complex water woes. Through his presidential campaign, he blamed Miami flooding on low-lying land and said “there’s no such thing” as a law we could pass in Washington to change the weather.
Recent polling shows that voters, too, are starting to awaken. On the USF-Nielsen Sunshine State annual survey, released on October 6, the environment comes in second to an open-ended question about the single most “important issue” facing Florida voters, with 13% of voters citing this issue, only behind the economy and jobs, and ahead of crime, education, health care, and immigration–a level higher than last year. But people still don’t focus on climate change: Respondents said that of the top environmental problems facing the state, climate change was only most important to 18%, behind water-related problems and loss of natural land.
With stronger hurricanes like Matthew, and more “worst ever” or “biggest ever” records being set for a host of environmental woes in the state, more voters–and therefore more locally and statewide-elected politicians, even Republicans–will have to start making the connections between environmental degradation and disaster and the warming temperatures that are making it worse. Time will also help: “[The issue of climate change] is very generational. The group that’s most attentive to climate change is the millennials,” MacManus says.
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