TALLAHASSEE – Climate change is not a new issue in Florida policymaking circles, but it's making an inconvenient intrusion into Florida's gubernatorial contest.
Gov. Rick Scott has been taking heat over the past two weeks because he's repeatedly dodged questions from reporters about whether he believes the planet's average global increase in temperature is being caused by human activities.
"I'm not a scientist," he has said on at least three occasions in Tallahassee and South Florida. It's a modification of his position from 2010 when he cast dispersions on the human impact on the climate, which in the midst of a global economic funk was probably a cool thing to do.
But once in Florida's not-too-distant past, then Republican Gov. Charlie Crist – no scientist, either — championed the issue along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a climate change summit in 2007. He blocked a coal-fired power plant during his first year in office and pushed for solar-power incentives. Then, he ran for the U.S. Senate, and began back-tracking from most of those positions.
While California was carrying out greenhouse gas reduction goals for 2020, Florida was weakening its growth-management act to allow for more sprawling, pollution-increasing land development in the hopes of kick-starting its economy.
Now, Democratic gubernatorial challenger Crist is back to being a sunshine lover. He talked glowingly about climate change reduction and tapping solar power at a Capitol rally last spring. His campaign logo pictures a sun rising developed by his wife, Carole.
"Florida is all about the sunshine and we're not utilizing it in the way we need to," Crist said to the crowd in April. "There is a cloud blocking the sun from coming in and his name is Rick Scott."
Crist isn't getting the same kind of scorn from critics as his other dramatic reversals. But the question couldn't be more relevant for voters. Pressure is mounting for governments at the local, state and international levels to take action.
The White House last month released the U.S. government's most comprehensive review of global warming, the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment, which highlighted Florida's status as the nation's most imperiled locale. NASA highlighted new studies that have found an "unstoppable" collapse of a massive Antarctic ice sheet underway. Florida has 1,200 miles of coastline, with more than four-fifths of its population living there.
Utilities are already bracing for the impact climate change will have of freshwater supplies, as seawater intrudes into the aquifers. Insurers are preparing for the increased damage from hurricanes and their storm surge in future decades. Even the Florida Legislature set aside millions of dollars this year for beach fortifications, as sea levels have risen 5 to 8 inches since the 1960s.
But what makes climate change relevant for the gubernatorial contest is that Floridians themselves appear to put stock in the overwhelming scientific consensus – as expressed by fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment last fall – that human carbon emissions are trapping more heat and steering the biosphere toward dramatic impacts. Survey data released by Stanford University's Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment suggested a vast majority of Americans – and Floridians – believe the planet is warming, and humans are contributing to it.
The October 2013 analysis by political scientist Jon Krosnick and others reported that 84 percent of Floridians believe global warming is happening, while 75 percent agreed that it is caused by humans.
That's the kind of science a politician understands.
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