Charlie Crist. Photo: Steven Murphy/WireImageMeet Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a surprising blend of Grand Ol’ Party and bleeding-heart greenie. As a Republican, he defends the Bush administration’s environmental record, but he also counts among his personal heroes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who wrote an entire book condemning Bush as “America’s worst environmental president.”

Crist wasn’t backed by green groups during his 2006 race for the governor’s mansion, but now, after his first year in office, enviros in Florida and beyond are singing his praises. Crist has earned their particular admiration for diving into the fight against climate change and spurning plans for a new coal-fired power plant in the state.

Crist hosted a high-profile climate summit in July, where the motley guests included California “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, and environmental officials from Germany and the U.K. At that gathering, Crist set aggressive targets for cutting Florida’s greenhouse-gas emissions 10 percent by 2012 and eventually 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. He also announced plans to adopt California’s strict vehicle-emissions regulations, called on Florida utilities to produce 20 percent of their power from renewables by 2020, and declared that appliances, state government buildings, and state-owned vehicles would have to be more energy-efficient going forward.

Despite his ambitious whip-cracking on climate change, Crist says citizens shouldn’t need to sacrifice for solutions: “I don’t think they’re going to have to change [their lifestyle] at all. I just think they’re going to have to change what they use to power it.”

Crist spoke to me from his office in Tallahassee, Fla.


 

Why are environmental issues priorities for you?

I love my state, and I love the environment that makes Florida so special and beautiful. When I was a little kid, I used to go fishing with my father in Tampa Bay. That had a profound impact upon me — it gave me a great appreciation for nature and our Creator’s work. When I was student council president, in junior high school, the student government sponsored a school dance to raise $100 — a check that I took down to the St. Petersburg City Council to start the recycling program in 1971. None of this stuff is really new to me, but it’s important.

Climate change and green job development are two issues you’ve emphasized as governor. Why?

To save the planet. It’s that simple, it’s that important to me. I feel a sense of duty and stewardship to do everything I can. I’ve been given this great blessing to be the governor of this magnificent state. I didn’t get elected to mark time, I got elected to make a difference, and I think this is one of the most important issues of our time. We have an opportunity to do what’s right to protect God’s work.

In your 2006 campaign for governor, environmentalists backed your opponent. Now they’re calling you one of the most important climate leaders in the nation. Would you say you’ve had a “conversion moment” in the last couple years on climate change?

Probably on climate change, yeah, but certainly not on the environment. As a young state senator back in the early ’90s, I sponsored a net ban in Florida to protect our fishery stock. I sponsored a bill to have propeller guards on outboard motors to protect manatees and dolphins.

The climate-change issue, specifically, is one that I’ve tried to learn a great deal about in the past few years, and that’s led me to where I am today.

Was there an “a-ha!” moment when you realized that this is one of the most significant problems of our time?

Terry Tamminen [former senior adviser to Schwarzenegger and former head of the California EPA] really had a profound impact on me. He came to me in February of [2007], shortly after I got sworn in. He brought a map of the United States with him. He showed me what’s happening [on climate policy] in California, and the Western states, and the Northeast, with some very good leadership from governors, frankly. And then he showed me the Southeast — there was this void in this region in terms of moving forward on climate change. And he said, “Governor, if you will seize the moment, you’ll have an opportunity to make a difference to our country.” I listened to him, I heard him, and I accepted his challenge.

Have you heard much from your constituents about climate change? Do you think Floridians are more worried about the problem than folks in other parts of the country?

That’s probable. Look at us: we’re this giant peninsula that sticks out between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s obvious to me, and I think most Floridians, that we’re the state that is the most susceptible to climate change, particularly rising sea levels. That creates an even greater sense of urgency for me. But it’s also a joy. I’m not a gloom-and-doom guy — I’m an optimist. I think we do have time to turn this around, and I think that the kinds of things we’re doing will certainly help.

I read a study a few weeks ago from Tufts University that found climate change could cost Florida $345 billion a year.

If we don’t address it, that’s right. Tourism as an industry is incredibly important in producing jobs for our state. We get 85 million visitors a year to Florida, and they don’t come here because she’s ugly; they come here because she’s beautiful and the climate’s great. That’s why I think the legislature has been so helpful [on climate issues], it’s why I think the reception on this issue generally, from citizens, has been so strong.

But there’s another side to the economic argument: There’s gold in green. Florida Power & Light, a company that I used to take to task as attorney general of this state, has really jumped on board. They’re planning to build one of the largest solar energy plants in the world.

Some critics have argued that your climate plan would be too expensive. How do you weigh the costs and benefits of taking action on climate change?

I refer to experts like Tufts University and their recent study, and other good university reports. I’m not a scientist and I’m not an economist, but I am a public servant, and I have a duty to try to glean from experts.

Has Gov. Schwarzenegger been a role model for your climate leadership? Have there been other heroes?

Schwarzenegger praises Crist at Florida’s climate summit.

Photo: gov.ca.gov

Without a doubt. Arnold’s a friend, and I admire his leadership and his courage and his strength. He’s a hero to me. [Climate change] has not been the typical Republican issue, but Gov. Schwarzenegger has changed that — and I hope to a smaller degree we’re contributing to that difference.

But it really goes back to Teddy Roosevelt for me, as a Republican — here was a guy 100 years ago who understood the importance of conservation: protecting the environment, establishing our national park system. He’s a hero to me. Robert Kennedy Jr. is a hero to me, and so is Teddy Roosevelt IV, who carries on the tradition of his family.

Republicans have generally not been as active on climate change in the past as Democrats. Why do you think that is? Why has this been cast as a Democratic issue?

I don’t know. That’s a great question. The other party led, and we did not, for whatever reason. But I’m proud of the fact that we are now. It really does go back to the roots of the Republican Party and Theodore Roosevelt.

But I don’t really care about party affiliation — I just want to serve the people. I try to do what I think is right, and this is something that I believe is the right thing to do. A lot of issues are important to me. The economy and budgets are very important. But if we don’t save the planet, they kind of don’t matter anymore.

What is your opinion of the Bush administration’s environmental record?

I think they can do better, but I don’t want to be overcritical — I can do better, too. I’m starting to see some things from the administration that are more encouraging to me. I’ve met several times with the secretary of the Department of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, on water issues, and he’s been great. The administration is moving in a direction that I appreciate lately.

Which presidential candidates do you think have the strongest environmental platforms?

I’m not sure. I’ve stayed neutral in the race, so I’ll reserve comment. I wish them all the best of luck, especially the Republicans, and I hope that they’re environmentally concerned.

We have an earlier primary in the Sunshine State now, on Jan. 29. We’re the first megastate that will vote in a presidential primary. If the candidates want to do well in Florida, they’d better pay attention to the environment. And I think they are.

Environmentalists applauded your support of the Florida utilities commission when it rejected a big, new coal-burning power plant this summer. What’s your position on coal, both traditional coal and so-called “clean coal”?

I’m not a fan [laughs], just to put it lightly.

There are certain technologies that can help us with clean coal, but I would prefer solar, wind, biomass, and other alternatives. But I’m very grateful to Florida Power & Light, because just less than a year ago they were going to put a coal plant right next to the Everglades — of all places. I mean, it’s just stunning to me. Instead of doing that, they’re going to develop one of the largest solar energy plants in the world, and they’re about to launch a wind project here. So I’m very grateful and very excited about what’s happening.

Do you think Florida can get by without any new coal plants?

I think it’s quite possible, sure. But again, I don’t want to close the door on coal if it can be done clean; I want to be pragmatic. But I don’t like coal — I flat don’t like it. I know it’s a resource that we have in abundance in this country. I was born in Pennsylvania and I still have family there, so I understand it. But it’s not my preference.

The coal industry sponsored the CNN presidential debate that was broadcast from Florida. Some said it was an effort to influence what has been called your “crusade against coal.” Is that accurate? Are you feeling the heat from the coal industry?

I have no idea. That’s the first time I’ve heard that, to be perfectly candid with you, so it apparently hasn’t affected me very much.

Florida has a booming population. What measures are you taking to contain sprawl and other environmental challenges that come with more people?

We’ve got a great secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, Thomas Pelham. I think he’s doing extraordinary work in terms of trying to stem the tide of sprawl, have communities grow smart, in a way that’s consistent with preserving our environment.

Growth is important to us. About 1,000 new people move to Florida every single day. It is a blessing and a challenge at the same time. Because of that growth, we’re virtually recession-proof. All these new people, they need a home, they need a car, they need groceries, they need shoes — it’s a great stimulant to Florida’s economy.

But at the same time we need more roads, more schools, and more infrastructure for all of those new people that come here. But I admire the way Pelham is doing it.

What do you do personally to reduce your environmental footprint?

I’ve got the corkscrew bulbs in the governor’s mansion and in my home in St. Petersburg. I’ve installed solar panels on the governor’s mansion. I have an outboard boat, and it’s a four-stroke engine so it emits less carbon, and that’s important to me. The vehicle they drive me around in in Tallahassee is powered by ethanol. I’ll try to do everything I can to lead by example. These things may seem small, but I think if people learn that others are doing this, it can have a profound effect. Just by taking the first step, it can make a big difference.

Can you describe your personal connection to the natural world?

Each and every day, I wake up early and I work out. It gives me the opportunity to watch the sun come up, and it’s so joyful for me to be able to see that. It renews my spirit and it gathers me up again to try and do more to preserve the environment and protect it for future generations.