Florida voters care about climate change. Too bad the Republican presidential candidates don’t
In Florida’s Tuesday presidential primary, 99 Republican delegates are up for grabs. In a state where 81 percent of residents think that climate change is occurring, Republican voters will choose between presidential candidates who don’t.
At last week’s Republican presidential debate, held in Miami, Marco Rubio responded to a question submitted by the city’s Republican mayor, Tomás Regalado, who is concerned about climate change and sea-level rise. Rubio does not share that concern: “There’s never been a time when the climate has not changed,” he said. In a follow-up on CNN, Rubio again dismissed concerns about climate change, arguing, “What there is no consensus on is how much of the changes that are going on are due to human activity.” Ted Cruz and the Frontrunner Who Shall Not Be Named are widely known for their anti-climate-action stances. Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich isn’t as moderate on the issue as he’s made out to be. In a stunning display of his grasp of foreign-policy nuance, Kasich barked at a town hall on Sunday, “I think when [Secretary of State John Kerry] went to Paris [for the U.N. climate conference], he should have gone there to get our allies together to fight ISIS instead.”
But it’s not just the presidential candidates muddying the scientific waters here. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Jeb! Bush push back against (if not flat-out deny) climate science — Scott famously barred state employees from even using the term “climate change” last year — and Republican House members Mario Diaz-Balart, Jeff Miller, and Bill Posey have all expressed denialist views over the past decade.
The disconnect between Floridian voters and ostrich-esque representatives isn’t a new one, but that doesn’t make it any less curious.
One of Florida’s flagship industries — tourism — is bound to be heavily affected by climate change. The industry contributed $51 billion to state GDP in 2015, and 1.1 million Floridians’ jobs are related to tourism. Over the next 15 years, sea levels in the state are expected to rise by 6–10 inches, when compared to 1992 levels. Rising seas and storm surges also threaten a lot of the state’s real estate and promise to batter the tax base. It’s the kind of recipe that gives rise to climate concern, even if the impetus is largely economic.
So why do Floridians continue to vote for politicians who don’t take climate change seriously?
One explanation is that voters care about climate change, but simply care about it less than issues like the economy, taxation, and immigration. In a statewide poll of the “biggest issue facing the 2016 candidates for president,” released last week, the economy ranked first for 46 percent of self-identifying Republicans and 40 percent of Strong Republicans. Climate change only garnered 1 percent of the vote in each category. (For comparison, Democrats and Strong Democrats ranked climate change in the top position 4 percent and 8 percent of the time, respectively. Democrats, too, put the economy in the top spot.) The issue, then, is not necessarily one of ignorance or denial, but one of priority.
It’s worth noting that this is true of national polls, as well. The climate is never ranked as exceptionally pressing by voters, for all the reasons it’s difficult to deal with climate change in the first place. Climate change is a slow, lagged, and diffuse phenomenon. It’s personally and politically difficult to wrap one’s head around.
But recall that Republican Mayor Regalado was the one who posed the climate question to Rubio last week. Indeed, Regalado was one of 21 mayors who signed on to an open letter demanding a focus on climate change at the Miami presidential debate. Why do Florida voters elect mayors who care about climate change, but federal representatives and governors who don’t? That’s likely a function of cities’ tendencies to house more liberal-leaning residents. Mayors, too, are the ones that often have to answer (read: pay) for the immediate effects of a changing climate, and that can prime them toward climate action.
Of course, for Florida Republican primary voters, there’s not actually a real choice here when it comes to climate change. With all four presidential candidates actively opposing serious climate action, the electorate can’t help but allocate delegates to denialism. Which is a shame, because the seas are still rising.