Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo says it’s "vital" that lawmakers begin working on legislation to address climate change, which he says could damage both the economy and environment of his district in South Florida.
His views diverge sharply from those of other Republican lawmakers, including the state’s two presidential aspirants in former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. And although Curbelo has not endorsed a policy by which to reduce carbon emissions, some observers describe his openness to the issue as a thawing moment in the seemingly frozen congressional debate over global warming.
"I have concerns about the ecological impact that climate change has on our planet, especially as it relates to rising sea-levels," Curbelo said in a statement to ClimateWire. "It is vital Congress works in a bipartisan manner to mitigate the effects of climate change and I’m proud to be a pro-environment voice in the Republican Party."
Curbelo’s remarks coincided with his visit Friday to a public school south of Miami where 200 fifth-graders gave him thank you letters for pledging to address warming last month. On Earth Day, Curbelo hitched a ride aboard Air Force One to the Everglades, where he attended President Obama’s speech on climate change.
That appears to be the first time that Curbelo talked publicly about addressing rising seas and other climate impacts since he took office in January after defeating Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia by 3 percentage points. He said then that he’s "committed to finding common ground to mitigate the effects of climate change."
Curbelo’s positions outdistance those of his party’s leaders. Rubio questions the extent to which human activity will alter the climate, and he says any action to reduce emissions will badly harm the economy. Bush recently said he’s concerned about warming but didn’t address whether it’s man-made.
Late last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became perhaps the only potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination to acknowledge that humans are having an impact.
"I think global warming is real," he said in New Hampshire on Thursday. "I don’t think that’s deniable. And I do think human activity contributes to it."
School on the ‘front line’
Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County, acknowledges that Curbelo’s views deviate from the Republican mainstream. Yet, he indicated that the party is willing to accept them, even as other Republicans openly reject the science behind the greenhouse effect.
"I think a lot of Republicans agree that there is some sort of climate change occurring," Diaz said. "The big debate is the cause of it. There is lots of room in the Republican Party for varying opinions within the debate on climate change."
Curbelo, 35, also stakes out other positions that are unusual for his party. He supports gay marriage and has endorsed the idea of eventually granting legal citizenship to many of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.
It was Curbelo’s willingness to disengage from his party’s climate positions that prompted the fifth-grade letter-writing project at Gateway Environmental Learning Center in Homestead, Fla. A student brought a local newspaper clip about the congressman’s Earth Day remarks to Denise Mendoza, a science teacher at the public school outfitted with an educational wetlands.
That sparked her to assign 30 students in her "Earth Buddies Club" to thank Curbelo in writing. It spread to other classes, until every fifth-grade student at the public school had written a letter.
"It just kind of snowballed," Mendoza said during her lunch break Friday, noting that the school is 5 miles away from the Everglades. "We are in the front lines" of climate change, she added.
Curbelo’s comments might have a similar effect on the voters in his district, particularly among Hispanics, according to Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who polls the public on its attitudes about climate change.
A sign of movement, or just an outlier?
More Hispanics support government action on climate change than whites, according to a survey conducted in January by Stanford, The New York Times and Resources for the Future. Sixty-three percent of Hispanics said the government should do a great deal or a lot, compared with 49 percent of whites. Also, 80 percent of Hispanics support a carbon tax on emitting companies, compared with 63 percent of whites.
Krosnick said Curbelo’s choice of words make his comments more persuasive. The lawmaker skipped any discussion about the science behind warming and jumped directly to action, supplanting an important debate for skeptical conservatives.
"He’s saying it’s inevitable, there will be effects of climate change, and we need to reduce those effects," Krosnick said, also noticing that Curbelo proudly claims to be pro-environment.
"There is a certain boldness to that, which I do think is part of a wave of what we’re starting to see coming from the Republican side, an increasing willingness to embrace this type of message," Krosnick said.
Other polls have found that more Hispanics than whites believe humans are affecting the climate. This is perhaps in part to their median age, which at 27 is 15 years younger than whites, according to a recent Pew Center poll. It might also have to do with their feeling of being more exposed to climate impacts and their alignment with the Democratic Party.
Taken together, 70 percent of Hispanics say the Earth is warming because of humans, compared with 44 percent of whites.
But Greg Hamra was excited about a much smaller number: one. As an environmental activist in South Florida who gives speeches on sustainability to schoolchildren, he believes Curbelo’s comments could be a watershed moment.
"He’s bucking the trend in his party," he said. "I want to buy him a beer."