Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado’s phone started ringing. CNN’s Jake Tapper had just used the Republican city leader’s question about climate change and sea-level rise in a GOP presidential debate, and the candidates for president were being asked about what might be the greatest threat to jobs, housing and the wider economy of the Sunshine State.
"I started answering the phone," Regalado said. "People kept me awake until midnight."
Regalado may not have gotten the exact answer he was looking for from fellow Republicans. But on the eve of an election that will shape who goes on to the White House, Regalado was more than pleased that the polarizing topic made it into the national conversation, especially during a debate in his hard-hit state.
As primary voters in Florida go to the polls today, scientists, business leaders and political figures all say they’ve seen a shift this election cycle. Figuring out how to adapt to the economic realities of 6 to 10 inches of sea-level rise over 1992 levels in the next 15 years has become a bipartisan issue in much of Florida, particularly in places most vulnerable to rising seas.
"Some people see sea-level rise as something that is coming up in the next 50 years," Regalado said. "But in Miami, people know about flooding. People understand flooding, and people understand the consequences of sea-level rise and the need to do something."
Republican presidential candidates have been asked about the science and the effects of climate change before, and in a debate setting. Never, though, have they been asked by one of their own, and never in a place where the waters are rising quite so fast, where sea-level rise and its effects show up as regularly as the tides.
Already, the city of Miami Beach is pouring money into elevated roadways and pumping systems that keep high tides from flooding city streets, just the beginning of pricey plans to protect the city’s $30 billion tax base. These expensive projects aren’t just municipal problems for mayors — losses to the tax base from sea-level rise or storm surge at a tourist draw like Miami Beach could be a costly hit not just to individual homeowners but to the state economy.
People in Florida have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the issues surrounding climate change now, said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
The numbers bear it out. The twice-yearly Energy Poll at the University of Texas, Austin, released earlier this year shows that 81 percent of Floridians think that climate change is occurring. About 9 percent say it’s not happening, and another 10 percent don’t know. When the poll began asking that question in March 2012, 63 percent of Floridians said climate change was occurring. Another 26 percent said it was not, and 11 percent didn’t know.
Even if they’re not engaged on questions of emissions reductions or, say, issues surrounding the president’s Clean Power Plan, they’re asking about how to address sea-level rise and how to plan for what’s going to happen in their region over the next 25 years, Kirtman said.
"How do we respond to the climate change that we’ve already committed?" he said. "There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen over the next 25 years that no matter what we do on the mitigation time scale, it’s committed. We already made that commitment; we have to respond. We’ve already put that heat into the ocean from our previous fossil fuel burning."
Rubio’s call to reduce damage ‘a start’
As a result, voters have come to expect answers from candidates about what they plan to do to address sea-level rise, said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy.
"What’s happening is that residents of South Florida are seeing on-the-ground impacts, not on a once-a-year basis, not on a once-a-month basis, but on a frequent basis," Hill-Gabriel said. "People in Miami Beach have to think on a daily basis about where they’re going to park their cars. That is an on-the-ground change that people are recognizing.
"It’s clearly an issue that is affecting the state of Florida," she said, "and we’d like to see a plan from every candidate, especially those running for president."
Regalado was among 21 Florida mayors of both parties who called on the moderators of last week’s Republican and Democratic debates to ask candidates about climate change. Miami hosted both events. His question: "Will you as president acknowledge the reality of the scientific consensus about climate change, and as president, will you pledge to do something about it?"
Only Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich answered the question, and Rubio’s response would have been disappointing for anyone looking for a GOP candidate to acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change.
But Rubio did address sea levels.
"So on the issue of flooding in Miami, [it] is caused by two things. No. 1, South Florida is largely built on land that was once a swamp. And No. 2, if there is higher sea levels, or whatever it is that may be happening, we need to deal with that through [damage] mitigation," Rubio said, referring to policies that protect property. "And I have long supported mitigation efforts. But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there’s no such thing."
For locals attuned to nuance, Rubio’s use of the word "mitigation" in reference to mitigating damage to property was intriguing. Florida has nearly $3 trillion in insured coastal property, and studies have shown that the Miami metropolitan area is among the top five most vulnerable coastal regions to sea-level rise in the world.
"That’s a start," tweeted Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a Rubio supporter whose congressional district includes the low-lying Florida Keys and who was the author of a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald headlined "Climate change cannot be a partisan issue."
Don’t talk about climate; just ‘deal with it’
Regalado, who also supports Rubio, said he wished they had been able to get Donald Trump to answer the question, too. The campaigns for Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did not respond to requests to elaborate on the question.
"It’s very difficult for a presidential campaign to start talking about laws. I get it," Regalado said of Rubio’s response. But would-be presidents should offer a commitment to address rising sea levels in his city, he said, "because mitigation comes with a huge bill. We need federal support."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also talked about risk mitigation and resilience before he dropped out of the GOP presidential race. His choice of words provides a clue to how Republicans have been drawn into the discussion in South Florida.
The secret, said Republican and public relations executive Irela Bagué, is to stop talking about what causes climate change. Just as people in vulnerable areas must adapt to rising sea levels and more extreme weather, elected officials, candidates and business leaders in South Florida have adapted their language to get results.
"From a Republican perspective, it’s always been emissions, or a carbon tax, and I removed that from the conversation," said Bagué, who is organizing a sea-level rise solutions conference April 1 for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
"I see resiliency and adaptation the same way. When you start using those terms, you change the conversation," she said. "All that creates jobs and economic upturn here. It’s not something we need to be afraid of anymore."
The Florida cities and counties grappling with the effects of climate change have been skillful at identifying issues they must address in the immediate future, said Kirtman, the University of Miami scientist. He’s seeing a turning point from previous discussions, where there might have been "too much conversation about gloom and doom" and a focus on what will happen in 2100, instead of in people’s lifetimes.
"The sea level’s rising. It’s clear," he said. "There’s no indication whatsoever in the next 25 years that that trend is going to change. There’s nothing. You can argue until you’re blue in the face whether it’s man or it’s because of natural cycles. But that doesn’t matter. So they have to deal with it. They recognize it."
Regalado and James Cason, the Republican mayor of Coral Gables, put it this way in an op-ed that ran in The Miami Herald the day of the Democratic debate and one day before the GOP debate.
"As staunch Republicans, we share our party’s suspicion of government overreach and unreasonable regulations," they wrote. "But for us and most other public officials in South Florida, climate change is not a partisan talking point. It’s a looming crisis that we must deal with — and soon."
Are water pumps nonpartisan?
Yet climate change remains a politicized and partisan issue, said Sheril Kirshenbaum, director of the Energy Poll at the University of Texas, Austin. There’s a decided partisan split, with the poll’s most recent findings showing that nationwide, 90 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans say they believe climate change is occurring.
There’s still a split between local officials and their Republican governor in Florida, where an unwritten rule discouraged many in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration from using the term "climate change." Last summer, Scott cut $750,000 out of the state budget for a pump on Miami Beach, saying in his veto message that the money didn’t provide "a clear statewide return for the investment."
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat, described the budget veto in The Miami Herald as the "cut heard around the world."
"The ocean is not Republican, and it’s not Democratic," he told the newspaper. "It’s a nonpartisan ocean, and all [the] ocean is going to do is rise."
Voters are far more likely to get nuanced answers on sea-level rise from the Democratic presidential candidates, who also got asked about their climate policies during their debate in Florida the night before.
"You can see already what’s happening in Miami, particularly Miami Beach, with tides rising," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during the Democratic debate. "So we do have to invest in resilience and adaptation while we are trying to cut emissions and make up for the fact that this is clearly man-made and man-aggravated."
She also said she believes that she could marshal support from Republicans for adaptation-related solutions.
"And when I talk about resilience, that is an area that I think we can get Republican support on," Clinton said. "There is a lot of legitimate concerns [about warming]. You don’t have to do much more than look at rising insurance rates. Most of the property in Florida will be at risk in the next 50 years. I think I could get a bipartisan consensus on resilience and then implementing the president’s executive orders until we, frankly, win back enough seats to take back the Senate" and pass broader legislation.
Adaptation is on the agenda. Now what?
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said his focus remains on slashing emissions to achieve a 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. He also calls for a carbon tax and a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas.
A spokesman for the Sanders campaign said later that the senator’s approach doesn’t preclude spending money on adaptation in communities where the need is urgent. The senator’s focus, though, is on curtailing the influence of what he calls "the billionaire fossil fuel lobby."
Scientists have been trying for four years to get a discussion of sea-level rise on the presidential agenda. The Union of Concerned Scientists in 2012 unsuccessfully asked the moderators of the final presidential debate during the general election, held at Lynn University in Florida, to pose a question about rising seas.
In many ways, it’s a victory that climate change is being asked at all in the primary debates, Kirshenbaum said. She cited a Media Matters for America study from the 2008 election showing that news anchors for the five major television networks asked about climate change six times out of 3,000 questions. For comparison, questions about UFOs came up three times.
She noted that in 2008, both Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) responded in writing to 14 questions about science policy and climate change. In 2012, Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) answered the survey.
It’s something she cares about, deeply. In addition to her work for the University of Texas poll, she’s executive director of ScienceDebate.org, a volunteer and nonprofit initiative encouraging candidates to address science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail.
"These things get talked about in little boxes. But climate change, energy, food security, water security … it’s all really part of the same conversation," she said. "I think people often think climate change and think, ‘Oh, things are going to get warmer.’ And they don’t really recognize that this has to do with more extreme storms, more extreme droughts, instability in our food production.
"It’s important to recognize how interconnected these big pieces are," she said. "It shouldn’t be the exception that candidates talk about it. It should be the expectation. We should be demanding that they do."
Regalado and other mayors don’t plan to let up on their push to have the issue heard during the general election.
"I get the complaints about flooding. I get the questions from the residents," he said. "We are in the trenches. The mayors are in the trenches."