TAMPA — This part of Florida is accustomed to Minnesota visitors this time of year. Most, though, are not presidential candidates.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent Sunday in Tampa huddling with environmentalist activists and local leaders about climate change, a problem she promised to make a focal point of her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
The Minnesota Democrat’s visit marked the unofficial kickoff of the 2020 campaign for the Tampa Bay region. She’s the first Democratic candidate in a growing field to swing through here.
Few areas in the country are at greater risk from the effects of climate change than Tampa, which is why Klobuchar said she wanted to visit the city early in the race for the nomination. Klobuchar described a morning tour of the Riverwalk, where she saw “the care that you’ve taken here, how beautiful your city is.”
“And,” she added, “how close the water is.”
The conditions in Tampa on Sunday could not have been more unlike Klobuchar’s Minneapolis campaign kickoff one month ago, when she announced during a blizzard her bid to challenge Republican President Donald Trump for the White House. The windows outside a downtown Tampa hotel conference room advertised an idyllic afternoon as boats slipped through the Garrison Channel.
But Klobuchar said it’s her challenge to convince people from across America, not just in Florida -- which she called “ground zero” -- and not just progressive believers, to care about climate change. Local politicians and activists at her event encouraged a message that highlights the economic cost of not addressing the earth’s warming — higher energy bills, the death of commercial and recreational fishing industries, and lost tourism from environmental calamity.
Klobuchar said as president she would rejoin the Paris climate accord, an agreement with 195 countries to keep the earth from reaching temperatures that scientists predict will forever change the planet. She would also readopt the Clean Power Plant rules instituted under President Barack Obama. Trump has worked to undermine both because he does not believe the climate science.
She also proposed raising gas mileage standards and changing building codes for more sustainable construction.
“It is our job for the biggest challenge of our time to not pretend it’s not happening and to not go backward,” Klobuchar said.
The agenda, though, doesn’t go as far as what other climate activists and progressive have called for. The so-called Green New Deal, an aggressive blueprint to ween the United States off fossil fuels by 2035 guidelines, has become an early litmus test for 2020 hopefuls, many of who have backed it, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, though she described the bill as “aspirational.”
Many top climate scientists have said a tax on carbon is the only way to seriously curb the emissions that are causing temperatures in the atmosphere to rise. It’s also the solution supported by dozens of economists in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed — including former Federal Reserve chairs Paul Volcker, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and Janet Yellen.
Klobuchar is not yet on board with that idea because she is concerned it could hit poor people the hardest.
“One of the things that’s bothered me is that we haven’t even done the low-hanging fruit yet,” Klobuchar said after the event.
Even among the participants of Klobuchar’s round table, there were divisions on the right approach. Sierra Club of Tampa Bay president Kent Bailey said after he was encouraged by the event, but agreed with the activists who demand drastic action.
“It’s very clear that the transition to renewable energy is going to take utilities, government officials, institutions out of their comfort zone,” said Bailey. “Frankly, if they’re not willing to come out of their comfort zone and move forward on this, they need to just get out of the way.”
But David Hastings, a professor of marine science at Eckerd College also on the panel, said a hard line approach could discourage important incremental progress.
“This idea that we’re on a threshold and a tipping point, I think this is not helpful,” Hastings. “Everything we do is a step in the right direction. We really can fix it. It is not a done deal.”
St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Darden Rice and state Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, also participated and former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink was in attendance.
Florida will again be a closely watched battleground next year but it has an uncertain role in deciding who will be the Democratic Party’s nominee to face Trump. The Florida presidential primary is March 17, 2020, months after the contests begin in the early primary and caucus states.
However, Klobuchar’s visit here could signal expectations for a protracted fight in which Florida will come into play.
Certainly, Florida will be visited often by candidates looking to fundraise. Harris already visited south Florida last weekend.
In her event in Tampa, Klobuchar spoke fondly of pasts visits to Florida, including to Fort Lauderdale while in college, and she often riffed about the many Minnesota snowbirds who take refuge from the cold during the winter months in this part of the state. During her 45-minute roundtable, she scribbled down anecdotes about St. Petersburg’s fight against climate change, asked her panel prodding questions and related the conversation to what she’s accomplished as a three-term Senator.
Klobuchar said she expects climate change will be one of the “galvanizing reasons” people vote next year in Florida and hopes her competition is ready to debate on it.
“They better," she said, “or I don’t think you’re going to be able to win Florida.”