Most Florida voters worry about climate change. Will Trump talk about it?

The GOP has been shifting the way it discusses the issue.
Donald Trump heads to the podium during a MAGA rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds Tuesday, July 31, 2018.
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times Donald Trump heads to the podium during a MAGA rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds Tuesday, July 31, 2018.
Published July 9, 2019|Updated July 9, 2019

WASHINGTON AND MIAMI — President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has a plan to talk about the environment with Florida voters: address the problems you see, not the causes you don’t.

It’s been a winning strategy for Republicans in Florida for over a decade. The basic tactic is to address specific, pressing policy challenges facing Florida communities – algal blooms, coastal flooding, threats to the Everglades – without discussing the climatal forces driving change.

But environmental politics in Florida have shifted since Trump’s first run for the presidency in 2016, when his skepticism over the extent and causes of climate change proved immaterial in his path to electoral victory there.

Republicans in Florida who as recently as last year ran successful campaigns void of any mention of climate change now acknowledge the phenomenon as a threat. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott both featured ads in their campaigns expressing general commitment to serve as stewards of the environment without attributing problems facing the state to a warming Earth. Then this year, they characterized climate change as “real” requiring increased resiliency efforts and concrete solutions.

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The Trump campaign has not followed their lead, still hoping it can rely on the old playbook on environment politics without adding to his electoral risk.

Campaign officials tell McClatchy that Trump is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions — seemingly an acknowledgment of the need to roll back the use of fossil fuels — while casting doubt on the science undergirding alarming national climate assessments.

“The president’s policies of competition and innovation have already produced significant carbon emission declines here in the United States while also kicking off an energy revolution,” said Sarah Matthews, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, responding to the Miami Herald’s announcement of the creation of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, which also includes the Tampa Bay Times.

“He doesn’t want to intentionally inflict harm on our own economy and limit our freedoms with something like a $93 trillion Green New Deal when other countries like China and India won’t do the same,” she said.

READ MORE: Florida newsrooms band together to cover the effects of climate change

Federal reports on annual emissions figures are not published until the end of each calendar year. But campaign and administration officials are pointing to forecasts released last month by the Energy Information Administration that estimate a 2% drop in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 and a 0.9% drop in 2020.

The numbers provide Trump’s campaign with an argument that “unleashing American energy,” in the form of deregulation, does not necessarily lead to increasing emissions — while it simultaneously casts doubt on the importance of reducing emissions in the first place.

“The climate has been changing for tens of thousands of years. Let’s not forget that we were recently warned of global warming and before that we were supposedly headed for a new ice age,” Matthews said. “The president will continue to advance realistic solutions to reduce emissions while ensuring reliable, affordable, and plentiful energy.”

Environmental groups continue to characterize Trump as a villain on climate policy, inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry and untethered from science.

“There’s nothing new about Trump falsely trying to take credit for the work of others, or about him being content with letting Florida slip into the sea if it will profit oil and gas CEOs a few bucks,” said Ariel Hayes, national political director for the Sierra Club. “And let’s not forget that Trump is the reason so many Floridians live in fear of their coasts being opened up to offshore drilling. Trump’s climate denial is a threat to all Floridians, and the only surefire way to turn things around is to make sure we have a different president in 2020.”

The Trump administration remains divided over climate policy. Several senior White House aides take the warnings from scientists seriously and worry over the political costs of airing skepticism, according to three administration officials. Still, the West Wing roundly supports Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement — a “bad deal,” in Trump’s words, that does not sufficiently address rising carbon emissions on a level playing field.

Still others — including the president himself — continue to question whether climate change is a serious or imminent threat.

“The United States government takes seriously the issue of climate change, and it is important that policies and decision-making be based on transparent and defensible science,” a senior administration official said.

Congressional Republicans have begun to discuss the threat of climate change more openly than in prior sessions, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a conservative congressman from the panhandle and an ally of the White House, who in April proposed a “Green Real Deal” alternative to the Democrats’ plan that characterizes climate change as a threat to national security. Gaetz, along with Florida Reps. Francis Rooney, Brian Mast and Bill Posey, is also a member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus.

But within Florida Republican circles, the question is whether climate policy has risen to a level of concern such that it could threaten the standing of skeptical politicians among voters. That debate has made its way to at least some Trump campaign aides.

Climate “has supplanted crime and education, which for years have been issues one and two in public opinion surveys,” one GOP operative in Florida advising Trump’s reelection campaign told McClatchy, on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “What we don’t know yet is whether its a mover that can make people vote. But climate deniers do not live in Florida.”

A Quinnipiac poll published in March found that 72 percent of Florida voters are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change, and that 66 percent are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that they or a member of their family “will be personally affected by climate change.”

Still, state environmental regulators being banned from using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” under the Scott administration didn’t prevent the former governor from winning his U.S. Senate race in November amid toxic algae blooms that touched both coasts and fouled tributaries running through Republican strongholds. Nor did former Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s advocacy for a carbon tax save him in a competitive swing district.

Miami has already been something of a model for how to campaign on climate change in moderate and conservative communities without actually talking about it.

Two years ago, when Miami’s city government was selling voters on a $400 million general obligation bond — nearly half of which was dedicated to sea-rise projects — the city’s Republican mayor, Tomás Regalado, pitched the project to voters in conservative Cuban enclaves as a fix to their flooding problems. As he stumped on Spanish-language TV and radio, he largely left climate change and sea rise out of his vernacular.

That’s not because Regalado is a climate denier. Back when Trump was seeking the Republican nomination for president, the mayor posed a question about climate change during a Miami debate on CNN. In September 2017, when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on South Florida, he called on Trump to talk about climate issues, saying, “if this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is.

But unlike Miami Beach — where a liberal voting base is all in on climate change — Regalado knows that the elderly, conservative voters who tend to dominate Miami’s off-year, low-turnout elections are both notoriously averse to tax hikes and less concerned or attuned to the long-term consequences of climate change than other parts of South Florida.

The bond issue failed to gain 50 percent support in the predominantly Cuban communities around Regalado’s own home, but received enough support there that it passed due to other parts of Miami.

Regalado believes that Hurricane Irma, which badly flooded some parts of the city, ultimately helped draw support for the bond issue. But he’s not sure that some of his neighbors have caught on to the idea of climate change as an existential threat.

“I can tell you that one of the first things that pop up in a conversation is ‘My street is flooding. It’s horrible to drive’,” he said. “But whether they consider that climate change or anything that’s coming down 100 years from now, it doesn’t seem that’s the conversation.”

Cuban-Americans have been a key constituency for Trump in South Florida. The demographic proved crucial for DeSantis, a Trump ally, in November when he won a historically tight race for Florida governor.

-- This report was written by McClatchy White House correspondent Michael Wilner and Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley. It was produced by the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative that includes the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.