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Next big fight in St. Petersburg's mayoral race: the science and politics of climate change

A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from just north of the North Shore Aquatic Complex. The next issue in St. Petersburg's mayoral race is one that is especially important to a waterfront city: climate change. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from just north of the North Shore Aquatic Complex. The next issue in St. Petersburg's mayoral race is one that is especially important to a waterfront city: climate change. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jun. 16, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — As the mayoral race heats up, so has the issue of climate change.

Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman is using the global phenomenon to attack former mayor Rick Baker.

Kriseman, a Democrat, signed a resolution with more than 300 other mayors to uphold the Paris Agreement on climate change after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord on June 1.

It's Rick vs. Rick: Former mayor Rick Baker will challenge incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (May 8, 2017)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)

In St. Petersburg's mayoral race, Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker rake in the big bucks, exceed $500,000 each (June 8, 2017)

Rick vs. Rick: Which St. Petersburg mayor paid the highest salaries at City Hall? (June 12, 2017)

FOR MORE COVERAGE: All the Times coverage of the mayor's race is one click away.

The Kriseman campaign then assailed Baker, a Republican, for his silence over Trump's stance and actions on climate change. The incumbent mayor said local leaders must step up in the face of the federal retreat on climate issues — especially in a waterfront city, in a state already affected by climate change.

"It sends an important message to the community," Kriseman said. "Mayors around the country recognize that as leaders of our community, we have to send a message about the importance of the issue.

"Mayors are the elected officials closest to the people."

Baker said he doesn't dispute that the climate is changing. But he said he's unsure of the role humans play in the warming of the earth and its consequences: the rise in sea levels and decline in ice sheets.

"You can't look at the polar ice caps and not know that climate change is going on," Baker said. "Man has had an effect, the extent of that effect is up to great debate right now."

Rather than arguing about the origins of the crisis, Baker said, leaders should act.

"No matter what you believe," he said, "the important thing is to reduce carbon in the atmosphere."

Yet Baker was dismissive of Kriseman's recent activism in signing the national mayor's petition.

"Just sign a letter?" Baker said. "You haven't done anything."

Kriseman begged to differ and pointed to his past acts. The mayor signed an executive order in late 2015 committing the city to operate totally on clean energy. He also launched a campaign to qualify St. Petersburg as a five-star community with a national sustainability organization.

He also rattled off a list of projects undertaken since he took office in 2014: Solar panels at parks; geo-thermal energy at North Shore Park; a bike share program; and a seagrass mitigation bank to encourage preservation.

"This is not an issue that, come election year, I've come to the table on," Kriseman said.

His environmental credentials, however, suffered a serious blow last year: the city's sewer system was swamped by a tropical storm and a hurricane and released 200 million gallons of sewage since August 2015 — much of it into the Tampa Bay.

Baker touted his own environmental bonafides: A seat on two statewide commissions; the city's initial designation as a green city when he first served as mayor from 2001-10; undertaking the first efforts to make city buildings more energy efficient; and the clean up of Lake Maggiore.

Said Baker: "We were very, very conscious of the environment in my administration."

As the Kriseman campaign starts criticizing Baker over climate change, so too is the former mayor fond of using the sewage crisis to batter Kriseman.

"When you dump sewage into the bay, it's hard to maintain your green city status," Baker said. It is a line he has used repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Kriseman volleyed back with a familiar argument he's been making on the campaign trail: He said he inherited those leaky sewer pipes and aging system from his predecessors, including Baker.

"I was the only mayor that has invested resources to make it sure it doesn't happen again," Kriseman said. He has proposed a $304 million plan to fix the city's sewage system.

However, that's also part of a pending consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection compelling the city to fix its sewer woes. There's also an ongoing state criminal probe into the city's sewage problems.

The St. Petersburg mayoral contest is a nonpartisan race. But the politics of climate change has become a partisan issue in local elections, said Edward A. Parson, an environmental law professor at UCLA and co-author of The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change. That trend has only accelerated since Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

Baker is hardly the only politician to claim that there's still a scientific debate about the causes of climate change, Parson said. So do most Republicans.

Parson was blunt: "That's a crock of hogwash."

The science on the human role in climate change is settled, he said.

But the professor said Baker's belief that government leaders need to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere is a break from Republican ideology.

The GOP usually justifies the party's uncertainty on climate change as a reason not to curb carbon emissions. Parson said. But scientists agree that man-made carbon dioxide is adding to the "greenhouse effect" that traps heat radiating from the Earth, warming the planet.

Kriseman, however, has also used climate change to defend his record.

The mayor has framed the massive sewage spills during his tenure partially as a consequence of a changing climate. But by attributing individual weather events — 2016's Hurricane Hermine helped flood the city's sewer system — to climate change, Parson said the mayor is guessing at a phenomenon that scientists are still studying.

"What (Kriseman) is saying might be true," Parson said, "but the act of attributing a single event to a big trend is actually very difficult."

Parson said it was akin to trying to figure out if a single home run hit by baseball great Barry Bonds can be attributed to Bonds' admitted use of steroids. But Bonds also hit home runs before he started taking performance-enhancing drugs.

In the end, Parson said, local leaders need to be heard on climate change. But he admitted that their ability to mitigate its effects is extremely limited.

"It's a shame, local government has to be a partner in adaptation," he said, "but local government is not the sensible or ideal place to reduce emissions."

"It's not St. Petersburg's emissions that is changing St. Petersburg's climate. It's a huge global problem that's changed everyone's climate."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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