President Barack Obama on Wednesday paid his first visit to the Everglades, delivering an Earth Day speech linking the threat rising seas pose to the imperiled River of Grass and South Florida's drinking water to wider climate change risks across the nation.
His choice of a venue, Everglades National Park, also was clearly calculated to make political points. Voters will elect Obama's successor in 18 months, and the Republican field so far is teeming with would-be candidates, including two from Florida, who question whether climate change is man-made, despite significant scientific scholarship concluding that it is largely a result of carbon emissions.
The increasing creep of sea water into the coastal Everglades and South Florida's aquifer show the clear and present danger of climate change, Obama said.
"This is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore. This is a problem now,'' he said. "It has serious implications for the way we live right now. "
Obama listed Republican presidents — Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush — who had championed important environmental causes and noted that political leaders of both parties had agreed to form the four-county Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, calling it "a model not just for the country, but for the world."
"This is not something that historically should be a partisan issue,'' he said.
The president also got a not-so-subtle dig in at Gov. Rick Scott, who has come under fire for ordering state staffers to avoid the term "climate change."
"Climate change can no longer be denied. It can't be edited out. It can't be omitted from the conversation,'' Obama said.
Before his speech, the president and park rangers walked the Anhinga Trail, the park's most popular tourist stop, passing baby alligators, sleek cormorants and a pair of black vultures.
Obama said he could think of "no better place" to spend Earth Day and extolled the virtues of the Everglades, remarking that it provides habitat for both alligators and crocodiles.
"I'm told this is a good thing," he joked.
In addition to making an economic, public health and national security case for confronting the risks of climate change and rising seas, the president was in South Florida to tout his administration's record on tackling environmental problems, including imposing a historic cap on carbon pollution and spending $2.2 billion on Everglades restoration projects.
Obama's decision to focus on climate change in South Florida also could have campaign implications by pressuring Republicans into a more robust debate of a touchy subject for the GOP. Among the climate-change skeptics are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Miami.
Scott on Tuesday called on the federal government to speed up funding to Everglades restoration, which the White House admits has been slow from the outset, before Obama took office. The state has invested $1.9 billion in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, nearly a billion more than the feds.
"President Obama needs to live up to his commitment on the Everglades and find a way to fund the $58 million in backlog funding Everglades National Park hasn't received from the federal government," Scott said in a statement. "This has caused critical maintenance delays in the Everglades to linger for over a year."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Scott make the funding request to the GOP-controlled Congress — and referred to the governor's criticism as "a little rich" given the Scott administration's aversion to the term "climate change."
Obama's visit came at a critical time for Everglades restoration, which has dragged on for nearly 15 years.
Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved a land conservation amendment to buy land for restoration projects, yet state lawmakers have balked at using the money to buy about 46,000 acres on a deal that expires in the fall.
Restoration work is also becoming more critical as impacts from rising seas begin taking a toll on the wetlands. This week, scores of scientists meeting in Broward County revealed new research that showed even more dramatic changes in store under climate change projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that predicts increases in temperature, sea level and ocean salinity.
"We're at this key moment where there's crucial public recognition," said Florida International University ecologist Evelyn Gaiser, who has been invited to meet with Obama after his speech. "The exposure in South Florida is an opportunity to provide a global model."