Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio say climate change is distant threat, but they live at ground zero

A bicyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach. Certain neighborhoods regularly experience flooding during heavy rains and extreme high tides.
A bicyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach. Certain neighborhoods regularly experience flooding during heavy rains and extreme high tides.
Published Jan. 17, 2016

MIAMI — Not 15 miles from the homes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush on the mainland, Miami Beach work crews elevate the streets, turning ground floors effectively into windowed basements, to try to stave off the implacable rise of sea water. Up comes the powerful ocean, threatening people, property and the underground freshwater supply.

Can't control nature, Rubio quips with a smile. Got bigger problems, Bush insists with exasperation.

"I don't have a plan to influence the weather," Rubio said dismissively at a town-hall style meeting in New Hampshire last month.

"It wouldn't be on my first page of things that wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat," Bush said in the same state on the same day.

Miami's two Republican presidential candidates don't sound much worried about one of their hometown's most pressing environmental problems.

They're not "deniers" who question climate change's existence, as some of their presidential rivals do, though both say they're skeptical about how much of it is man-made. Bush has gone further than Rubio, acknowledging sea rise's long-term effects for Miami; he said in New Hampshire even a 5-inch increase "would create some real hardship."

But they sound markedly different from local politicians who have resigned themselves to a harsh reality. Even if some of them don't want to talk about how mankind's thirst for fossil fuels is to blame for global warming, city and county leaders of both political parties have stopped debating whether South Florida is going under water.

"Nationally, climate change — with the exception of some regions in the country, like ours — is an abstract issue. Here in South Florida, where we have chronic flooding and where we live essentially at sea level, it's not," U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican and Bush supporter, told the Miami Herald from one of the most vulnerable parts of his district, Key West. "Politicians, whether from Miami or not, should be sincere about it. Even if they don't believe humans are mostly at fault, which most of the science say they are, they should really be seeking adaptive solutions."

"Are we all going to move out of South Florida?" continued Curbelo, who has signed on to a proposed resolution in Congress acknowledging climate change's existence. "On behalf of their fellow Floridians, they should be talking to the country in a serious way about this issue, looking for conservative solutions."

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Public-opinion polls show a majority of Americans think climate change is serious, but there's a clear partisan divide over what to do about it, with widespread Republican skepticism over government action.

"It's become a partisan issue," lamented Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who created a sea-level task force in 2013 as commission chairwoman, a nonpartisan post. She's a Republican who backs Rubio, whose political career she helped launch. "We cannot be in either of the two extremes, to say that the world is going to end tomorrow, or to do nothing. We have to take precautions."

Embracing the issue might be prudent environmental stewardship, but it wouldn't be popular in the primary for Rubio and Bush, who instead of sounding the alarm to the rest of the country about what their state is going through have dismissed climate change as an overblown threat not nearly as serious as scientists have warned.

Their energy plans continue to promote coal, oil and gas, the greenhouse-gas emitting power sources that heat the planet and worsen climate change's most drastic effects: severe droughts, flooding and storms.

They intend to undo President Barack Obama's stringent emission rules for power plants and to ignore or back out of the landmark accord to reduce greenhouse gases that 195 countries — including the United States and China, the world's biggest polluters — approved last month in Paris. They say the president's rules kill too many jobs, though critics note new ones are created in clean energy. Both mock Obama's contention that climate change is the "greatest" threat for future generations. (They say terrorism is.)

Oil and gas executives remain top financial backers of conservative politicians. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending, lists the industry as one of Bush's top three contributors. The industrialist Koch brothers have yet to back a presidential candidate, though Rubio is said to be in the mix.

Rubio and Bush like to say it's greater reliance on natural gas that has brought down U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions already, though experts say it's a combination of that production trend and stricter regulations.

It's not that Rubio and Bush don't want more investment in zero-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear. Rubio says he wants the United States to lead in all of the above. Bush wants the government to put public dollars into research to develop newer and cheaper renewable energy.

But that wouldn't be enough to stop destructive climate change at the rate the atmosphere is warming, according to scientists, who say curtailing emissions from existing coal, oil and gas production is the only way to level off and eventually slow the process.

"It frustrates me in a really fundamental way," said Ben Kirtman, a University of Miami climate scientist who likes to show policymakers a slide presentation — and says he once briefed Rubio's Senate office — graphically representing global warming since the Industrial Revoltion. "Stop denying the facts. We can argue about what the appropriate policy prescriptions are, and I can vote them out of office if I don't like them. But they have to be able to take in the best available information and make decisions based on that.

"I would love if technology could bail us out in a couple of years, but that's not the case."

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Even some scientists who take a more cautious approach at advocating for government regulations, such as Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, question an approach that relies solely on market innovation.

"There was a time 10 years ago where I was pretty much of the view that technologies would come along and replace fossil fuels before it became a big problematic influence on the climate," Knappenberger said. "But now with all these new technologies coming along, with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, all of a sudden the world is awash with fossil fuels. It's like, holy cow, we have more fossil fuels than we know what to do with. So now I'm starting to think less for the market."

"You start to re-evaluate where I think there should be some harsher restrictions," he said, though he's not sure what they should be.

A GOP discussion on those policies isn't happening anytime soon. Debate moderators didn't ask a single climate-change question of the Republican candidates Thursday night, perhaps because their opinions don't much differ and most primary voters have other issues they care about. Some religious conservatives have argued for climate-change action on moral and religious grounds, as has Pope Francis, the head of Bush's and Rubio's Roman Catholic Church.

Rubio, the third-place contender in many polls after real-estate magnate Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, has come under attack for his past views on the environment. As a state lawmaker, he called for the development of a plan to cap greenhouse gases and let companies trade pollution permits, though Rubio later suggested that was a political tactic and he didn't actually support cap and trade.

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To a South Floridian accustomed to navigating high-tide flooding in Miami Beach — and suffering the roadwork nightmares to try to keep the water out — hearing Bush and Rubio campaign in places like New Hampshire can be striking.

In a recent swing through the Granite State, voters — almost always young ones — frequently asked both men what they'd do to tackle climate change.

"The climate's always changing," Rubio maintained in Berlin, N.H.

He gave a lengthy explanation of why he couldn't back long-term policies endorsed by science if they couldn't guarantee a solution to global warming — and if their emission-cutting plans like the Paris accord would push the United States to help developing nations Rubio considers a threat, such as China.

"They want me to support policies that hurt the economy but don't really do anything for the environment, just set an example? That's a bad trade-off," said Rubio, who likes to campaign on "restoring America's leadership" in the world. "I in good conscience cannot support policies that take a country that is already struggling to provide jobs and upward mobility for millions of people and make it worse while the countries that are leading the world in pollution are doing nothing except polluting more."

Bush portrayed himself as a thoughtful policymaker different from Trump and others more skilled at the art of political flair. He called himself a listener: "If you take the time to listen, you can learn."

But Bush, who relishes the role of science nerd when voters ask about NASA and space exploration, and who touts his environmental record as Florida governor, didn't seem eager to listen to calls to limit coal mining and oil and gas drilling. He did say people who think the climate's not changing are "wrong" after a voter in Alton, N.H., called climate change "a bit of a hoax."

Then Bush told the same voter he agreed with him that Obama's environmental policy burdened the economy.

"To create policies for today that will have some impact for 50 years from now is almost destined to be wrong. Look, we just adapt, and we change," he said. "We should not do anything as it relates to climate change that destroys people's ability to make a living."

Both campaigns' events took place a few days before Christmas, so far north in New Hampshire that voters mentioned Quebec more often than Boston.

Several times, both Miami men remarked they had hoped for colder days, and were disappointed it was too warm for snow.

Contact Patricia Mazzei at Follow @patriciamazzei.