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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Democratic presidential debates should highlight climate change

A cyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Miami Beach, Fla. Certain neighborhoods regularly experience flooding during heavy rains and extreme high tides. New storm water pumps are currently being installed along the bay front in Miami Beach. National and regional climate change risk assessments have used the flooding to illustrate the Miami area's vulnerability to rising sea levels. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) FLLS101
Published Jun. 14

The first debates between the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates that will be hosted in Miami this month provide the perfect backdrop to highlight an issue of critical concern for Florida: climate change. While the Democratic candidates have sketched broad agendas for cleaner energy, resiliency efforts and other measures, voters deserve to hear the specifics on a major policy issue that affects everything from public health and safety to America's infrastructure and economy. There's no better place for that discussion than in the coastal state of Florida.

The crowded Democratic field doesn't create an ideal environment for drilling down on this topic in Miami, given that 20 candidates will appear in the debates over the course of two nights, June 26 and 27. But there's an opportunity to push the candidates beyond platitudes and lofty goals. Several major hopefuls already have outlined plans for investing in green-energy jobs and hardened public infrastructure, and some have set target dates for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. But none have offered a detailed plan for making the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Nor have they outlined how a Democrat in the White House would pass climate legislation through a divided Congress or work with state and local governments to make timely improvements in our communities.

Tidal flooding already pours into Miami even on sunny days. Miami Beach has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for new stormwater management systems to pump seawater from the neighborhoods. Red Tide and algae blooms are costing the fishing, restaurant and tourism industries tens of millions of dollars a year. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that residential properties in the state valued now at about $26 billion are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. And the longer we wait for a fix, the more expensive it gets.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is a fresh break from his predecessor, Sen. Rick Scott. DeSantis appointed the state's first chief science officer to address "emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians." He also is hiring a chief resilience officer who will "prepare Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change." But the state isn't committing significant funds to address sea level rise and other impacts. The leadership vacuum at the state and federal level has prompted local governments and private organizations to fill the gap. Nearly half of Florida's 67 counties participate in resiliency coalitions, including one for the Tampa Bay region, exploring ways to mitigate the effects of a warming climate. And dozens, including in the Tampa Bay area, are doing what they can - hosting solar cooperatives, investing in electric buses and helping to arrange clean energy financing for homeowners and businesses.

But sweeping change requires leadership from the federal government, and especially the White House. How would the candidates change the nation's energy mix? What federal support would they make available to states and cities to harden their transportation systems, utilities and other infrastructure? How would Washington expand mass transit nationwide to curtail automobile emissions? Is it finally time to create a national catastrophe fund as insurance against hurricanes and the other forms of extreme weather that have been hammering the Midwest?

The Miami debates certainly won't be the end of this discussion, but they should get it going. The risk that climate change poses across the board — to human health and safety, to infrastructure, to housing, growth patterns and prosperity — are glaringly obvious in Florida. There's no better place to ask for answers from those seeking the highest office in the land.

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