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Florida Governor's Race: Dispatch from a Battleground State Headed Underwater

The outcome of Tuesday's contest between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist will likely play a key role in how the state — and perhaps the entire country — responds to the looming climate change crisis.
Photo via Flickr

Florida is the quintessential bellwether in American politics.

The 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by a few hundred votes in the state. The 2016 presidential race is likely to hinge at least in part on the outcome in Florida — just as it did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

On the verge of becoming America's third-largest state — its population of nearly 20 million and steady growth rate has it on pace to soon surpass New York — Florida is in the midst of one of the most divisive and expensive races in its history.


Incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott is battling his Democratic challenger, former Governor Charlie Crist, in an election set to be decided late Tuesday night — or beyond, if Florida's history is any indicator.

This being Florida, the race has also veered into the bizarre. Scott refused to come out to the second debate last month because Governor Crist had a fan under his podium. Crist, for his part, was previously a Republican and then an Independent before settling on his current party.

But behind the political antics, Tuesday's result may play a key role in the future of both Florida and the entire country — impacting not only who holds power in our most politically powerful state, but how the country responds to one of its looming crises: climate change.

Florida is a geographic microcosm of America — in reverse.

Its south, centered on the Miami area, is a bit like New York City: a diverse metropolis with large communities of Jews and African-Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, Haitians, and transplants from the five boroughs.

Its center is like the Midwest. The I-4 corridor — the swing region that runs from Tampa Bay to Orlando — is home to a crop of Midwestern transplants set among military bases and homages to Americana like Disneyworld.

Its North, the Panhandle that runs underneath Georgia and Alabama, is like the South. In fact, it is the South.

The entire state — a low-lying peninsula already subject to rising sea levels and intensifying storms — is under severe threat from climate change.


Yet while Rome drowns, the Emperor — in this case, Governor Scott — fiddles.

"We're ground zero for the impacts of climate change," Dr. David Hastings, an expert on climate change and a professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, told VICE News. "If any state should be worried, it should be Florida."

Florida Governor Rick Scott at the Florida Bass Conservation Center in 2012. (Photo via Flickr)

The Rising Sea — and a Response That Falls Short
Sea levels in Florida are set to rise dramatically.

"Look at the maps of what climate change would do to Florida over the course of 40 or 100 years," Eric Maltzer, a climate change expert at MIT who is originally from Florida, told VICE News. "If the worst projections come true, a giant chunk of Florida is just gone, including everywhere I know."

"All the houses I grew up in — underwater in 40 years if the worst projections come true and we do nothing," Maltzer said. "Almost all the major cities of Florida are all on the water. It's just amazing to me that we wouldn't do anything."

State-level decisions cannot fully contend with the global causes and ramification of climate change. Yet, a state as large as Florida can do much to limit emissions, change the national debate, and mitigate against climate change's worst impacts.

On these issues, the divide between Scott and Crist has been stark.

In August, Scott claimed that he could not comment on climate change research because he's "not a scientist."

In response, a group of Florida scientists briefed Scott on the issue. Hastings was among them.


"It was a very short meeting, only half an hour. Half of which was taken up with, you know, kind of polite introductions," Hastings told VICE News.

"He asked a lot of questions that were not relevant to the subject," Hastings recalled. "He asked us what classes we teach and where our students get jobs. If we had been talking about his [financial] portfolio, we would have spent an hour with him and he would have asked probing questions."

'If the worst projections come true, a giant chunk of Florida is just gone.'

Crist, on the other hand, says he switched parties in part because of the public's perception of the GOP as "anti-environment" — among a litany of other concerns.

As Hastings argues, "we have somebody in Governor Scott who is avoiding any conversation related to climate change and taking any responsibility as a leader, and somebody else in Governor Crist who listens and recognizes that climate change is happening and that we need to do something about it."

The Environment: A Bipartisan Issue Among Floridians
The debate over the environment in Florida encompasses more than just climate change, cutting across party lines in many areas. Voters don't want to see their homes erode into the ocean. Everyone loves the manatees.

Susan McManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida at Tampa and a leading expert on Florida politics, told VICE News that the business community and Florida citizens in general realize the importance of the environment.


"Florida is a very pro-environmental state — and even the Republicans here are a bit more pro-environmental than in other places simply because so many people move to Florida because of the environment," McManus said.

Despite the commonalities, Crist and Scott have largely focused on different environmental issues, reflecting in part the priorities of their supporters.

As part of his campaign, Scott has sought to address concerns about his environmental record by releasing an ambitious environmental protection plan. In August, he rolled out a 10-year, $1 billion plan that would support land conservation, help preserve the Everglades, and protect water quality.

Crist has likewise emphasized environmental and energy issues such as water protection and development management. As far back as the beginning of his own term as Governor from 2007 to 2011, Crist called climate change "one of the most important issues that we will face this century."

Yet the environment still ranks low among the issues that Floridians prioritize. In a September survey asking Floridians the biggest issue facing the state, just 4 percent listed environmental concerns — compared to 30 percent for the economy and jobs.

On the question of the biggest environmental challenge facing Florida, 32 percent of respondents answered water issues. Only 3 percent answered global warming or climate change — although, as McManus points out, many of those concerned with water issues may be indirectly responding to the impact of global warming.


"Water swamps everything, " McManus said.

Already in Miami Beach, seawater occasionally comes up through the sewer system during extremely high tides, even when it doesn't rain.

A Coast Guard commander briefs former Governor Charlie Crist on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill response on July 13, 2010. (Photo via Flickr)

A History of Development
The prioritization of the environment below jobs and the economy is a pattern reflected in Florida's history, Maltzer argues.

"It's not in Florida's DNA to be as concerned about conservation as we are about development because we are a state obsessed with growth and development," Maltzer said. "We've been able to take nature for granted for a long time."

He said that Floridians are not as naturally protective of their environment as people in California, Oregon, and other states with large communities of conservationists. "The dominant culture in Florida is to be an entrepreneur," Maltzer said.

Maltzer believes that Floridians "now have to find a way to be sustainable developers. And I think that that's a new concept for a lot of Floridians. But to have someone like Rick Scott who believes you can continue at status quo is just dangerous."

Over the course of his tenure, Scott has already challenged his own status quo, backtracking to the center on the environment.

When he came into office in 2011, Scott slashed government regulation and programs designed to protect the environment. He cut cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budgets of the state's water management districts, ended land-buying programs, and abolished the state's growth management agency.


The battle over the environment in Florida will extend far beyond the outcome Tuesday.

But as his campaign pledge signals, Scott has since emphasized the role that the state can play in protecting Florida's environment.

He has hardly allayed all concerns on his environmental record. Maltzer recalled a cap and trade system passed in 2008 by a Marco Rubio-led state legislature and repealed in 2012 by Scott.

"We were supposed to have nation-leading renewable energy legislation, a cap and trade program, all these solar projects," Maltzer said. "And Scott just killed it all. No subsidies for any renewable energy. It's hard to believe."

An Expensive and Negative Race
As for the race itself, it's been bitter and costly.

Scott's campaign has spent at least $96 million compared to Crist's $49 million.

Scott has spent $13 million of his own money to bolster his campaign.

Outside money, meanwhile, has poured into Florida.

The state is a critical battleground in the proxy war between the dueling PACs of the conservative activist Koch brothers and liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer. Tom Steyer's NextGen super PAC has spent $12 million in Florida this election. The Koch Brothers have also targeted Florida, pouring millions in direct and indirect contributions.

A slew of negative advertising has left this perhaps the least popular of any Governor's race in any state in the last 10 years.

"It's just been highly saturated, non-stop negative advertising," MacManus said. "They cancel each other out to the point of where a person who really, truly would like to be informed cannot really grasp the difference, because it's confusing. So the voters don't think either of them is trustworthy."


A Disillusioned Electorate
In interviews with VICE News, voters across the state seemed disillusioned.

The owner of the Merritt Island Gun Company near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral was especially rancorous.

"They're all rats," said the man, who called himself Dave. "Doesn't make any difference on what side of the aisle they're on anymore. I think everybody wants to change everybody out. They're all professional politicians. We really need to change the whole system."

The Kennedy Space Center itself is one of five major NASA facilities threatened by rising sea levels nationally.

"People are not really paying attention to the governors race," Yochai Sasi, 38, an Israeli immigrant and the owner of Pita Loca, a Kosher restaurant in South Beach, told VICE News. "When it's the presidential everyone pays attention, you feel like it affects country — foreign policy, health care, taxes-schmaxes… But this governors' race, people think of it as a thing that doesn't affect them."

The battle over the environment in Florida will extend far beyond the outcome Tuesday, and may involve a race between Florida's changing culture and its changing coastline. For Hastings, a change may not come soon enough.

"We have scientists who are blowing the whistle and screaming and, you know, honking the horn," Hastings said. "And there are solutions. And we don't have the leadership to recognize the solutions and to take action."

Meanwhile, Maltzer, the climate change expert at MIT, counseled patience in what is sure to be a long fight.

"If you're involved in the debate on climate change, sometimes it's easy to get swept up in the fierce urgency of urgent rhetoric," the Florida native said. "But a lot of people don't feel that. You have to think about that and understand why they don't and try to do the best you can with people who don't rank climate change as their number one priority. Even if they are in the direct line of water."

Ari Ratner is a Fellow at New America. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner

Arie Kuipers contributed reporting to this story. 

Top photo via Flickr