MIAMI BEACH — At least twice in a normal year, the Biscayne Bay rises to swamp the streets of this fashionable resort town in an event known as the “king tide.” Water spills over seawalls and gurgles up through storm drains in what scientists say is a preview of life in Florida in a warming climate.
But this is an election year, when even nature becomes a foil for competing political narratives. When a highly anticipated king tide hit the Florida coast last week, state and local officials surged into action to ensure that any flooding was kept out of sight.
Crews went to work at daybreak Thursday to fire up brand-new pumps installed to prevent seawater from inundating expensive bayfront real estate. By late morning, the TV reporters who arrived in wading boots to film flooded streets instead saw only puddles. By Oct. 10, when the state’s two gubernatorial candidates met for a televised debate, the streets were completely dry, and the Republican incumbent was able to deflect a question about the impact of climate change on the state.
The scramble to limit the damage from rising waters — practically and symbolically — illustrates the challenges and pitfalls faced by politicians this year in dealing with the divisive issue of climate change. Particularly in hard-hit coastal states such as Florida, where rising sea levels are now an inalterable fact, the effects are becoming harder to ignore or suppress, though officials regularly still try.
Many Florida towns now experience flooding on sunny days, especially during king tides, when a gravitational alignment of the moon and sun produce the highest tides of the year. But recurring photos of kayaks drifting past luxury condos have rankled the state’s developers and tourism officials and spurred a clamor for government money to buy pumps and upgrade drainage systems.
The flooding also poses a special challenge for conservative politicians who are skeptical of the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. Some Republicans, like Scott, have gradually arrived at a somewhat schizophrenic position, refusing officially to take a position on global warming even as they ramp up efforts to deal with its immediate effects.
The contradictions were on full display in a week in which Scott dodged a debate question about climate change while also helping to expedite a new flood-control system for Miami Beach. The upgrades were completed just before this year’s king tide and, in a further twist, just ahead of the arrival of environmental groups and elected officials who planned to use the event to call attention to rising sea levels.
“There has been immense activity to get this place to look like it does now,” said Ted Gutsche Jr., a Florida International University journalism professor, standing on dry grass in a Miami Beach bayside neighborhood that was navigable only by boat during recent king tides. Gutsche had brought along dozens of students to witness the flooding and listen to a gathering of VIP speakers that included two U.S. senators and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. With little flooding to see, the students wandered off to collect water samples from puddles, carefully stepping over fat drainage hoses that crisscrossed streets and sidewalks.
“We can push the water off as much as we can, and it’s wonderful that we can do that,” Gutsche said. “But the problem is still happening.”
The flap over tidal flooding caps a political season in which the national divide over climate change appears starker than ever. Throughout the country, environmental groups and industry-backed political action committees are spending unprecedented sums in statewide races targeting politicians who oppose their position on climate change.
In Kentucky, a coalition with ties to Republican strategist Karl Rove and the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch has targeted Democratic Senate candidate Alison Grimes, whose stated belief in climate change has stirred anxiety that she might support policies contrary to the state’s coal industry.
In Colorado, the League of Conservation Voters named Republican Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner to its “Dirty Dozen” list for his skeptical views on human-induced climate change as well as his opposition to proposed EPA regulations on carbon emissions from power plans.
In some states, the pressure from both sides has prompted candidates to modulate their positions multiple times. In New Hampshire, Senate hopeful Scott Brown’s views appeared to undergo a dramatic shift — from believer to skeptic — and then changed again after he was attacked in ads by the NextGen Climate Action Committee, the super PAC funded by billionaire investor Tom Steyer. Brown has now articulated a more nuanced view that attributes recent warming to a “combination of man-made and natural” factors.
The discomfort is heightened by what political analysts describe as an increasingly narrow orthodoxy on climate change within the Republican establishment. Just a decade ago, many of the country’s most prominent Republicans shared similar views with Democrats on global warming, even as they differed on ways to address the threat. In 2007, the party’s soon-to-be presidential standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), called global warming a “serious and urgent” threat to the country’s economic and national security.
But since the rise of the tea party movement, many of the party’s rising stars have crafted positions that either are agnostic about existence of human-induced climate change or deny it outright. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), asked about the issue during a political debate earlier this week, said, “I don’t know” whether pollution is causing climate change. He added: “I don’t think science does, either.”
With polls consistently showing such views to be unpopular among independents and younger voters, it’s little wonder that politicians have sought to hedge their bets, particularly in states such as Florida that face immediate threats from sea-level rise, said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
“Republicans are stuck between the rock of climate science and the hard place of the tea party politics,” he said.
Nowhere are those liabilities more visible than in Florida, where changes to the environment are as clear as the hatch marks on a tidal gauge. In the past half-century, average sea levels in South Florida have risen by 4 to 6 inches, an extensively documented increase that accelerated since the early 1990s. The worries are increasingly reflected in opinion polls, including a University of South Florida survey last month in which environmental concerns ranked as a top concern, after the economy and education but ahead of health care and traffic.
Scott’s Democratic challenger, Crist, has highlighted differences over climate change in a bitterly fought contest for the governor’s seat. During the Oct. 10 debate, Crist chastised Scott for his use of the line “I’m not a scientist” when asked about global warming.
“Climate change is real,” said Crist, a former Florida governor. “My opponent says he’s not a scientist and doesn’t pay attention to it, which is his right. But Floridians suffer as a result.”
Scott countered that he was more concerned with practical solutions, such as fixing draining systems and repairing damaged beaches. “There are so many things we could have done when [Crist] was governor, but he sat on his hands.” A spokesman for Scott’s re-election campaign declined to elaborate on the governor’s position.
Still, opponents of Scott’s environmental policies say his unwillingness to stake a position on climate change has cost him with voters who can already see the waters rising. Some Florida activists have taken to trailing Scott with a large wooden ark, dubbed “Scott’s Ark.”
“Florida goes down the drain . . . unless you have an ark built by Rick Scott,” the organizers of the protest said in a tweet.
Yet, in Miami Beach, the floods are being held back, at least for this year. The city’s newly elected mayor, Democratic businessman Philip Levine, acknowledged that state officials had played a critical role in helping the city deal with a problem that — irrespective of ideology or politics — was hurting citizens right now.
“As mayors, we don’t have the liberty or the luxury of time to debate climate change,” Levine said as he surveyed the city’s water-free streets a few minutes after last week’s king tide was scheduled to peak. “There’s only an urgency. We have to fix this.”