For her first speech of the fall campaign focused exclusively on climate change, Hillary Clinton went to Florida, the state at greatest risk from sea level rise, and one of the tightest and most consequential swing states in this presidential election.
She brought with her to Florida a man she knew could amplify her message on both scores: former Vice President Al Gore. But at times, she almost sounded like she could out-Gore someone whose voice on climate change has echoed in politics for decades.
“Climate change is real, it’s urgent and America can take the lead in the world in addressing it,” Clinton said. “We can develop new clean energy solutions. We can transform our economy. We can rally the world to cut carbon pollution. And we can fulfill our moral obligation to protect this planet for our children and our grandchildren.”
And as if she sensed a political opportunity like rising wind and waves, she broadened the fight beyond her contest with Donald Trump, a climate change infidel, to take on others of his ilk.
Her campaign rolled out a new ad earlier in the day that began with a montage of Trump’s statements dismissing climate change. Clinton urged the crowd to reject not just his views that the whole issue was a “hoax,” but to go after like-minded Florida politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio.
“It needs to be a voting issue,” she said. “Select people up and down the ballot who take climate change seriously. We cannot keep sending climate deniers to the statehouses and Congress, and certainly not to the White House.”
Clinton and Gore both told the audience at Miami-Dade College that they had just witnessed the evidence of the mounting crisis, as their campus was closed down for four and a half days as Hurricane Matthew pummeled the coast. “Hurricane Matthew was likely more disruptive because of climate change, with the ocean right now at a record-high temperature,” she said. Gore called the storm’s rapid intensification “very unusual.”
With 24 hours left to register to vote in Florida—extra time had been ordered by a federal judge due to the storm—Clinton appealed for quick action in the election to thwart backsliding.
“It is one of the most important issues at stake in this election,” Clinton said. “Our next president will either step up our efforts to protect our planet and our health and to create good jobs that cannot be outsourced. Or in the alternative, we will be dragged backwards and our whole future will be at risk.”
In a reversal of the usual order for special guests stumping with a presidential candidate, Clinton stepped to the podium first, to introduce Gore.
When his turn came, he recalled poignantly that they were gathered at the epicenter of the recount drama that ended in his narrow loss of the presidency to George W. Bush 16 years ago. Gore said he was standing by this year’s Democratic presidential candidate to deliver a double-barreled message.
“Number one, when it comes to the most urgent issue facing this country and the world, Hillary Clinton will make solving the climate crisis a top national priority,” Gore said. “Her opponent, based on ideas he has presented, would take us toward a climate catastrophe.
“Number two, your vote really, really, really counts a lot,” he continued, “You can consider me Exhibit A for that.”
Gore had to pause while the crowd shouted, “You won! You won!” Gore said that years from now, he didn’t want the crowd to greet Clinton with a similar chant.
“All elections have consequences. Your vote has consequences,” he said. “And in this election, the future of Miami and cities up and down the east coast and west coast of Florida are on the ballot. The entire state of Florida is on the ballot. So is our future, our economy, our health, and our national security.
“The common thread that binds it all together,” Gore said, “is what we decide to do about carbon pollution and the damage it does to ecological systems and the Earth.”
In Florida, Clinton was ahead of Trump by 2.4 points, according to RealClearPolitics.com’s average of polls over the past week. (All seven of them were conducted before Sunday’s debate and Friday’s revelations of videotape showing Trump making lewd and sexually aggressive comments about women in 2005.)
Florida has 29 electoral votes, more than any of the other states that are currently considered toss-ups. Because Clinton has a number of paths to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, it’s not certain how pivotal Florida’s votes will be for her.
But Florida is essential to Trump, and it is clear that Clinton—on her sixth trip there since the general election campaign began—is treating Florida as crucial in an effort to garner a commanding victory, especially in the face of Trump’s efforts to raise the specter that a rigged system could steal the election from him.
Climate change—and the stark contrast between the candidates—is seen as an issue that could work to Clinton’s advantage, especially with young voters. It was not coincidental that Clinton staged her rally rolling out climate change as a wedge issue on a campus or in Florida, where environmental issues in general carry more weight.
The University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey shows that 13 percent of Floridians cited the environment as the state’s most important issue, ranking it higher than education, healthcare, crime, or immigration. Only the economy and jobs were mentioned more frequently. Respondents also showed increasing concern over both climate change and the loss of natural lands in the state.
Clinton hasn’t had a history as a climate hawk. But she has been pushed to take a stronger stance over the past year, especially over the course of her long primary fight with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
As a reminder of how hard it has been for her to walk a straight green line, the day before her climate speech, some of the thousands of her emails released by WikiLeaks showed her aides last year grappling with the public relations implications of changing her position to oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Clinton and Gore offered no hint of disagreement as they appeared on stage together. But Gore has expressed skepticism about fracking and has said that he opposed the use of natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to a renewable future. Only two nights ago, at the second presidential debate, Clinton had said she thought natural gas was necessary for the transition to cleaner energy. But Clinton drew cheers from the crowd when she said she looked forward to having Gore as an adviser when she is president.
Clinton’s position on climate, however moderate, is in sharp contrast with Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence was campaigning in North Carolina on Tuesday as the state struggled with devastating flooding from the tremendous storm surge and torrential rain from Hurricane Matthew, which killed 11 in the state.
Even though Florida was spared the worst of Matthew, nine people were killed there, thousands were left without power, and the damage from the storm surge was still being calculated. Between St. Augustine and Palm Coast, a small new inlet was carved out by the powerful water pounding the coast, visible by satellite. Another worry: scientists have warned that standing water left behind could serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, and could hasten its spread beyond South Florida.
Miami gets far more frequent reminders that it is in the bulls’ eye of climate change impacts, including sunny day flooding and ocean water bubbling through its sewer system, as Gore and Clinton both pointed out.
“At high tide you have fish from the ocean swimming in the streets of Miami Beach and Del Ray,” said Gore. In addition to Florida’s woes, Gore noted other anomalies, like California’s drought and record flooding this year in Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and Maryland.
“This is not normal,” he said. “It is becoming the new normal. This is a set of conditions we have created with manmade global warming pollution.”