With Hurricanes and Toxic Algae, Florida Candidates Can’t Ignore the Environment

Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis are both courting the environment vote in the governor's race, but they go in opposite ways on climate change.

A lifeguard wearing a protective mask asks a surfer to leave the ocean after Palm Beach County officials closed all area beaches due to red tide earlier this month. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A lifeguard wearing a protective mask asks a surfer to leave the ocean after Palm Beach County officials closed the beaches due to red tide. The toxic algae is one of several environmental and climate crises Florida has faced this year. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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It’s been a year of environmental discontent in Florida.

On the Gulf Coast, a toxic red tide algae burned beachgoers eyes and lungs and killed manatees by the dozens.

Election 2018

In Lake Okeechobee and on the Atlantic Coast, slimy, rancid blooms of toxic blue-green algae prompted health warnings to stay out of the water.

Sunny-day flooding in South Florida during king tides brought reminders of climate change and sea-level rise. Then a powerful hurricane fueled by the overly warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico exploded from almost nothing to Category 4 strength in just three days, devastating communities in the Panhandle.

The environment is rarely a decisive issue for voters, but Florida is different, especially this year.


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Both major party candidates for governor are courting the environment vote after eight years under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has been getting a lot of the blame for the water pollution and has been criticized for ignoring climate science in a state with a lot to lose from global warming.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democrat who is trying to become Florida’s first African-American governor, and former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican who has tied himself to President Donald Trump, both have strong environmental messages in their campaigns.

“The environment is clearly an issue in this race,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor emeritus.

“The algae bloom and red tide continue to be a big issue,” she said. And Hurricane Michael “highlights the threats of climate change,” a subject, she said, that’s a bigger deal with the younger generation that makes up a growing portion of the state’s electorate.

The Cook Political Report considers the race a toss-up.

This Economy Relies on a Healthy Environment

Environment and economy are tightly connected in Florida.

Hundreds of miles of sandy beaches are like magnets to the more than 100 million visitors annually. Freshwater lakes and springs draw crowds and dollars. And then there is the Everglades—a vast wilderness of sawgrass marshes, mangroves and hardwood forests right at sea level.

“Part of what makes Florida unique is that we are so heavily a tourism-driven economy,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental group that focuses on politics and has endorsed Gillum.

“It’s a beautiful place to live,” she said. “We all sort of know if we mess this up we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Florida’s growing population is also highly susceptible to the effects of climate change, including extreme heat, drought, more potent hurricanes and worsening coastal flooding as sea level rises, said Andrea Dutton, a University of Florida geologist and climate scientist. It’s not too soon for Floridians to be asking how they want that to play out in the next several decades, she said.

Red tide has been killing fish by the thousands this year along the Florida coast, and also harming dolphins, humans and local businesses. Credit: Gianrigo Marletta/AFP/Getty Images
Red tide has been killing fish by the thousands this year along the Florida coast, and also harming dolphins, humans and local businesses. Credit: Gianrigo Marletta/AFP/Getty Images

Politicians seeking to be governor of Florida normally come to understand how much the environment means to Floridians at some point and recognize that most residents don’t want offshore drilling, toxic algae or a trashed Everglades, said Cynthia Barnett, a Florida author and environmental fellow at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

Consider Jeb Bush, who lost his first bid for governor in 1994 running as an “anti-government conservative firebrand,” she recalled. Bush then “spent the next four years transforming himself into a moderate Republican,” including backing a billion-dollar land conservation fund, Barnett said.

He was followed by Charlie Crist, who was a Republican climate rock star as governor.

Then came Scott, who as governor slashed state budgets and stopped Crist’s climate leadership, including a statewide climate action plan that is now collecting dust. Early on, his administration reportedly had an unwritten policy banning the terms climate change and global warming, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Scott is now trying to unseat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in another race that Cook Political Report sees as a toss-up, and the two are blaming each other for the toxic algae blooms.

Two Candidates at Odds on Climate Change

The two major-party candidates vying to replace Scott as Florida’s next governor bring decidedly different records and views on the environment, especially on climate change.

Gillum has promised to take climate change seriously. “I believe in science,” he wrote on Twitter in August. “That’s a stark contrast from our current Governor. … We will protect this state, invest in renewable energy, and create new, well-paying, green jobs all across our state.”

His campaign website calls for embracing “a plan to transition Florida to clean energy as rapidly as possible,” though it doesn’t provide specifics.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael’s devastation, Gillum has talked on MSNBC about the role of warmer Gulf waters played in Hurricane Michael’s rapid intensification. Florida has “got some work to do … to build us a more resilient state,” he said.

Hurricane Michael, the fourth-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. on record, left a trail of destruction across the Florida Panhandle. The storm strengthened quickly, fueled by abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By contrast, DeSantis rejects climate science, and in a campaign stop in the Everglades last month, he made it clear he wasn’t about to start embracing it anytime soon.

“I am not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists,” DeSantis told reporters. “I am not a global warming person. I don’t want that label on me.”

Still, he acknowledged that sea levels are rising and threatening the state. “I think you’d be a fool to not consider that an issue we need to address,” he said. 

Neither candidate would agree to an interview with InsideClimate News. Their staffs declined to answer questions about what their candidates planned to do to achieve their environmental goals, referring to issue statements on campaign websites, which don’t offer much detail.

Democrat Andrew Gillum

Steeped in local politics, Gillum was first elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at age 23 in 2008. He’s been mayor since 2014.

As recently as 2005, he backed Tallahassee’s public utility’s participation in a new coal-fired power plant that was never constructed. But last year he joined hundreds of other mayors agreeing to work toward the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and he has supported Tallahassee’s plans to construct 60 megawatts of solar power.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor, greets people during a campaign rally in Orlando, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle
“We will protect this state, invest in renewable energy, and create new, well-paying, green jobs all across our state,” says Democrat Andrew Gillum. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“I’ve talked to him a number of times the lasts three to six months, and he’s been very receptive,” said Grant Gelhardt, the chairman of the Sierra Club group that includes the Tallahassee area.  “He knows a problem when he sees it.”

Republican Ron DeSantis

DeSantis is a Harvard-trained lawyer who served in the U.S. Navy and as a federal prosecutor.

In nearly six years in Congress, he earned a score of just 2 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.

Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally in Tampa, Florida with President Donald Trump. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
“I am not a global warming person. I don’t want that label on me,” says Republican Ron DeSantis. Still, he acknowledged that sea levels are rising. “I think you’d be a fool to not consider that an issue we need to address.” Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The league noted that DeSantis voted to block the Department of Defense from preparing for the effects of climate change; to gut Clean Air Act protections for lung-damaging ozone pollution, and to reduce environmental reviews for oil or gas pipelines that cross an international border.

He is endorsed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Trump, who continues to deny that human activities cause climate science or requires urgent action, even after the latest warnings from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The scientific panel on Oct. 8 warned that countries need to reach net zero carbon emissions by around 2050 to keep global warming in check and reduce the sort of impacts Florida is especially vulnerable to—deadly storm surges, coastal flooding, droughts, heat waves and dead coral reefs. Another new report, by the National Academy of Sciences, warns that rising global temperatures and their impact on rainfall and sea level rise will also affect the Everglades and restoration efforts there.

What to Do About the Summer of Slime

When it comes to environmental issues, DeSantis has worked to get the support of the sports fishing industry by blaming sugar producers for another summer of slime on Lake Okeechobee and other water bodies.

Others argue that’s a simplistic view—that leaky septic tanks, urban runoff and other forms of agriculture are part of the state’s algae problems. Warmer water and higher levels of carbon dioxide can also fuel damaging algae blooms. 

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection worker takes a sample of algae for testing. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A Florida Department of Environmental Protection worker takes a sample for testing from the St. Lucie River, where algae has fouled the waterway, closed beaches and had an impact on businesses. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For his part, Gillum put out an ad in October that called “the toxic air, red tide and algae blooms around Florida an economic and environmental disaster” that can only be solved if Floridians “take back” their government from special interests. He has promised to “put environmental protection back into the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.”

Moncrief, the Florida Conservation Votes executive director, thinks DeSantis is focused too tightly on building a new reservoir to deliver fresh water the Everglades, a project both candidates support. Her group endorsed Gillum for his “more holistic” approach that includes climate change and cracking down on all polluters, not just the sugar industry, she said.

A Younger, Environmentally Aware Electorate

On election day, the state’s changing demographics may make the biggest difference, said MacManus, the political scientist.

For the first time, she said, voters from Generation X and younger, those born since the early to mid 1960s, now make up more than half of Florida’s electorate, and they are “very environmentally conscience.”

Some local Florida governments have stepped in to fill the vacuum Scott has created as governor, especially in South Florida, where four counties from Palm Beach to Key West are working on coordinated plans to adapt to rising sea levels and other global warming threats.

With sea-level rise, much of South Florida could be underwater by the end of the century.

“If the state really focused (on) climate resilience, that would dramatically enhance what local governments on their own have been doing the last few years,” said Steve Adams, a former energy policy advisor to Crist who helped the counties form their climate pact and is now with the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Adaptation only goes so far, though.

“We will have to get emission limits,” he said. “That’s the place where I hope the next governor leans in very hard.”