About 72 percent of Florida voters are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about climate change, according to a Quinnipiac poll, but climate change as an issue lags and advocates fear it will get only passing reference in Miami next week.
Miami will hold the gaze of the national political realm next week, as the two-night Democratic presidential debates will kick off at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Just three miles away, across the Venetian Causeway that spans over the glittering Biscayne Bay, is Miami Beach — what some activists and officials call “ground zero” for sea-level rise, one of the many indicators of climate change.
About three-quarters of Florida voters either felt “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change, according to a March poll from Quinnipiac University. Sixty-six percent were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that climate change will personally affect themselves or a family member.
Yet, when candidates take the stage in Miami on Wednesday and Thursday night, media analysts and policy advocates worry that issues like rising sea levels won't get more than passing attention in a debate hosted in a coastal state where climate change arguably poses an existential threat.
“I wish every single candidate would make that their highest priority,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of The CLEO Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit that educates the public about climate change. “The crisis really deserves it.”
Yet a poll released by Quinnipiac last Tuesday suggests that if the presidential election were held today, Democratic Florida voters wouldn’t pick the one candidate who has made climate change the platform of his campaign, Jay Inslee.
The Washington governor, and 15 other candidates, polled at zero percent with Florida Democrats, being pushed out by more recognizable candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In fact, Inslee barely made the requirements to get on the debate roster, witnessed by the fact that he will be at the far right of the stage in a place designated for those polling at the back of the pack.
But are Inslee's struggles the result of his own campaign obstacles — or do they also speak to challenges in addressing climate change from a political perspective? Analysts say it's both.
Why isn't climate change a talking point?
Inslee is by no means the only Democratic presidential candidate who speaks out about climate change. A handful of candidates make mention of climate change on their campaign website homepages, and almost all include climate change within their platforms. And while climate change is a serious issue, there are more pressing day-to-day matters on voters minds, too.
Todd Makse, an associate professor at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, said he believes many voters may think of climate change on a larger, global scale rather than how it is directly affecting them.
It's not that voters don't care about climate change — while the environment may matter to people, it's not necessarily an issue that will be a deciding factor when at the polls.
“There’s a difference between saying an issue is important to you and an issue that people will vote on,” Makse said
Health care and immigration have typically been at the top of Florida voters' concerns, said Kevin Wagner, chair of the political science department at Florida Atlantic University. Yet focusing on one issue is "not necessarily a bad strategy," he said.
“I think in the short term, being known as the champion of a single issue is a way to try to get known,” Wagner said of Inslee's strategy.
So why hasn't it helped Inslee as he pitches himself as the champion on the one single issue that ought to resonate in the Sunshine State?
A number of circumstances could contribute to why Inslee isn’t well known in Florida, political science experts said. For one, the state he runs is in the opposite corner of the country from the Sunshine State. Also, we’re nearly a year-and-a-half out until the 2020 election. And perhaps more telling: There are two dozen Democratic presidential candidates elbowing for the spotlight.
“His name recognition is very low in Florida,” added Wagner. “Many Floridians wouldn’t know what he stands for, let alone his stance on climate change.”
A primary process that starts with such a large field is a recent phenomenon that makes candidates grapple for how to make their names recognizable, Makse said. A decade or two ago, most presidential elections had just a few candidates vying to be the most powerful person on Earth, he said.
Plus, it's difficult to predict what topics will motivate voters. It may be too early to tell what will be the decisive issues as the campaigns progress, as it could shift depending on what’s happening in the world.
“Until we sort out the number of candidates … I don’t think we can have a good sense of what issues will dominate the campaign,” Makse said.
Wednesday night will be an opportunity for Inslee to introduce himself to voters in Florida and across the country, said Jared Leopold, senior communications adviser for Inslee’s campaign.
Leopold said the governor plans to state his record on progressive policies, including improving access to health care and passing the highest minimum wage nationwide. But he notes that Inslee is “running as a climate first candidate.”
“Gov. Inslee is the only candidate who says he will put climate change as the No. 1 priority of the United States,” Leopold said. “If it’s not No. 1, it’s not going to get done.”
An attorney by trade, 68-year-old Inslee began his political career as a two-term state representative, then was elected as a U.S. congressman for 13 years. Inslee has served as governor of Washington state since 2013.
Climate change, Leopold said, is the “central issue of his political career.”
Inslee co-wrote a book called “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy” in 2007, and has pushed for bolstering the clean energy industry.
In his 2020 bid, according to his campaign website, Inslee has proposes four pillars for his climate mission: setting a goal of 100 percent clean energy and net-zero greenhouse gas pollution; investing in clean energy jobs; promoting equal access to clean water and air; and getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies.
In recent months, Inslee has visited the wildfire-ravaged Paradise, California, and Iowa’s flooded towns. He plans to make a stop in Fort Lauderdale on Monday to make a policy announcement near the proposed site of oil drilling in the Everglades.
Climate change affects Florida
While climate change threatens all of Florida, there appears to be a divide along partisan lines. In the March Quinnipiac poll, 93 percent of Democratic Florida voters said Florida could do more to address climate change, whereas 51 percent of Republican Florida voters said the state was "doing enough."
Climate change policy advocates like Arditi-Rocha say the topic deserves as much attention as health care or immigration.
“This is not something of the future,” she said. “This is very much a present climate emergency that we all are experiencing.”
Climate change is caused by an increase of gases like carbon dioxide that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. Before the mid-20th century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere never reached above 300 parts per million. The current level is 411 parts per million, according to NASA.
Including sea-level rise, climate change's effects can be seen in the sunny day flooding during King tides and through the saltwater intrusion that affects our drinking supply.
Warming waters created an incubator for algal blooms and amplified the impacts of hurricanes like Irma, Maria and Michael. Other effects across the planet include ocean acidification, more droughts and heat waves and melting glaciers.
It doesn’t just have environmental implications, but its reach affects health, economy, immigration and more, Arditi-Rocha said. Floridians are starting to make these connections, she said, but they're "almost there."
She noted there are several solutions that presidential candidates can propose to combat climate change, including imposing a carbon tax or shifting to renewable energy sources. But it can, and should, be a nonpartisan issue, Arditi-Rocha added.
Some candidates and activists have called for a single-issue climate change presidential debate. But Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez wrote in a Medium blog post this month that it would not be feasible.
“We have received more than 50 requests to hold debates focused on these important issues and many others. And we knew it would be unfair and unrealistic to ask the candidates to participate in so many,” Perez wrote. The DNC is holding 12 debates in all.
Lisa Hymas, director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, a progressive research nonprofit, said debate moderators can’t be “[trusted] to make climate change a focus unless the DNC demands it.”
According to a Media Matters analysis, only 1.5 percent of questions that came from moderators during the 2016 presidential primary debates were about climate change. Almost half of the debates didn’t have any questions about climate change.
“When you look back on past performance, you can see why activists and citizens who care about climate change are concerned that that issue could be ignored if they aren’t pushing for more attention,” she said.
In the blog post, Perez said it was “wrong” that climate change wasn’t featured as heavily in 2016, and vowed in 2017 to do better in the future.
In hopes of getting candidates to be more specific with their climate plans, rather than give “vague answers” to “superficial questions,” Hymas wrote a guide for moderators. Tips include asking Florida-specific questions and not to de-emphasize the seriousness of climate change.
It’s “encouraging” that Inslee and 15 other candidates have called for climate-focused debate, Hymas said. DNC Chair Perez noted in his post that candidates wouldn’t be admonished for participating in climate forums and town halls outside of the organization’s set debates.
“We have a dwindling window. We really need to get moving now and mobilize quickly if we’re going to take action,” Hymas said.