Florida’s leaders opposed climate aid. Now they’re depending on it.
By Christopher Flavelle and Jonathan Weisman
Hurricane Ian’s wrath made clear that Florida faces some of the most severe consequences of climate change anywhere in the country. But the state’s top elected leaders opposed the most significant climate legislation to pass Congress — laws to help fortify states against and recover from climate disasters and confront their underlying cause: the burning of fossil fuels.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted against last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, which devotes some $50 billion to help states better prepare for events like Ian, because they said it was wasteful. And in August, they joined every fellow Republican in the Senate to oppose a new climate law that invests $369 billion in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the largest such effort in the country’s history.
At the same time, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has blocked the state’s pension fund from taking climate change into account when making investment decisions, saying that politics should be absent from financial calculations.
In the aftermath of Ian, those leaders want federal help to rebuild their state — but don’t want to discuss the underlying problem that is making hurricanes more powerful and destructive.
As Hurricane Ian approached Florida’s coast, the storm grew in intensity because it passed over ocean water that was 2 to 3 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, NASA data show. Its destructive power was made worse by rising seas; the water off the southwest coast of Florida has risen more than 7 inches since 1965, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Finally, warmer air resulting from climate change increased the amount of rain that Ian dropped on Florida by at least 10%, or about 2 extra inches in some places, according to a study released last week.
Rubio has secured millions of dollars to restore the Everglades as a way to store floodwaters and repair coral reefs to buffer storm surges. One of his House colleagues, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a South Florida Republican, has secured billions for climate resiliency.
But none of the top Republicans in the state have supported legislation to curb the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.
With its sun and offshore wind, Florida could be a leader in renewable energy, said Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Tampa. Instead, it imports natural gas that it burns to produce electricity.
“To not admit that climate change is real and we need to address it bodes nothing but a harm for the future for Florida and the nation,” said Charlie Crist, a former Republican Florida governor who won a House seat as a Democrat and is now challenging DeSantis’ reelection.
Hurricane Ian is far from the first time Florida has felt the impacts of climate change. In Miami, the rising ocean means streets and sidewalks regularly flood during high tide, even on sunny days. In the Florida Keys, officials are looking at raising roadbeds that will otherwise become impassable.
Yet the state’s leaders have long resisted what scientists say is needed to stave off a catastrophic future: an aggressive pivot away from gas, oil and coal and toward solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
“Attempting to reverse-engineer the U.S. economy to absolve our past climate sins — either through a carbon tax or some ‘Green New Deal’ scheme — will fail,” Rubio wrote in 2019. “None of those advocates can point to how even the most aggressive (and draconian) plan would improve the lives of Floridians.”
Scott, the former governor of Florida who is now the state’s junior senator, has argued the cost of attacking climate change is just too great.
“We clearly want to and need to address the impacts of climate change,” Scott told NPR last summer. “But we’ve got to do it in a fiscally responsible manner. We can’t put jobs at risk.”
Hurricane Ian could be among the costliest storms to hit Florida, with losses estimated in the tens of billions.
The two senators also voted against last year’s infrastructure bill, which provided about $50 billion toward climate resilience — the country’s largest single investment in measures designed to better protect people against the effects of climate change.
That bill, which passed the Senate with support from 19 Republicans, included measures designed to help protect against hurricanes. It provided billions for sea walls, storm pumps, elevating homes, flood control and other projects.
Many of those measures were co-written by another coastal Republican, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who called it “a major victory for Louisiana and our nation.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also supported the bill. Both states face enormous threats from climate change.
But Rubio called it “wasteful,” while Scott said it was “reckless spending.” Both voted no.
Scott and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.
Dan Holler, a deputy chief of staff to Rubio, said the senator opposed the infrastructure bill because it included unnecessary measures, just as he opposed the final version of relief for Hurricane Sandy in 2013 because of what he called extraneous pork barrel spending.
But the larger issue, Holler said, is that those pushing broad measures to wean the nation from fossil fuels have yet to prove to Rubio that such efforts would actually slow sea level rise, calm storms or mitigate flooding.
Crist sounded almost sympathetic as he discussed the bind that Florida Republicans find themselves in — accepting donations from the oil and gas industry, unwilling to raise the issue of climate change with their most loyal voters, while surveying the damage it is doing to their state.
The oil and gas industry is not a major source of campaign cash for politicians in Florida, where offshore drilling is prohibited. Rubio has received $223,239 from the oil and gas industry since 2017, which puts the industry at 15th on his donor list, federal records show. Scott has received $236,483 from oil and gas, his 14th most generous industry.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott leads, has received $3.2 million in oil and gas donations this campaign cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, eclipsed only by real estate, Wall Street and retirees. By contrast, the fossil fuel business isn’t among the top 20 industries that have given this cycle to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“There’s an ‘ideological versus reality’ divide here that must be very excruciating to these Republican politicians,” Crist said.