When Florida Governor Rick Scott won re-election Nov. 4, he triumphed over both his Democratic challenger and California billionaire Thomas Steyer, who spent $20 million painting him as a climate-change denier.
Scott, a 61-year-old Republican who during the campaign deflected questions about the topic by asserting that he isn’t a scientist, has little time to celebrate.
Environmental issues are washing onto his desk: Voters required lawmakers to devote about $1 billion annually to conservation; Florida must curb carbon emissions almost 40 percent under new federal rules; and rising seas are soaking Miami Beach even as Scott’s party blasts President Barack Obama’s deal last week with China setting emissions goals.
Scott’s predicament shows how Republican leaders from Alabama to Arizona are facing unwanted climate-change battles even as they question the effects of human activity on global temperatures. The governor must spend the money while placating members of his party and Mother Nature alike.
“Climate change isn’t going away,” said Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, a Miami environmental nonprofit. “It’s going to be incumbent on the Republicans to be responsible on an issue that affects everyone, and that they can’t run away from.”
Scott, a former health-care executive who spent $12.8 million of his own to combat Steyer’s spending, beat Democrat Charlie Crist by about 1 percentage point.
While most environmental groups endorsed Crist, they have pointed to voters’ 75 percent approval of the conservation referendum as the election’s only true mandate.
The constitutional amendment, which sets aside almost $20 billion over 20 years, will create the nation’s largest state- based conservation program, and Scott will determine how to direct the money.
Environmentalists supported the amendment because Scott neglected the issue, said Will Abberger, director of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, which spearheaded the initiative.
“I don’t think that we’ve changed anybody’s mind who did not believe that climate change is human-caused,” he said. “But we have provided some very real and significant funding.”
The money, raised by a tax on real-estate sales, could be used to help restore the Florida Everglades, buy fragile land and pay for adaptation projects to protect from rising seas.
Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action, said Scott sided with energy companies and the sugar industry in his first term. During the campaign, NextGen opened 21 offices in Florida, ran thousands of television commercials and deployed a rolling wooden vessel on a “Rick Scott’s Ark Tour.” The message: Scott would leave Florida families to deal with sea levels rising by as much as 2 feet (0.6 meters) by 2060.
Frank Collins, a spokesman for Scott, declined to comment on the political challenges that the governor faces on climate change.
Scott has defended his record, pointing to increased spending on Everglades restoration, flood mitigation, sand replacement on beaches and protection of natural springs.
“We have to continue to make strategic investments,” he told reporters Nov. 12. “Part of that is the environment.”
Under new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Florida must reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 38 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Several Republican-led states have sued to block the regulations, and 15 governors sent Obama a letter in September saying the rules go beyond the scope of federal authority.
Scott didn’t sign the letter and Florida isn’t a party to the lawsuit.
Scott has lost some early supporters as he’s charted a moderate path. Karen Schoen, director of Panhandle Patriots, said his environmental policy is a betrayal of the Tea Party principles he espoused during his 2010 campaign.
“Governor Scott used us,” she said. “Governor Scott is doing what Governor Scott needed to do for Governor Scott to get elected.”
Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection has until 2016 to submit its plan.
“It’s the most significant regulation DEP has ever dealt with on carbon emissions,” said Tiffany Cowie, a spokeswoman for the agency in Tallahassee.
More could be coming. In China last week, Obama agreed to further reductions in U.S. emissions. The deal set up a showdown with Republicans, who are set to take control of Congress next year. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both vowed to fight the deal.
Meanwhile, in South Florida, high tides regularly wash onto streets. Republican and Democratic local officials have asked state lawmakers for assistance.
Four Southeast Florida counties have created a regional compact, urging lawmakers to address rising seas. Other solutions are more radical: The city of South Miami approved a resolution last month seeking to split the state in two, citing a lack of support from the capital for climate-change challenges.
During this century, sea-level rise will intensify storm surge along the coastline, according to the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force. Flooding and insurance costs will force residents to abandon neighborhoods, the group said in a July report.
“You’ve got a growing general awareness down here that sea-level rise is a now problem, not a future problem,” said Leonard Berry, former director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “That creates a different atmosphere right across the political spectrum.”
Steyer’s group has pledged to continue pressuring lawmakers. His ability to spend millions will have an impact, said Berry. Steyer, founder of hedge fund Farallon Capital Management LLC, is worth $2.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“The fight against climate change in Florida is just beginning,” NextGen’s Florida director Jackie Lee said in a Nov. 7 memo. “NextGen Climate will remain engaged and continue to keep climate on the ballot.”
–With assistance from Alison Vekshin in San Francisco.