Climate change breaks party lines in FL

Rep. Carlos Curbelo's political survival could depend on his ability to convince voters that a Republican is their best choice to combat climate change.

Posted: Nov 7, 2018 5:22 AM
Updated: Nov 7, 2018 5:34 AM

Rep. Carlos Curbelo's district is drowning.

The South Florida Republican represents the low-lying 26th District, which encompasses southwestern Miami, the Florida Keys and the Everglades — areas most at risk of rising sea levels as a result of climate change. Tidal flooding, or flooding that occurs during high tide, has become common in coastal areas like these, a phenomenon scientists attribute in part to sea level rise.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this month that the world's temperatures are on track to increase past an important marker as soon as 2030. That would speed up the risk of flooding, extreme weather and more in places like the 26th District.

Curbelo's political survival could now depend on his ability to convince voters most threatened by climate change that he is their best choice to combat it. For Curbelo, that means convincing a skeptical electorate that a Republican can be an effective voice in combatting a threat that much of the party's rural base well inside the coasts -- and even its President, who has called global warming a Chinese hoax -- prefers to ignore.

Again casting doubt on scientists' conclusion that humans are causing global warming, Trump said on "60 Minutes" Sunday night that scientists "have a very big political agenda."

"I don't want to give trillions and trillions of dollars" fighting climate change, Trump said. "I don't want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don't want to be put at a disadvantage."

Running for a third term in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 16 percentage points in 2016, Curbelo is among the most endangered Republicans in the House. But operatives in both parties see him as unusually strong for a Republican in such a blue district -- largely due to his willingness to buck the GOP on issues like climate change.

"If people try to dismiss me, I'll say, 'Hey, that's OK. When my district is under water, I'll go to yours and run against you," he joked in an interview with CNN last week.

His task could be difficult, however.

"Carlos Curbelo is amazing. We love him. He has done so much, as far as bringing the conversation about sea level rise and climate change to the floor," said Elizabeth Jolin, the director of Florida Bay Forever, an Everglades restoration advocacy group.

Yet the group endorsed Curbelo's Democratic challenger, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Jolin said that's because she can't separate Curbelo from "the context of what's happening nationally under this President's policies."

"We see Carlos as one of very few Republicans who has been willing to speak out, quite vocally, about good science, real science, the facts of climate change," Jolin said. "And it's not enough. We want to see his party do more."

Matt Bellinger, a fishing guide with Bamboo Charters, said he is a moderate Republican who is "looking real hard at a lot of Democrats."

"I voted for Trump. I like some of the stuff he's doing. But his environmental stand, I'm not real thrilled with. If I took him out on the boat today, I'd show him," Bellinger said.

"People need to be out here in the environment, all around the United States and around the world, to see these changes," he said. "Cause once you see them, it's hard to deny."

One Republican who has seen the threat facing Florida's environment, Bellinger said, is Curbelo. He said Curbelo visited his marina and "after talking to him, my vote was with him."

Curbelo has highlighted his break from the GOP on climate change in campaign ads. Mucarsel-Powell, meanwhile, has made protecting the environment a leading issue in her ads.

Mucarsel-Powell, a former associate dean at Florida International University, said that "what we cannot afford to have is a Republican majority that still denies that climate change exists."

Curbelo says he is slowly winning over Republicans -- particularly younger House members.

Along with Democratic Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch, Curbelo launched a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which now has more than 80 members. To join, House members are required to pair with a member of the other party -- a rule intended to eventually create momentum behind legislation that members of both party's bases might dislike.

His case to fellow Republicans is often to compare the environment with fiscal responsibility. "If we pass on an unsustainable environmental debt to our kids and grandkids, it's going to crush them," he said.

"You're not going to get from 0 to 100 in six months or in a year, but over the course of a few years of working and convincing colleagues and educating colleagues, you can actually get some good outcomes," Curbelo said.

"This is how you build coalitions and convince people by explaining things in ways that they can relate to them and understand them, and not by trying to scare them or threatening them," he said. "But certainly time is running out and more and more colleagues are becoming aware of that."

Climate change wasn't at the forefront of Cubelo's 2014 campaign for Congress. And in 2016, he voted to support a House GOP resolution opposing a carbon tax.

But this year, Curbelo changed tack, introducing a bill that would tax carbon emissions and, in the process, raise $700 million for infrastructure spending. The bill replaces the federal gas tax and would place a moratorium on environmental regulations if carbon emissions targets are met. The bill, Curbelo said, includes carrots to attract Republican support. It pumps money into infrastructure -- a goal of Trump's. It includes a border adjustment tax, an idea advocated by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, on countries that don't have policies to protect the environment.

Curbelo said Republicans' interest in climate change has grown as lawmakers representing agriculture-heavy districts have seen farmers' concerns about changing weather patterns grow. He also argued that GOP interest in his bill has grown as Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt was ousted from Trump's administration and the President withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord.

"Some of that recklessness has actually helped build the bipartisan coalition that will be needed in Congress to meaningfully address the environment," he said.

Mucarsel-Powell argued that there's no time for Curbelo's slow, methodical approach to an issue that is "a real threat to the existence" of the district.

"We need a caucus that's actually going to bring a bill to the floor, and we haven't seen any action," Mucarsel-Powell said.

"The only way that we're actually going to bring a bill that's going to be considered and possibly voted on is if we have a Democratic majority," she said. "It's been one of our top priorities for decades now, for Democrats, and we don't have any time to waste."

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