With leadership by Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, U.S. House spurns Trump on global climate accord

Sunny-day flooding on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Photo provided by the office of Kathy Castor

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Thursday approved legislation from Florida U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa that would force the Trump administration to remain in the Paris climate accord, despite the president’s  plans to exit the pact.

The House vote is a symbolic rebuke to Trump, who announced in 2017 that he’d withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord that the Obama administration helped broker in 2015.

The bill was passed largely along party lines by a vote of 231-190, with Republicans against and Democrats in favor. Three Republicans broke ranks to support the measure, including Florida U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents a district that includes Sarasota and Bradenton.

“Climate change is a serious threat to the Suncoast and the rest of Florida, which has two coastlines vulnerable to rising waters,” Buchanan said in a statement. “Environmental protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. We should be doing everything possible to accomplish both.”

The bill’s passage marks the first major climate change bill passed in the House in nearly a decade. The chamber passed a sweeping cap-and-trade bill under the Obama administration in 2009 before that effort died in the Senate.

Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, who represents the Fort Myers-Naples area,was absent for the vote. He’s recovering from knee surgery, according to his spokesman, who declined to say how Rooney — a champion of efforts to curb climate change — would have voted. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who represents parts of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach,  was also absent for the vote, although he was a co-sponsor of Castor’s bill.

Apart from Buchanan and Rooney, Florida Republicans voted against the bill.

Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the Pensacola area, told the Florida Phoenix in an interview earlier this week that he intended to oppose the measure “because the Paris accord was a bad deal.”

Gaetz has offered a GOP alternative to the Democrats’ Green New Deal.

“Just because I believe in the science of climate change and that we ought to have an approach to solve it doesn’t mean that we should enter into an agreement that requires the United States to plow in a bunch of upfront cash with very little ability to claw that back if other nations aren’t meeting carbon reduction goals,” he said.

In criticizing the Paris accord, Trump said in a 2017 Rose Garden speech: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” adding, “As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

But despite his declaration, Trump can’t formally withdraw from the deal until Nov. 4, 2020, which happens to be the day after the next U.S. presidential election.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged that climate change will be among her top priorities this Congress. She set up a new special committee on climate change earlier this year, putting Castor at the helm.

The “climate crisis is an existential threat of our generation, of our time, a crisis manifested in natural disasters of epic proportions,” Pelosi said at a press conference announcing Castor’s legislation. She called the bill “step one” on the issue.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have blasted the effort as a waste of time, given that it stands virtually no chance of passing the GOP-led Senate or winning Trump’s support.

‘There are no climate deniers in my district’

There’s a deep partisan divide in Florida when it comes to climate politics. As Democrats press for urgent action on the issue, climate change remains a politically dicey issue for some state Republicans who are wary of discussing the topic publicly or endorsing policies to combat warming.

Seven of the state’s 14 House Republican lawmakers, including Gaetz, scored five percent or less on their career climate change records, according to congressional scorecards issued recently by the environmental advocacy group League of Conservation Voters. Florida’s three freshman GOP House members haven’t yet received LCV scores.

Florida freshman Republican Rep. Greg Steube told the Phoenix in an interview this week that he doesn’t think climate policy “should be a priority for Congress.” (Steube represents a sprawling inland district that stretches from Fort Myers to Tampa and east almost to Port St. Lucie).

“I certainly do not support the Green New Deal. I think the climate has been changing since God created the Earth,” he said. “I don’t think there are solutions that we as legislators can necessarily do. You’re obviously not going to change what’s happening on our climate with changing carbon emissions because there’s other partners in the world that aren’t doing that.”

By contrast, another Florida freshman, Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, who represents the Miami area, called for drastic action to limit the impacts of climate change in her district.

“If we continue to do nothing, my community as we know it will disappear,” she said. “There are no climate deniers in my district. Everybody knows what’s happening in South Florida. We’re already living with the effects of climate change, which are more frequent and more intense hurricanes, higher tides that flood our neighborhoods and eroding beaches.”

It’s surprising to some climate activists that Republicans in Florida’s delegation aren’t more engaged in the issue.

“Climate change is not a distant threat in Florida, it is the reality today and it’s having devastating consequences already, whether it’s hurricanes, the flooding, the warming waters,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Clearly the urgency of acting on climate is as apparent, if not more so, in Florida than anywhere else.”

The reluctance of some Florida Republicans to pursue climate change policies — or to discuss the issue — comes as others in the delegation are seeking bipartisan compromise on the issue.

Rooney, a second-term House lawmaker, is the lone Republican co-sponsor of a bill that aims to tackle climate change by taxing carbon dioxide emissions produced when fossil fuels are burned.

Rooney said in a recent interview that he tries to talk to his fellow Florida Republican lawmakers “all the time” about climate change, and “a lot of them have varying degrees of reluctance to discuss it.”

The businessman and former ambassador to the Vatican said the GOP risks losing “the high ground” on environmental issues. He pointed to the fact that a Republican, President Nixon, started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think that there’s an opportunity for the Republican Party to reach out to a broader spectrum of voters,” Rooney told the Phoenix. He’s made that argument to House Republican leaders, he said. “I don’t see why we have to be cut out of that by some rigid dogma that may or may not be accurate.”

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