CLIMATE CHANGE: As scientists issue dire warnings, how will 2020 voters in FL respond?

Smoke plumes from record-setting fires in the west flow easterly driven on wind currents while Hurricane Sally comes ashore in the Gulf of Mexico and Hurricane Paulette departs to the north. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

For scientist Pam McVety, electing a climate-focused president this fall represents the last chance for Americans to pull back from the brink of climate disaster.

For teacher Eric Garner, the sky isn’t falling and Earth’s climate is not his top voting consideration.

The divide between these two educated Florida voters and others like them seems to center on one thing: whether one trusts President Donald Trump, who calls reports about climate change and other scientific inconveniences such as coronavirus fake news.

“I can’t imagine anyone being anti-environment,” said Garner, a teacher in Parkland in Broward County and a Republican. “Am I pro-environment? Absolutely. But as much as we may feel we’re damaging it … it’s not urgent.”

Garner said he and other Republicans endorse incremental change that leads to energy independence for economic and security reasons without being disruptive.

It’s too late for that, says McVety, a biologist and longtime state environmental regulator, who has been watching climate changes for decades.

“Look at the hurricanes. Look at the wildfires. Look at the sea-level rise and the extreme heat,” she said. “It’s a crisis, and Florida is ground zero in many ways.”

Net zero by 2050

Earth’s climate is changing because of the amount of greenhouse gases the planet and its occupants are releasing into the atmosphere, scientists say.

The atmosphere is already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than it has been in recent centuries, with greenhouse gases continuing to intensify, and will turn toxic at 2 degrees, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a consortium of scientists around the world combining their efforts under the auspices of the United Nations.

Taking actions to stop the warming at 1.5 degrees is the goal of the international treaty known as the 2015 Paris Agreement, brokered by the United Nations. Trump has withdrawn the United States from the treaty.

The 2020 crop of named storms and hurricanes has already exhausted the English alphabet and moved on to the Greek alphabet. When this outlook was published for the start of the hurricane season, on June 1, Tropical Storm Arthur, had already come and gone. Credit: NOAA

“We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5 °C or 2 °C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. And for that, we need political will and urgent action to set a different path,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, of Portugal, in the WMO’s 2019 Statement on the State of the Global Climate.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans acknowledge experiencing climate change in their own lives and consider it an important issue, according to an April report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a scientific research center. But it’s less clear how readily they would adjust their lifestyles to slow the damage.

Cara Fleischer of Tallahassee says she’s all in. She drives an electric vehicle, serves on the Leon County Soil and Water District, and chairs her church’s “Creation Care” team, which promotes gardening and similar activities as a way to appreciate and advocate for a wholesome, healthy world.

“I’m a climate voter,” Fleischer said. “The most important thing is to recognize what’s happening in our own backyards.”

Fleischer said back-to-back hurricanes, summer after summer of historic heat, and the unprecedented wildfires of 2019 and 2020 in the American West and Australia make her rate climate change as a top priority in choosing the next president and the next round of state and local leaders.

Sea levels have been steadily rising, according to U.S. government scientists. Credit: Climate.gov

She wants Florida, the nation and the world to switch to clean, sustainable energy as fast as possible and to reach net zero on greenhouse emissions by 2050.

She believes Trump isn’t even trying, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has laid out a plan to convert the country to a green culture that creates millions of clean-energy jobs to remake the nation’s energy, transportation and infrastructure sectors.

Biden’s plan would make the electricity sector carbon-free by 2035; make new American-made buses zero-emissions by 2030; set a goal for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of benefits from clean-energy and infrastructure spending; and create a net-zero emissions standard for new commercial buildings by 2030, according to a fact-checking analysis by Politifact.

“His message is not radical, it’s moderate,” Fleischer said. “The technology is here. It’s working beautifully. With this pandemic, this is the perfect time to raise this as a solution, for our planet, for our economy, and for jobs that people need.”

Teacher Eric Garner disagrees, calling Biden’s message radical because he thinks it would be costly and disruptive and would put the United States at a disadvantage compared with China – by taking on the expense and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions domestically without being sure China would do the same.

“We need a level playing field,” he said. “Should we spread our clean technology? Yes. It’s the business world that has to lead this. But above all, we need energy independence, and then pull away from things that could be harming the environment.”

Competing crises

Tax auditor Charlie Benz retired to Florida from New York 15 years ago. He said he was never affiliated with a political party until this year; he voted for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and voted for candidates from both parties in 2016.

This year, he said, he will vote Democratic across the board, because he believes “Republicans have lost their way,” focusing on wealth growth while conditions for most Americans worsen.

He blames Republican leaders for allowing the United States to become one of the world’s most COVID-infested developed nations, for increased brutality and violence, for expanding the gap between the rich and the poor, and for stoking enmity between citizens for political gain.

“Climate change was my highest priority until about a year ago. Now, COVID is a higher priority … and health care and nursing home care,” Benz said. Two of his friends, both up in years but in great health, he said, died of COVID-19.  One friend received “atrocious” care in a specialized nursing home, Benz said.

Benz said he still cares about climate change but now sees it as inseparable from health, the economy and infrastructure needs, since converting to clean energy can provide badly needed jobs and people’s wellbeing depends in part on infrastructure, which in its current condition cannot withstand sea-level rise, increasingly severe storms, and extreme heat.

Carbon emissions from deadly wildfires on the Pacific coast are setting records. Credit: NOAA

“It’s right in front of everybody’s eyes. We have to respond to the changes we’re seeing,” he said. “Putting money into climate change and infrastructure will be good for our economy and provide more jobs.”

“This year, at the national level and specifically the state level, Republicans don’t deserve any of my votes,” Benz said. “This state is not going to progress under Republicans.”

Benz, 72, said he believes some of his closest friends are deceived by the president on climate change, COVID science and other important fact-based issues.

“I believe the science, and I’m willing to bear some of the sacrifice to do what science shows us we need to do,” Benz said. “The proof of climate change is in the temperature, making storms more intense, making toxic algae grow where it didn’t grow before. Look at the devastation. … The next big storm could hit you.”

Patriotic and faithful

Like Benz, McVety and Fleischer said their views of climate change are based on their confidence in scientific method, but also are informed by their love of country and their religious faith.

“This is the greatest moral issue mankind has ever faced,” McVety said, citing biblical commands to be good stewards of creation. “Churches must be leaders. They ended slavery, and they led on civil rights. It’s time for the church to meet this challenge.”

Cara Fleischer and other “Christian Climate Observers” attended the 25th international climate conference last year in Madrid.

Fleischer said her church’s Creation Care program examines environment in terms of justice, compassion and stewardship.

“We are called biblically to be good stewards of the Earth, to love our neighbors and to care for people in need,” she said. “We’re motivated by a faithful moral calling. … Climate change disproportionately affects the poor and that is unjust. We’re coming at it from love and faith.”

Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, said environmental voters are as patriotic and moral as any, but that fossil-fuel interests have for decades painted them as dangerous radicals because they challenge American institutions to do better. He said a clean, green economy putting Americans to work in forward-thinking ways would showcase American individualism, ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

“It’s patriotic to support our economy with made-in-America products,” Webber said. “It is patriotic to support our environment and our American home.”

Life on the water

Randy Powell, a charter captain, photographed these dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. He said climate change and pollution are top voting issues for him because he fears for Florida’s sea life.

Randy Powell, 31, of Sarasota, grew up on the water and says he has watched sea life and water quality steadily decline.

“I’m all about the climate and I won’t vote for Trump,” Powell said. “I’ve seen some amazing things — whale sharks, coral reefs — but it’s going down. It’s so sad to see that in my lifetime. It’s an environmental catastrophe, and we’ve definitely caused it.”

Powell, a charter captain, said average heat has increased so much that some days he can hardly bear to be on the water. He blames the excessive heat, sea-level rise, and extreme storms on the oil industry and the politicians who cater to it, blocking conversion to clean sources of energy that would slow and then halt changes in the climate.

Powell was once a Republican, but as he grew older, he quit the party. He said he isn’t keen on Biden — he’s tired of “Stone Age” candidates — but he definitely won’t vote for Trump.

“It’s pretty important to get him out,” Powell said. “He’s not concerned about the environment. He just wants to make money.”