As Biden pledges climate change action, Florida activists want more while GOP digs in

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Alex Daugherty
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Miami’s Republicans — who represent some of the country’s most vulnerable communities threatened by sea level rise and climate change — are more antagonistic than ever toward climate change legislation after President Joe Biden re-entered the Paris Climate Agreement on day one of his presidency.

Hoping to build on former President Donald Trump’s rise in popularity in Miami-Dade County in the 2020 election — despite his loss nationally — South Florida Republicans are digging in to fight further climate action, even as Miami-area environmental groups see opportunities for more gains.

Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director of a Florida-based climate action advocacy group called the CLEO Institute, sent a letter to each of Florida’s 27 U.S. House members and two senators a few minutes after the executive order was signed urging them to push for stricter pollution goals than those contained in the Paris accord.

Bold action is necessary, Arditi-Rocha said, because the cost of flooded roads and abandoning homes is higher than the cost of cutting pollution.

“If we don’t do anything to reverse this, it’s going to cost us billions in the next few decades,” she said. “The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of reducing pollution.”

Biden’s swift move to rejoin the mostly symbolic Paris agreement is the first step in a climate plan to push for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Groups like Arditi-Rocha’s want Biden to aim for an even more ambitious goal — a 50% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030.

The fight on climate change policy is one of many in Washington where Biden has vowed to work with Republicans, but both sides’ preferred policy outcomes are far apart from each other. The COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s looming impeachment trial and confirming Biden’s Cabinet are consuming the House and Senate, meaning any kind of sweeping climate change legislation will likely have to wait, even though Democrats control Congress and the White House.

In Miami, Republicans like former Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were known for speaking out on climate change. But in 2021 only Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar says she supports Biden’s decision to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement. Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is opposed. And Rep. Carlos Gimenez once supported a Miami-Dade County resolution endorsing the Paris Climate Agreement, when he was the county’s mayor, but said during his campaign for Congress that “we should reenter something that doesn’t put us at a disadvantage.”

“Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement does little to help the environment, and only weakens the U.S. while enabling and strengthening China,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

Gimenez, who didn’t respond to questions on climate policy, said in 2017 as mayor that sea level rise is “a very serious concern” and said during his campaign that he supports infrastructure investments in clean energy. But he’s also faced criticism from environmentalists who said he didn’t do enough as mayor to lessen pollution or stop dirty storm water runoff from killing fish in Biscayne Bay.

None of South Florida’s Republicans offered alternative ideas to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement or provided ideas on climate change-related legislation that could garner Republican votes in Congress.

But the CLEO Institute is among local groups pushing Biden to pursue an aggressive plan to cut down on climate pollution.

Arditi-Rocha’s organization, along with many others, is calling on the Biden administration to commit to at least a 50% reduction in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, a more ambitious goal than President Barack Obama set in 2016. If the world is able to achieve that, scientists believe there’s a chance that the planet can aim for only 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century and be spared some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Arditi-Rocha said that goal also lines up with Biden’s campaign promise to get the nation to net-zero emissions by 2050, a pledge countries such as China, South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom have made.

“We as Floridians have a lot to lose with regards to the climate crisis. For us, [Biden’s climate plan] is a beacon of hope,” she said. “It means that we actually get to take the leadership of a new clean energy economy that’s not only going to stabilize our climate, it’s going to improve our air quality and create thousands and thousands of jobs.”

But both of Florida’s senators, Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, have opposed the Paris accord and Biden’s climate plan, arguing that India and China are mostly to blame for rising carbon emissions, and that the U.S. shouldn’t put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

“President Biden is throwing the U.S. back into the Paris agreement just to appease his liberal friends,” Scott said in a statement. ”This deal does nothing to hold real polluters, like Communist China and India, accountable and it unfairly puts American taxpayers on the hook. It was bad for America when Obama signed it and it’s still bad now.”

Trump showed little appetite for pursuing climate change legislation while in office and his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement took effect on Nov. 4, a day after the 2020 election.

The politics of climate change have been increasingly defined by the Green New Deal, a sweeping set of policy proposals seeking to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and to require the U.S. use 100% renewable energy sources. Scott brought up the plan on Thursday while he questioned Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s transportation secretary nominee, at his confirmation hearing.

Scott argued that the Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion, an astronomical figure frequently cited by Trump that appears to have originated from a former Rubio staffer’s tweet and not one of the Democrats pushing the proposal.

“The president won our primary and the election and that’ll be the vision that goes forward,” Buttigieg said in response.

Republicans with aspirations for higher office, Rubio and Scott included, have frequently campaigned against the Paris Climate Agreement, a pact signed by 195 countries in 2015 to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are partially responsible for climate change.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Rubio opposed the agreement.

In the last two years, as the Green New Deal garnered most of the attention on Capitol Hill, Republicans have railed against the proposed legislation while left-leaning environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement have protested Democrats who are perceived as not being enthusiastic enough about the proposal.

Two sitting South Florida Democrats in Congress, Reps. Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson, cosponsored the House version of the Green New Deal. Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was beaten by Gimenez in November, was also a cosponsor and was attacked by Gimenez for her support of the proposal.

More middle-of-the-road climate change efforts like a carbon fee bill proposed by South Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch have stalled, and fewer Republicans than at the beginning of Trump’s term are backing bills to tax carbon emissions. Deutch’s carbon fee bill in the most recent Congress garnered just one Republican co-sponsor, Florida Rep. Francis Rooney, who is no longer in office.

Curbelo, though he’s no longer in office, has continued to argue that there’s enough middle ground to pass legislation. He wrote a letter to Biden on Wednesday saying he believes there ares enough Republicans willing to work on climate-related legislation to pass something with bipartisan support.

“I assure you there are Republicans in Congress who will listen and who understand the significance and seriousness of this matter,” Curbelo wrote. “While it might be tempting for some to continue weaponizing this issue for political gain, regrettably there is no time for such games.”

Biden has acknowledged that he’ll need Congress to make major progress on fighting climate change. The Paris Agreement is a mostly symbolic pact that doesn’t penalize countries who fail to meet their emission reduction targets, allowing countries like China to continue polluting.

“We’re going to combat climate change in a way we have not before,” Biden said just before he signed the executive order, plus another to cancel construction on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “They are just executive actions. They are important but we’re going to need legislation for a lot of the things we’re going to do.”

Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris contributed to this report.