Could Obama’s Everglades Stop Hurt the Everglades – Politico
President Bill Clinton had just launched an $8 billion effort to save the dying Florida Everglades, the biggest ecosystem restoration project ever. Now he was gabbing in the Oval Office with two Senate aides, gushing about the bill he had signed. “That was great,” he exulted. “The Everglades is great!” But after some happy chitchat about panthers, gators and the politics of the swamp, Clinton got serious. Your generation’s challenge, he told the young staffers, will be global warming.
At the time, it barely registered as a green priority, but the seas were already rising. “If you don’t do something about climate change,” Clinton said, “your Everglades is going to be underwater.”
This Earth Day afternoon, President Barack Obama will visit Everglades National Park to use the iconic wetland as a symbol of the climate threat Clinton first flagged 15 years ago. The Everglades is about as flat and low-lying as a landscape can get; the park has a sign identifying “Rock Reef Pass: Elevation 3 Feet.” The freshwater ecosystem is also surrounded by saltwater seas and estuaries, which scientists believe are rising six to 10 times faster than the average over the past 3,000 years. Obama will argue that climate change threatens not only this unique natural jewel but also South Florida’s lucrative ecotourism industry, as well as underground aquifers that provide drinking water for 7 million people.
Making the Everglades Exhibit A in his case for climate action has obvious political appeal for Obama. He’ll get to frame his controversial carbon rules as the salvation of a widely beloved wetland, while drawing an implicit contrast with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and other Republican presidential candidates who hope to roll them back.
But dragging the Everglades into the partisan battlefield of climate politics could be less advantageous for the Everglades.
For decades, the immense sawgrass marsh has enjoyed motherhood-and-apple-pie status in Florida and Washington, straddling traditional political fault lines on the environment. It was such a bipartisan issue that Governor Bush stood beside Clinton at that Everglades bill-signing in December 2000, on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments in the hyperpartisan Florida case that would decide whether Clinton’s vice president or Bush’s brother would occupy the White House next. It’s not clear how Obama’s effort to turn the Everglades into a global-warming poster child will affect that bipartisan consensus.
“Historically, the Everglades has been an ecumenical issue, bringing together the far left and far right and everyone in between,” said Everglades Foundation executive director Eric Eikenberg, a former Republican congressional staffer. “It’s never been partisan, and it shouldn’t be partisan—that’s the beauty of it.”
Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said the president isn’t visiting Florida to tweak Rubio, who has questioned whether human activities are changing the climate, or Bush, who has tempered his skepticism a bit while continuing to blast Obama’s policies. But Earnest says the president is eager to promote a national debate over climate change—how to prevent it, how to mitigate it, and what it could mean for the economy and public health as well as the environment. The vulnerable Everglades, he said, is ground zero for that debate.
“Those Republicans who deny the reality of climate change do so to the detriment of the people they’re elected to represent,” Earnest said. “The failure to confront that reality is a failure of leadership.”
The fear for some activists is that by hitching the Everglades to the polarizing climate issue, he could end up making Republicans less Everglades-friendly rather than more climate-friendly. It was notable that Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party Republican who has found common ground with Obama on Everglades issues and virtually nothing else, took to Twitter this week to question the president’s commitment to restoration. Obama proposed a $70 million funding increase for the Everglades this year and has repeatedly requested more money than Congress has been willing to provide, but Scott still dinged him for failing to “find a way” to avoid cutbacks. And Earnest quickly fired back, attacking Scott for reportedly barring state officials from using the words “climate change,” suggesting that demonstrated a dubious commitment to the imperiled Everglades—even though Scott has proposed a 20-year, $5 billion funding commitment to restoration.
Climate change was not the problem that the Everglades plan was designed to fix back in 2000. It was supposed to help restore gentle water flows that had been discombobulated by levees, highways and canals, as well as pristine water quality that had been polluted by runoff from sugar fields and suburbs. The progress over the last 15 years has been slow, but at least some dirt has begun to fly in the Obama years. For example, his administration has elevated a mile of a highway to let water flow into the parched national park. And after aides to the two Bush brothers fought bitterly over water quality, the Obama and Scott administrations have forged a groundbreaking deal to get runoff from sugar farms even cleaner than Evian.
But while Everglades restoration wasn’t about climate change, it isn’t happening in a vacuum; scientists are expecting 20 inches of sea-level rise this century, which would cut the elevation of Rock Reef Pass in half. And as Obama is likely to point out Wednesday, a successful replumbing project that restored more natural flows through the Everglades would actually help mitigate the impact of climate change, by recharging aquifers and preventing salt-water intrusion.
In a call with reporters, Earnest emphasized the history of bipartisan support for the Everglades, crediting Jeb Bush for investing in restoration as governor. But he also implied that you can’t care too deeply about the Everglades if you don’t care about climate. And he suggested that if Obama’s embrace of the Everglades as a climate symbol turns Republicans against the swamp, it won’t be Obama’s fault.
“There’s a long and sordid history of Republicans changing their position just because it’s similar to a position taken by the president,” Earnest said. “It’s caused a lot of dysfunction here in Washington. I certainly hope it won’t happen in Florida.”
C.K. Lee, a former staffer for Republican Senator Connie Mack of Florida, was one of the aides in the Oval Office after that Everglades bill-signing in 2000. He still remembers President Clinton waxing eloquent about the then-obscure challenge of climate change. At the time, it seemed like a weird concern on such a happy day.
“I remember thinking: Global warming? Hmm. That’s interesting,” says Lee, who is now an investment banker in Dallas. “And here we are, 15 years later. Now everybody’s talking about it.”