Obama arrives at Everglades National Park, plans to highlight climate change … – Miami Herald

President Barack Obama arrived at Everglades National Park on an overcast and muggy Wednesday to deliver an Earth Day speech intended to connect climate change impacts already unfolding in the imperiled wetlands of South Florida to wider risks across the nation.

The threat of rain derailed Obama’s plans to tour the Everglades marsh earlier in the day but his Marine One helicopter set down at 1:42 p.m. outside the Daniel Beard Research Center, which houses many of the park’s scientists.

In addition to making an economic, public health and national security case for confronting the risks of rising seas, the president was expected to tout his administration’s record on tackling environmental problems, including imposing a historic cap on carbon pollution and spending $2.2 billion on Everglades restoration projects. He further plans to unveil new ways to assess the value of the country’s national parks, including a study that shows protected wild lands play a major role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Visitors to parks also poured $15.7 billion into surrounding communities, the administration said.

Obama will also reveal new conservation efforts in four areas of the country, including Southwest Florida. And in a move some say is long overdue, the National Park Service will designate as a national historic landmark the Marjory Stoneman Douglas house in Coconut Grove, which several years ago sparked a contentious fight between preservationists and neighbors. The pioneering preservationist is largely credited with sparking Everglades restoration.

In addition to highlighting his environmental record, Obama’s trip is intended to pressure Republicans into a more robust climate-change debate. Voters will elect Obama’s successor in 18 months, and the GOP field so far is teeming with would-be candidates who question whether climate change is man-made, despite significant scientific scholarship concluding that it is largely a result of carbon emissions.

Among those skeptics are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and, to a lesser extent, former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Miami. While Obama is not expected to single out any presidential contender, a trip to Bush’s and Rubio’s backyard will hardly go unnoticed in the early days of the 2016 campaign.

“This is not an effort necessarily to go to anybody’s home state,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. “This is an effort to raise this debate, and the truth is those Republicans that choose to deny the reality of climate change, they do that to the detriment of the people that they’re elected to represent.”

Presidential candidates won’t be the only target. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has come under fire for avoiding the term “climate change.” The governor has denied such a mandate exists.

Scott on Tuesday called on the federal government to speed up funding to Everglades restoration, which the White House admits has been slow from the outset, before Obama took office. The state has invested $1.9 billion in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, nearly a billion more than the feds.

“President Obama needs to live up to his commitment on the Everglades and find a way to fund the $58 million in backlog funding Everglades National Park hasn’t received from the federal government,” Scott said in a statement. “This has caused critical maintenance delays in the Everglades to linger for over a year.”

Earnest suggested Scott make the funding request to the GOP-controlled Congress — and referred to the governor’s criticism as “a little rich” given the Scott administration’s aversion to the term “climate change.”

The White House invited Scott, per protocol, to greet Obama at Miami International Airport when Air Force One lands around 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon — but Scott won’t be there, the governor’s office said. Scott did meet the president on the tarmac when he last visited in February, to tape a television interview on immigration reform. (Obama will travel Wednesday with Bill Nye, of TV’s “the science guy” fame.)

Obama’s visit comes at a critical time for Everglades restoration, which has dragged on for nearly 15 years.

Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved a land conservation amendment to buy land for restoration projects, yet state lawmakers have balked at using the money to buy about 46,000 acres on a deal that expires in the fall.

Restoration work is also becoming more critical as impacts from rising seas begin taking a toll on the wetlands. This week, scores of scientists meeting in Broward County revealed new research that showed even more dramatic changes in store under climate change projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that predicts increases in temperature, sea level and ocean salinity.

Protective mangrove coasts could disappear, studies found, and soils collapse under increasingly salty conditions, allowing Florida Bay to grow and the Everglades to shrink. The wetlands, which provides much of South Florida’s freshwater, are already half their original size.

“We’re at this key moment where there’s crucial public recognition,” said Florida International University ecologist Evelyn Gaiser, who has been invited to meet with Obama after his speech. “The exposure in South Florida is an opportunity to provide a global model.”

As part of the day’s events, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, on Wednesday morning will meet fourth graders from Dante B. Fascell Elementary School on the Anhinga Trail, near the Everglades’ Homestead entrance, as part of the park’s Earth Day celebration. The trail, Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and park headquarters will close all day to the public, and a portion of the park’s main road will close beginning at 2 p.m.

The president’s speech, scheduled for 3:55 p.m., will be streamed online at www.whitehouse.gov/live.