EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. — Missing was the usual crowd of supporters behind him and the red-white-and-blue bunting of a typical presidential rally. When President Obama arrived at this federally protected tropical wetlands Wednesday, he took his place at a lectern with only a vast, marshy field as a backdrop.
The goal of the president’s first trip to the Everglades was to highlight the natural environment — and the risks, he said, of ignoring the effects of global warming to places like it.
“You do not have time to deny the effects of climate change,” Obama told an audience of several dozen guests, including a handful of Florida politicians. “Nowhere will it have a bigger impact than here in South Florida. . . . We have to pay closer attention and acknowledge that if we take action now, we can do something about it. We can solve it, if we got some political will.”
Despite the absence of the usual trappings of a presidential visit, the political context was unmistakable: Obama’s climate change-focused trip on Earth Day was aimed at goading Florida Republicans — including Gov. Rick Scott and two presidential contenders, former governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio — to engage him on the issue.
White House advisers think that could be fruitful for the Democrats leading up to the 2016 elections — even if it is unlikely to rejuvenate the president’s climate agenda on Capitol Hill, where GOP opposition has stalled the administration’s legislative efforts.
Obama didn’t mention any Republicans by name — other than former presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, who he credited with establishing the national park system, launching the Environmental Protection Agency and recognizing climate change, respectively.
But Obama mocked the GOP pointedly when he referred to Sen. Jim Inhofe’s stunt in February, when he brought a snowball to the Senate floor to argue that climate change is a hoax.
“Yes, this winter was cold in some parts of the country, including Washington,” Obama said. “Some people in Washington helpfully used a snowball to illustrate that fact. But around the world, in aggregate, it was the warmest winter ever recorded.
“That has serious implications for the way we live right now,” he continued. “Stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons.”
The friction with Republicans was evident by Scott’s refusal to show up at the Miami airport to greet Obama on the tarmac, even though the White House had invited him. A day earlier, Scott had charged that the Obama administration has failed to provide “$58 million in backlog funding” to the Everglades National Park. The administration countered that it has spent $2.2 billion overall on Everglades restoration.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Scott’s administration had sought to clamp down on the ability of state environmental employees to even mention the phrase “climate change” — allegations that Scott’s administration denied.
The sharp dividing line on the issue has already emerged on the campaign trail, with several GOP candidates, including Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), expressing skepticism about the effects of climate change.
In an interview last weekend, Rubio told CBS News: “What I said was that humans are not responsible for climate change in the way that some of these people out there are trying to make us believe for the following reason: I believe the climate is changing because there has never been a moment when the climate is not changing. The question is what percentage of that — or what is due to human activity?”
Spokespeople for Bush and Rubio did not comment for this story.
Obama’s trip to Florida was part of a week of climate-related events at the White House. The president announced a $25 million fund of public and private money to restore and maintain national parks, and he designated a new historical landmark, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas House in Miami, in honor of a conservationist who worked on the Everglades. He also said his administration would grant all fourth-grade students and their families free passes to national parks for a year.
But those initiatives are small-scale. Obama also highlighted a far more ambitious gambit: his pact with China to significantly reduce greenhouse gases by 2025.
“That gives new hope this year that the world will finally reach agreement to prevent the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late,” he said.
Florida, and especially southeast Florida, is a politically textured state where the climate-change issue has been growing in salience. That’s evidenced by a move by the counties of highly populous (and politically diverse) southeast Florida — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe — to form the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to coordinate their efforts on matters such as staving off the threat of sea-level rise.
A recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 56 percent of Floridians think that global warming is at least partly caused by human activities, versus only 42 percent who think it is “not happening/natural.”
That makes the state fertile ground for Obama to highlight costly climate risks, such threats to tourism dollars and water supplies.
Before his remarks, Obama took a walking tour of the area, and a park ranger pointed out an alligator to him. He also sat down for an interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy, a popular television host who defends the science of climate change.
As he made his case, Obama hedged only briefing in his embrace of Mother Nature.
“South Florida is the only place in the world where you can find both alligators and crocodiles in the same habitat,” he said, pausing for a moment before adding: “I’m told this is a good thing.”