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Florida's warmer temperatures cause damage while its lawmakers downplay climate change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This hour, we're starting in Florida. Climate change is already unleashing havoc on the state. The sea level is rising. The ocean is getting warmer. And hurricanes are getting stronger. But over the years, Florida has gone from a purple state politically to one that's solidly red. And the state's Republicans aren't focused on reducing carbon emissions. So how is a place on the frontlines of climate change embracing a party that puts the issue at the back of the agenda? I took a trip last month to find out. I started in the Florida Keys.

LAD AKINS: So these tanks are full and ready to go out on the next dive trip. So this is a small gauge that we can connect.

RASCOE: That's Lad Akins. He's a researcher, conservationist, and scuba-diving tour guide.

AKINS: Hey, Luke, we're just going to poke out in the bay for a few minutes.

LUKE: All right. Sounds good. So one and two are on their way.

RASCOE: Feels good to be out here. Look at all these beautiful houses. The water's so clear.

Akins has been looking at the coral reef off the Florida Keys for a long time but saw a big change last year.

AKINS: Last year, the water got so hot - like, off the charts. So corals are very complicated organisms. They have algae that lives inside their tissues. And when it gets too hot, they kick that algae out. And it leaves behind the coral tissue without any color. And there were areas of the reef last year when it was so hot that looked completely white.

RASCOE: You know, some people may say, well, I just want to worry about human beings. I don't care about the fish.

AKINS: I want to worry about human beings, too.

RASCOE: Yeah.

AKINS: As a human being myself, I know that we rely on that coral reef for many reasons. I mean, my local economy, my friends and neighbors rely on it, whether they're commercial fishing or whether they're in the tourism business or whether they're in banking. That reef has an impact and effect on all of us.

RASCOE: The destruction of the coral reef is a huge issue, but an even more visible one is the water coming up onshore.

And this is from a small rainstorm. I mean, this puddle - it's at least a few - y'all think 2 inches?

HOLLY RASCHEIN: Yes. And right now, we're at - in one of the lower parts of the islands.

RASCOE: I spent some time walking in Key Largo with Holly Raschein, mayor of Monroe County.

RASCHEIN: Now, if you were to come back in October, November, when we're experiencing extreme high tides, it can be severe.

RASCOE: This is underwater. This is underwater.

RASCHEIN: Yes. And the water will sometimes sit here for what seems like months on end.

RASCOE: She wants to raise the roads in this neighborhood. It's the first item on a long wish list of resiliency projects that will cost $5 billion - a lot of money just for the Florida Keys, especially considering that Raschein is a Republican. She doesn't want to get into how to slow down climate change. As a mayor, she says her focus is on protecting her constituents from the effects of rising temperatures.

You know, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee. He's very noncommittal when it comes to climate change. What do you think of that he is the leader of the Republican Party, and that's his approach when it comes to environmental issues?

RASCHEIN: I'd say, Mr. President, we welcome you to come and tour the Keys. I'll show you firsthand what's going on in my community.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: With the rain coming down pretty hard in some spots already this morning.

RASCOE: While I'm driving around the Florida Keys, I hear this on a Miami radio station.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Water seeping into homes.

RASCOE: Key Largo's gray and cloudy weather was just an appetizer. I was on my way to getting a full taste of the impact of a lot of water on a low-lying city. But first, let's talk about how Florida became so Republican, even as the state became more vulnerable to climate change.

AUBREY JEWETT: Florida was Democratic. The state legislature was Democratic up until the early to mid-1990s.

RASCOE: That's Aubrey Jewett. He's a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

JEWETT: And most of the time, we had Democratic governors through that period, as well.

RASCOE: And even after that, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans. Then over the past three years that flipped. Under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, there are now nearly a million more Republicans than Democrats. A lot of those were newcomers.

JEWETT: So we just had a surge of people, disproportionately Republican, many of them coming because they liked the idea of what DeSantis called the free state of Florida in terms of reopening after COVID.

RASCOE: And Florida Republicans are much less likely to believe humans are causing climate change than Democrats. That's according to a recent poll from Florida Atlantic University. It matters because if you don't believe climate change is man made, you don't believe anything you do will slow it down. And Jewett said, even for voters who do believe in man-made climate change, it's still not a top election issue. I heard this firsthand at a Winn-Dixie grocery store in Key Largo, where I asked local shoppers how they view climate threats.

Do you believe in man-made climate change?

CHRISTINE DALY: Incrementally.

RASCOE: That's Christine Daly (ph). She's a Republican and a school teacher.

DALY: But to say that it can happen in one person's lifetime, I just - I don't - yeah.

RASCOE: What do you think about when it comes to politics? Does it affect at all who you vote for, like in the presidential election?

DALY: Yeah, for me, it does. I mean, this is going to sound brutally honest, but if you really believe in one person's 80-year-old lifetime, you can seriously see climate change, that's just not scientifically there.

RASCOE: So if someone's talking a lot about climate change, you don't...

DALY: I'm - that would turn me off.

RASCOE: Daly is voting for Trump. And to be clear, there is a strong consensus from climate scientists that the Earth is getting hotter much too fast to be part of a natural cycle and that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is largely to blame. We also talked to Pedro Maldonado (ph), who works at the Winn-Dixie.

PEDRO MALDONADO: I don't think that the human being can stop nature. We can help. You know, we can be better, but what's going to happen is going to happen anyway.

RASCOE: And if you don't mind me asking, who do you plan to vote for in the presidential election?

MALDONADO: I can tell you because my guy is having trouble right now.

RASCOE: He's having trouble. Who is he? I mean, that could be anybody.

MALDONADO: Who wants to make America great again?

RASCOE: Oh, that's Trump.

MALDONADO: I want to make my supermarket great again.

RASCOE: Environmentalism has not always been such a partisan issue. The landmark Clean Air and Endangered Species acts were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. But over time, the climate issue became associated with Democrats. Bob Inglis, the founder of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, is one Republican who wants to change that.

BOB INGLIS: This is not all about doom and gloom.

RASCOE: He says most people talk about climate in the language of the left. - fairness, equity. To speak to Republicans, he says you have to speak conservative.

INGLIS: This is about exciting opportunity. We can make a lot of money by serving customers around the world, lighting up the world with more energy, more mobility and more freedom.

RASCOE: In Florida, I was on my way to some doom and gloom.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Miami-Dade Emergency Management's Erika Benitez said the county does have updated infrastructure addressing flooding hot spots in Miami.

RASCOE: We're heading back to Miami. It's raining cats and dogs and more cats and more dogs. It's just pouring. We're not getting no sunshine in the Sunshine State.

While it's unclear how much climate change had to do with the storm, it showed just how susceptible Miami is to flooding. Up to two feet of rain fell in parts of Miami-Dade County that week. The roads became rivers. Some drivers had to be rescued from their cars. The next day, I went to see someone very familiar with the city's weather problems - hair stylist Gustavo Briand (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...(Inaudible) haircut.

GUSTAVO BRIAND: That's my specialty. I was trained by (inaudible).

RASCOE: So a nice bob. Do you do a lot of bobs?

BRIAND: Yeah. Geometrical and all that stuff.

RASCOE: We're standing in what will be Briand's new salon. Workers are finishing it up. He moved from his old place because it constantly flooded. He got tired of working in flip-flops with water up to his ankles, and it was getting worse.

Would they be complaining to you when they came in? Like, oh, my goodness, I got to get my hair done, and I'm in this water, standing water.

BRIAND: They literally - they really - more than me, per se, they were more attached to the precision haircut.

RASCOE: That's dedication.

Florida's Republican leaders have funded resilience projects, but just this spring, they went backwards on limiting emissions. The state's climate policy used to encourage renewable energy. Now it's focused on expanding the natural gas supply. It even prohibits wind turbines near the coast.

Governor DeSantis declined our request for an interview, but a few days after the torrential rain, he held a press conference promising disaster relief, and he defended the new energy policy.

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RON DESANTIS: We need to get the lights back on. We don't want our energy policy driven by climate ideology. When that happens, people pay more, and the energy is less reliable.

RASCOE: My last stop in Florida is to meet Harold Wanless.

HAROLD WANLESS: You've had a wet trip.

RASCOE: Yes, a very wet trip.

He's a professor at the University of Miami and a sea level rise expert. For decades, he's been warning about the future of Florida, a future that now has the 82-year-old considering leaving his beloved home in Coral Gables and moving to higher ground.

WANLESS: We've had over a foot of sea level rise in the last 90 years here.

RASCOE: Nine or 90? Nine?

WANLESS: Ninety.

RASCOE: But people don't seem to be that concerned about it.

WANLESS: Well, unfortunately, there's going to come a time when the water levels are going to rise a foot or two quickly.

RASCOE: What do you think about resilience and this idea...

WANLESS: I think it's a misuse of - a horrible misuse of a word.

RASCOE: OK. So...

WANLESS: Everybody wants - I want to be like, so I can make your life resilient and make your community resilient.

RASCOE: Well, you think Florida is in big trouble?

WANLESS: No, I think the world's in big trouble.

RASCOE: You think the world's in big trouble.

By the time we met with Wanless, the rain had slowed to a damp drizzle. The worst of the storm was over. But Wanless made clear that there will be much more to come, whether the politics catch up or not.

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RASCOE: This piece was produced by Martin Patience and edited by Matthew Schuerman. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.