Florida’s climate scientists worry as Trump picks his Cabinet and sea levels rise


The world’s leading global-warming scientists, many of them living and working on the front lines in Florida, are hoping against hope that President-elect Donald Trump and his top advisers will not take the country backward in the fight against rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and looming environmental dangers.

For the experts in Florida, pushing forward in the face of defiant political leadership is nothing new. They’ve spent almost six years forging ahead despite public skepticism from Gov. Rick Scott, a prominent climate-change denier who mobilizes for hurricanes and flooding, but who rejects the science that explains why his state may face fiercer storms and more flooding as a result of global warming.

So strong is Scott’s aversion to climate change, some state employees say, he prohibited them from uttering the term, an allegation he’s denied.

In Miami, Steve Sauls, a former Florida International University lobbyist who now consults with the school on global warming, is overseeing an ambitious initiative called the University City Prosperity Project.

With almost 60,000 students, professors and administrators, FIU is the country’s sixth-largest university. Saul’s project is aimed at enabling them to walk more and drive less through a range of mass transit, infrastructure and other upgrades as they move between the Miami-Dade campus and neighboring Sweetwater, just to its north.

“They’ve been measuring sea level rise in the Florida Keys for 100 years, and they’ve been measuring it in this area at least since 1992, so sea level rise is happening,” Sauls told McClatchy. “There’s no magic wand, but we’re trying to combine science and urban planning so we can participate in multidisciplinary solutions.”

Environmentalists have pilloried Trump for tweeting in November 2012 that the Chinese created “the concept of global warming” to make American manufacturers less competitive.

While the New York billionaire told Fox News on Dec. 11 that he was “open-minded” about climate change, he added “nobody really knows” and said “it’s not something that’s so hard and fast.”

Some of Trump’s Cabinet picks have voiced less ambivalence:

▪ Former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the lead federal department enforcing laws and regulations to limit carbon emissions. Pruitt has initiated or joined 13 lawsuits against the EPA. In May, he and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange published an opinion column in which they said scientists “continue to disagree” about climate change, even though 97 percent of those surveyed agree it’s occurring and is being caused by human activity.

▪ Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s choice to head the Energy Department, has also sued the EPA to block its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. During his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign, Perry accused the agency’s scientists of manipulating data while attacking the “hysteria” over global warming and its “contrived phoniness.”

▪ Trump has tapped Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana to lead the Interior Department, which oversees drilling and mining on public land. Zinke has an ambiguous stance on climate change: In 2008, he called global warming a national security threat and later signed a letter asking President Barack Obama and Congress to pass legislation combating it. But since joining Congress in January 2015, he’s earned a 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. When the Interior Department released a regulation in June placing new limits on coal, oil and natural gas exploration on federal and tribal lands, Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, a fellow Montana Republican, accused the Obama administration of pursuing a “job-killing, anti-energy agenda.”

These choices dismay Dan Weiss, a clean-energy consultant in Washington who has led climate change programs for several major environmental organizations.

“Nominating climate-science deniers to head EPA, Energy and Interior is the same as appointing an arsonist to head the fire department,” he told McClatchy. “South Florida should get used to higher floods than it has today.”

In Florida, experts who’ve studied global warming for years are trying to adopt a less alarmist approach.

Frederick Bloetscher, a civil engineering professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, is a leader of the Florida Climate Institute.

Formed in 2010, the institute has dozens of scientists and other scholars from nine member universities, along with some 400 local politicians, business executives and other community leaders.

“Trump’s all over the place,” Bloetscher said. “Nobody really knows his position on anything. He’s got to play to this rabid anti-science base that he mobilized, but I don’t know what his end game is. Some of his choices are really provoking a lot of objections and protests that may work as a counterbalance.”

Some of the newly minted activists are not accustomed to taking to the streets. Hundreds of scientists attending a San Francisco conference last week held up signs and chanted slogans against harming climate research.

Some scientists and computer experts are going even further. Fearful that Trump’s aides might doctor or even eliminate reams of federal climate data from government websites, they are copying and archiving it at a frantic pace.

Bloetscher hopes that Trump’s business background might nudge him toward seeing the growing profit-making opportunities in pursuing sustainable economic growth.

“Businessmen are not so stupid that they don’t see the potential to make money,” he said. “Some of the oil companies have been trying to accumulate the research and technology that other people are developing for alternative energy. They want to get on board because they see where all this is going.”

Bloetscher thinks that Trump will follow the money.

“If someone comes to him and says they can double what the Koch brothers make if they invest in electric cars and self-driving vehicles and make gasoline obsolete, which will all cause the American economy to grow twice as fast, I don’t think Donald Trump will blink,” he said.

Beyond Trump and his Cabinet members, a problem in forging political pressure to act on global warming is that its impacts vary in different parts of the country.

“Why should people in Indiana or Michigan send taxpayers’ money to help people in Florida deal with sea level rise?” Bloetscher asked. “People in Kansas don’t really care about rising water in Florida because they don’t really understand its impacts. And we (in Florida) don’t really care about what’s happening in Kansas where they have real heat issues from climate change.”

Gary Mitchum, a marine sciences professor at the University of South Florida who also belongs to the Florida Climate Institute, said the different impacts of global warming across the United States make it harder to combat.

“When you’re talking about climate changes, the sea level rise that we face in Florida is only part of the problem,” he said. “There are other problems with rainfall changes and temperature changes. The southwestern part of our country is projected to have super-droughts. Everybody is going to be affected if the change that is projected comes to pass, but different places will be affected in different ways.”

Those differences might explain in part why most Americans don’t appear to be especially concerned about global warming despite the scientists’ dire warnings.

In a Gallup poll earlier this year, people were provided a list of 19 issues and asked which ones were important or very important to them.

Sixteen issues were ranked ahead of climate change. Only 47 percent of those surveyed identified it as a top concern.

Even some Floridians who could suffer future effects of global warming seem indifferent.

Mark Bush, a Florida Institute of Technology biological sciences professor and climate institute member, said Trump overwhelmingly defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Brevard County even though it hugs the Atlantic.

In a county where 43.5 percent of voters are registered Republicans, Trump got 57.2 percent of the vote.

“We went for Trump even though we would be more affected by sea level rise than interior counties,” Bush said. “Even here, climate change is not the most pressing issue in most people’s lives. So long as it’s seen as a prospect where they can kick the can down the road, they don’t have to take it seriously.”

James Rosen: 202-383-6157, @jamesmartinrose