Obama in the Everglades

It makes sense for President Barack Obama to be in the Everglades on Earth Day. According to the White House, he will draw attention to both the Everglades and the massive economic consequences of global warming and climate change.

Obama is likely to echo what a former Friends of the Everglades director said over a decade ago: “The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to save the planet.”

The difference between the time the phrase was first spoken and today is significant.

More than 20 years ago, Everglades restoration was gaining traction as a federal and state priority after years of lawsuits and defensive blocking by Big Sugar, the chief obstructionist in Everglades restoration.

In the early 1990s, at the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition, a booth featured global warming and the Everglades. Everglades activists skipped past the informational display because it was considered a distraction.

Global warming impacts are no longer abstract in the Everglades or anywhere else. Science filled in the gaps. So has direct observation.

Coastal barriers are eroding under pressure of rising seas. Extreme weather events – whether drought or flood – are defining a new norm. Everglades restoration – once favored by environmentalists mainly for reasons of ecology and Everglades wilderness – now meshes with economic imperative.

Everglades restoration is the best adaptation for millions in South Florida for several reasons: first, as salt water presses in from both coasts because of rising seas, the pressure created by massive volumes of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee through the center of the state can protect industrial drinking water wells serving cities. Some of those wells, near the Atlantic coast, have already been abandoned because of salt water intrusion. Second, if South Florida’s highly managed water system can meet clean water standards required by law, Everglades wildlife and wilderness will benefit and so will our economies.

The GOP, however, is diametrically opposed to this interpretation of economic imperative. Climate change denial is hard-wired into the GOP code.

In various forums and turns of phrase, Florida Republicans are now trying to squirm out of the box Gov. Rick Scott put them in, through a policy prohibiting state agency staffers from even uttering the words, “climate change.” The message machinery is now turned to saying “the weather always changes” but especially that while there is no harm in talking about “climate change,” there is harm in talking about its man-made origins. The reason is simple: if Republicans acknowledge that climate change is man-made, then it follows that solutions are man-made too. Using government policies to solve human-induced climate change is anathema to Republicans because it involves sharply regulating and changing the business models of its largest campaign contributors.

Democrats have been deriding the GOP’s years of climate change denial, but in Florida, Obama should not shy from making the case that Democrats have also been complicit by avoiding conflict with powerful, wealthy special interests that are holding hostage climate change adaptation.

Here are two examples. The Florida Legislature and Scott are defying the will of the people by failing to purchase significant additional acreage required for water treatment and storage that could both help cleanse pollution wrecking coastal real estate values and the Everglades and also provide a way to assure adequate drinking water supplies in a time of climate change.

The property in question belongs to US Sugar, one of the biggest campaign contributors in the state even if you don’t count its all-expense paid hunting trips by private jet for GOP officials to the King Ranch in Texas. In 2010 the corporation agreed to sell all its 130,000 plus acres to the public but now is walking away from a compromise deal for only 46,800 acres.

Second example: $24 billion in new nuclear reactors is being planned by Florida Power and Light, the biggest subsidiary of NextEra Energy, at sea level. Paradoxically, new nuclear is a big piece of the climate change puzzle. Only the piece doesn’t fit in a region likely to be inundated at severe cost to the FPL ratepayer base. What about solar in the Sunshine State? This year, the Legislature and Scott are in the process of making it much harder, not easier, for consumers to install solar energy. Why? Because solar disrupts the electric utilities’ economic model.

Obama, on Wednesday, should make the point that the Legislature and Scott are jamming the last, best chance we have for the Everglades and climate change adaptation by refusing to exercise the option for US Sugar lands. That purchase could begin the process of land acquisition Florida voters endorsed through a 75 percent majority vote for Amendment 1 last November, to protect our environment and our economy.

What Obama could say, is that the shadow hanging over the Everglades and the sustainability of the planet is the failure of political will. He could quote Sir Nicolas Stern, the British economist, who called global warming, “the biggest market failure in history.” He could go so far as to describe climate change and global warming as the UK Guardian recently did: “the biggest story in the history of the world” and why, indeed, shouldn’t we put solar panels on every roof in Florida?

Being a hope and change president, Obama is likely to focus on the positive. He will emphasize how Everglades restoration meshes with climate change adaptation and thank the activists and citizens who have spent so many years in such difficult circumstances. In other words: talking about the Everglades as an example of what can be accomplished.

But if he really wants to seize the bully pulpit, he shouldn’t gloss over the fact that protecting our air and water and special places like the Everglades requires redoubled efforts by government, not caving-in to special interests. If you only take half-steps to your destination, the definition of political expediency, you will never accomplish what you started out to do.

At this point in his remarks, Obama would be all-in. He could then emphasize how campaign finance law in the United States today fundamentally blocks efforts to combat climate change.

On Earth Day, he could use the Everglades as an example and call on political candidates to “take the no money from Big Sugar pledge” because sugar, truly, is the new tobacco. If you are going to stir the pot, Mr. President, that would be a very good place to start.

Alan Farago writes the daily blog, Eye On Miami, under the pen name, Gimleteye. He is president of Friends of the Everglades, a grass roots conservation organization based in Miami, FL. A long-time writer and advocate for Florida’s environment, his work is archived at alanfarago.wordpress.com Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net