By Jenny Staletovich and Patricia Mazzei, Miami Herald (TNS)
MIAMI — In his first ever visit to Florida’s Everglades on Wednesday — Earth Day — President Barack Obama hopes to connect climate change impacts already unfolding in the imperiled wetland to wider risks across the nation.
Obama plans to tour the Everglades, as long as it doesn’t rain, and make a speech about the importance of protecting the environment — not just for the planet’s sake, but also to boost the economy, protect national security, and guard public health.
The president will 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, Florida, 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. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and, to a lesser extent, former Governor 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. Florida Republican Governor 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 one 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, Florida, 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 provide 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.”
Photo: Eric Salard via Flickr