Climate Change Gets Real

Among the world's many pressing issues, climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to long-term peace and prosperity. And yet even as the storm gathers, Congress dithers, mulls, debates, and fails to act. Though the message of danger is gaining momentum and rings loudly, the record of action is muted.

It is not because people are unaware of the problem. This September 400,000 people gathered in New York and marched through the streets, demanding action. The UN General Assembly pulled world leaders and global icons together for one of the most high profile climate summits in history. And this week, in my own community of South Florida, local officials, business leaders, scientists and educators came together under the leadership of a local group, Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, to continue discussions and implementation of a regional plan of action.

In the United States alone, we have seen a 5 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. We have seen seven of the top 10 warmest years on record since 1998, with average temperature rising across 48 of our 50 states. Nine of the top 10 years for extreme precipitation events have been among the last 25, and yet, between 2010 and 2013, 20 to 70 percent of the country was experiencing drought at any given time. Studies commissioned by the EPA show that our near shore waters are now storing substantially more heat, seeing higher surface temperatures, are far more acidic, and are rising at about an inch per decade.

It has become a sort of tradition at this point in articles about climate change to assert that there is widespread scientific consensus that the earth is warming, that man-made carbon pollution is the cause of this warming, and that to say otherwise is silly. I make that assertion now. The reason why this disclaimer must be issued is that there is a small but powerful faction that has for years sought to block and delay action by sowing confusion about the reality and sources of climate change. More on them in a bit.

I represent South Miami and the Florida Keys, including the unique and treasured Everglades, in Congress. It is a beautiful district. I spend my days working on the issues people are concerned about: jobs, immigration, education, etc. But increasingly my staff and I work on trying to resolve the real problems caused by rising sea levels and salt water intrusion. Seawater threatens wastewater treatment plants, high tides and rain storms are threaten to overwhelm drainage systems, high temperatures and flooding are harming crops and wildlife, and disaster insurance premium hikes are undermining local economies.

South Floridians are stepping up to the challenge of climate change because we have no choice: It is literally at our doorstep. For us, this is not just a debate, it is a new realty we are obligated to deal with. I have taken countless votes to ensure the EPA has the funding and legal ability to research and mitigate the effects of Climate Change.

South Floridians are developing a game plan for the future. It takes organizing and smart, forward-thinking policies from a grassroots level. It takes local data-collection, policy analysis, collaboration among the private and public sectors and coordination among various levels of government.

We cannot solve climate change if we do not involve the entire community. Earlier this year I held a roundtable discussion with many local leaders: Businessmen, citizens, realtors, growers, scientists, environmentalists and educators alike are critical. It was a discussion where we planned for our new future -- one that doesn't leave anyone behind. It is how we get things done: Instead of competing interests seeking their most favored outcome, everyone worked to produce the best outcome for all.

In spite of all the work by people of good will, it remains true that we are not doing enough. We need to take bold action and work together. We've got to reduce fossil fuel use to get ahead of this problem. But the concrete, global, and definitive action needed to stave off this threat remains mired in politics and encumbered by greed. Why?

Well, let me tell you my story. I am running for reelection in one of the most competitive races in the nation. My district is evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. The voters in my district are not particularly partisan, and not given to extreme views on either end of the political spectrum. They mostly just want their public officials to do a good job serving them.
They also believe in climate change. My campaign's own polling indicates that though this is an evenly split district there is strong support for a carbon tax among all political persuasions.

One reason my race is close is because of outside interests, and the special interest with the deepest pockets are the Koch brothers.

The Koch brothers are well-known at this point among a certain set. They are either wing nuts or freedom lovers, depending on your party affiliation, but one thing is very much agreed upon: They made their family fortune in the petroleum and coal business, and they aren't much impressed with climate science. They are, in short, the richest, busiest climate deniers on this warming planet. Cleverly, their politics line up very nicely with their corporate bottom line.

Using the loophole created by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision, the Koch brothers began running ads against me in March, a full eight months before Election Day, and those ads have continued basically without break to this day. By the end they will have spent millions in my district alone. These ads have been uniformly, unrelentingly, and demoralizingly negative.

These ads also make no mention of climate change. They talk about Obamacare, make many unfounded statements against me, and even feature actors telling made-up stories. But they don't mention climate change. After all, the Koch brothers aren't stupid. Even my opponent doesn't deny that climate change is happening.

Here is the catch: My opponent is relying almost completely on outside spending by the Koch brothers and others to bolster his campaign. Outside spending constitutes an astounding 85 percent of the expenditures on ads on the Republican side in my race. That's right: 85 percent of my opponent's spending on ads comes from outside groups. The grand total is over $5.5 million.
I'm not running for Congress against another human being; I am running against a corporate entity. (I know the Supreme Court says corporations are people, but we all know better.)

The Kochs are buying Congress, and trying to buy opponent. They aren't fools: They don't make investments that won't pay. This explains how, in the face of scientific consensus and broad public acceptance, some in Congress remain mysteriously skeptical about climate change and its causes.

So, to sum up: As a congressman in South Florida, I work every day to deal with the reality of rising sea levels, even while being assaulted on TV by the very forces whose policies cause sea level rise, and whose ads back an opponent who claims to support the very science they deny, all of them being careful to never say that any of this has anything to do with climate change, because that would be bad politics, all the while knowing how the votes will go once they win the election.

No wonder voters curse us all.

I am optimistic, though. I love South Florida, I love its beauty and know well the strength of its people. I believe that the great work being done around the world by folks like the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact will eventually prevail, even in the face of outside big corporate donors. The changes needed to meet the challenge of climate change are great, so it is natural that there is resistance. But Koch money be damned: There is no force greater in this world than the rising sea, unless it is the human spirit.