Early in Jeb Bush’s first term as governor of Florida, a group of scientists called a press conference to warn of the consequences of global warming. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events threatened the state’s tourism industry, its citrus and tomato growers, and its coastal cities, the scientists said. Then they called on the governor to respond with an action plan. Bush’s office responded to say that he was otherwise occupied. “At this point, global warming is not the top priority,” a spokesperson told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re trying to get people back to work and balance our budget.”
Fourteen years later, Florida has been declared “uniquely vulnerable” to the rising sea, and Bush is still using the same old line to dodge the climate question. “I don’t think it’s the highest priority,” he said in May, adding, “I don’t think we should ignore it, either.” In trying to fill the moderate slot on the GOP primary ticket, Bush has offered a few inconsistent mouthfuls on climate change, which he acknowledges is happening but not to an extent that has him ready to do anything about it.
In April, Bush surprised climate hawks when he called for the United States “to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions.” A month later, he seemed to have changed his mind. “For the people to say the science is decided on this is really arrogant, to be honest with you,” Bush said. On Tuesday he dismissed the pope’s climate-change encyclical. On Wednesday, during a campaign stop in Iowa, he changed his tone yet again. “I live in Miami, a place where this will have an impact over the long haul. And I think we need to develop a consensus about how to approach this without hollowing out our industrial core, without taking jobs away from people, without creating more hardship for the middle class of this country,” he said. “I believe there are technological solutions for just about everything, and I’m sure there’s one for this as well.”
Bush’s acknowledgement of the need for some kind of solution is striking, alongside the ossified denialism that rules the Republican base. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—the bar has been set laughably low. Given the tiny window the world has in which to radically lower its emissions, Bush’s cavalier faith in some future technological solution is a punt. Scientists expect Miami will be walloped by climate effects not just “over the long haul” but in the immediate future. At this point Bush is not developing a climate plan; he is groping clumsily for a political strategy that will make him look like less of a doofus than candidates who fall back on the old “I’m not a scientist” line. For contrast, remember that when John McCain ran for president in 2008, he was pushing cap-and-trade.
Harold Wanless, who chairs the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, criticizes Bush for being “crudely dismissive” of climate change throughout his career. Wanless was one of the scientists who urged Bush to take action back in 2001, and he’s pushed Florida senator and GOP candidate Marco Rubio on the issue, too. “Whoever leads the country has to take an active role in it. We have to get rid of this partisan silliness,” he said. “It’s going to start to be unbearably difficult for places like Miami-Dade County to exist—and many other places around the country.”
There was one brief and little-noticed period during his time as governor in which Bush directed some attention to climate change, if quietly. In the waning months of Bush’s governorship an environmental consultant named Susan Glickman got a phone call from Colleen Castille, who was then Florida’s environmental secretary. “She said, ‘Governor Bush wants to do a white paper on carbon,’ to which I responded, ‘No shit,’” Glickman recalled in an interview. The paper that the Department of Environmental Protection prepared in late 2006 is far more straightforward about the causes and effects of climate change, as well as plausible responses, than Bush has been since.
“For Florida, a comprehensive climate policy could perhaps be best considered as an exercise in prudent risk management,” it reads. “By virtue of our geography and the relative distribution of our population and development in our coastal areas, Florida is likely to be more adversely affected by global climate change than other interior states.” The report goes on to note that state policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases should be “an act of leadership designed to spur further action at the national and international level.” And it recommended that in the absence of national legislation, Florida lawmakers consider adopting some kind of “carbon pricing” within three to five years “to mitigate against an open-ended federal response.”
Bush never responded to the white paper. Reportedly, it was passed along to his successor, Republican Charlie Crist, who made climate action a centerpiece of his administration. But Glickman, who is now the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says the fact that Bush requested such a report at all demonstrates that he “knows better” than the noncommittal stance he’s adopted as a presidential candidate. “With an issue as important as the climate of our planet, and with as much as Florida has at sake, it’s deeply disturbing that he’d ignore basic science for political purposes,” Glickman said. (Colleen Castille did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Bush’s convoluted position on the climate is echoed by his environmental record more broadly. His strong point as governor, according to the Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone, was his support for a land-acquisition program intended to protect natural resources and animals. Bush has also pointed to his resistance to his brother’s proposal to open parts the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida coast to oil drilling as evidence of his environmental accomplishments, along with Everglade restoration and support for alternative energy. But these “green skeletons” come with an asterisk. Bush ultimately compromised his stance on offshore drilling, and his bid to save the Everglades, however well intentioned, turned into something of a debacle.
On alternative energy, Jeb Bush’s legacy amounted to an effort to diversify the fuel mix in electricity generation, which was heavily reliant on natural gas, according to Glickman. “But his response at the time wasn’t about capturing energy efficiency and bringing renewables on. It was about über-expensive nuclear and coal-fired power plants,” she said. In 2006, Bush signed legislation that allowed utility companies to foist the cost of new nuclear power plants onto customers before the plants were even built—and even if they were never built, as was the case with Duke Energy’s nonexistent Levy County plant, which cost Floridians $1.5 billion. The DEP climate report’s treatment of alternative energy was similarly shallow, as it focused on nuclear power, “advanced coal technology,” and ethanol, while skirting solar and other renewables.
A little more than a year after that white paper came out, Bush told a ballroom full of Dallas business people that he was skeptical that human activity was driving global warming. He described himself as “light green” on the environment—perhaps he meant the same shade as a dollar bill.