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.