Rick Scott now acknowledges climate change, but still won’t do anything about it

January 28, 2021 7:00 am

Columnist Craig Pittman, then a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, resplendent in his seersucker jacket, buttonholes then-Gov. Rick Scott in July 2011. Credit: Atoyia Deans

The first time I met Rick Scott was a few months after he became governor of Florida. Back then, it sometimes seemed his vocabulary consisted entirely of one word: Jobs! He said “jobs” in answer to everything. How’s the weather today? “Jobs!” Do you think the Buccaneers will win Sunday? “Jobs!” What’s 2+2? “Jobs!”

I buttonholed him at a conference and tried to ask him about a proposal by his administration to open our state parks to more profitable yet destructive uses than camping and canoeing and hiking. I thought he’d squawk, “Jobs!” Instead, he changed the subject to ask why I was wearing a seersucker jacket.

I was wearing seersucker because it was summer and hot outside. As for the parks question, I eventually got Scott to answer. He strongly defended what he was doing to ruin the parks. Shortly afterward, a massive crowd showed up at a public hearing and screamed about it, at which point he flip-flopped and announced he was now against the idea.

I bring this up because last week, Scott, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator, weighed in on a subject he spent eight years avoiding: climate change.

Florida, as you may know, is the state most vulnerable to climate change. It’s hot and getting hotter, even at night. We’re getting more rain and more powerful hurricanes. And sea level rise is putting water in some streets and homes for more days every year.

On the day Joe Biden was sworn in as president, one of his first official acts was to sign an executive order saying the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement on combating climate change.

On Twitter, Scott had just congratulated Biden on being inaugurated — but now he snarled his displeasure about Biden’s order.

“POTUS is throwing the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement just to appease his liberal friends,” Scott tweeted. “This deal does nothing to hold real polluters like Communist China accountable & unfairly puts U.S. taxpayers on the hook.”

At least he was finally talking about climate change. That’s more than he did in eight years as Florida’s governor.

The man with no plan

You remember what happened, don’t you? For four years, Florida’s governor had been Charlie Crist, then a Republican, but one who recognized the threat that climate change posed for his native state.

Crist convened a climate change summit in Miami. He issued executive orders that called for cutting power plant emissions, using alternate fuels, and rewriting building codes to require more energy efficiency. He even blocked a coal-fired power plant from being built near the Everglades.

Charlie Crist

But then, in 2010, Crist made the ill-considered decision to run as an independent for a U.S. Senate seat, losing to Marco Rubio.

He was replaced in the Governor’s Mansion by Scott, a Texas native whose prior claim to fame was for taking the Fifth Amendment 75 times. This was during a deposition in a civil suit involving his work with a company that became known for the largest health care fraud in American history. (The suit was not directly related to the fraud, but that investigation was pending during the deposition.)

And just as he didn’t want to talk to lawyers back then, he didn’t want to discuss climate change either, except to say there wasn’t any.

“I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change,” Scott told reporters.

He junked Crist’s initiatives, all in the name of pursuing jobs jobs jobs. Worse, he cut the budget of the state’s environmental regulators who were in charge of clamping down on pollution and repeatedly vetoed funding for the agencies crafting a response to climate change, the regional planning councils.

When he ran for re-election in 2014, his response to climate change questions was to dodge them with a tactic just barely a step up from discussing seersucker.

“I’m not a scientist,” he’d say. Then he’d change the subject to how much money the state was spending on Everglades restoration and scoot for the nearest exit.

Some former state workers said he’d gone so far as to ban the use of the term “climate change,” which Scott denied. In his defense, I have to point out that he never fired the state climatologist or eliminated university programs that studied the subject. Maybe it was easier to ignore it than to punish them for flouting an order.

The truth came out at the end of a 2014 Cabinet meeting, although few noticed. Susan Glickman, the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, shouted out to Scott to ask what his plan was for dealing with climate change. As Scott scooted toward the exit, he blurted out, “No plan.”

Buildings in Surfside, seen through an underwater camera in the ocean, illustrate the danger to Florida from rising oceans due to the climate crisis. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Glickman rounded up a group of climate scientists who signed a letter to Scott offering to lay out the evidence for him. After some political maneuvering, Scott agreed to listen to them for 30 minutes. But he had a plan — a variation on the Seersucker Jacket Stratagem.

“He spent the first 15 minutes on introductions,” Glickman told me this week.

Seated in a circle, the five scientists, accompanied by Glickman, made their case and called for Scott to display leadership on the issue. In response, the Miami Herald reported, Scott “would not comment, question, or commit to whether or not he believes the warnings by the experts deserve his attention.”

Instead, Glickman said, “he jumped up at 27 minutes” and scooted for the exit. He’d run out the clock without being cornered on coming up with a plan.

Later, a Palm Beach television station pressed him for an answer and apparently the reporter was not wearing seersucker, because they got a response. Scott said the state’s emergency management division would handle any flooding problems — period. Nothing on curtailing greenhouse gases or steering new power plants to places away from the coast or raising highways and bridges so they’re not inundated when storms hit.

Change of tune, no change of heart

Scott squeaked back into office for a second term. Thus, for eight years, as storm surges around Florida crept higher and the temperatures rose and more people suffered from heat-related ailments, Scott did absolutely nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada.

Between him and his successor, Ron DeSantis, “we’ve lost a decade for taking dramatic action on climate,” Glickman said.

Some smart aleck (OK, it was me) pointed out in a Tampa Bay Times story the irony in this lack of action: Scott owns a $9.2 million waterfront mansion in Naples. It sits a foot above sea level and about 200 feet from the water, on a stretch of the coast where the water has been rising at the rate of about 8 to 9 inches over the past century.

He’s got a personal stake in fighting sea level rise but apparently would rather let his house fall into the gulf than do something about it.

Now that he’s a senator, Scott has begun to at last acknowledge that climate change exists. For instance, if you search his official website for the term “climate,” you will find this statement: “Climate change is real and requires real solutions.”

To my surprise, his use of those words didn’t set off an earthquake or a tsunami. Perhaps it’s because he said that sentence in a speech in which he was condemning the Green New Deal as a threat to American jobs (there’s that word again!).

Somehow, in his speech, Scott never got around to discussing what he views as “real solutions.” It was a curious omission when addressing our emissions.

He clearly doesn’t like the Paris Agreement, even though it is exactly what its name says: a voluntary agreement among 196 nations to try to bring down their carbon emissions by 2030. Every nation sets its own emissions goals. There’s no penalty for not meeting them. It’s like the Pirate Code in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” — more of a guideline.

In other words, when the senator tweeted that the Paris Agreement “does nothing to hold real polluters like Communist China accountable,” what he didn’t mention was that it doesn’t hold the U.S. accountable for missing the targets, either.

In a subsequent tweet, Scott scoffed at a proposal from newly minted Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen for a carbon tax that charges polluters for their carbon emissions and redistributes the proceeds to Americans. That, too, was a ruinous idea, he said. But once again, while announcing what he was against, he failed to say what he was for — if anything.

“Rick Scott may have changed his tune on climate change, but his actions show he hasn’t had a change of heart,” Glickman said.

Surely that can’t be true, I thought. I asked the senator’s staff to spell out what “real solutions” for climate change he does endorse. Here’s the emailed response I got, in its entirety:

“Senator Scott believes that taking care of the environment and working to create a better economy are objectives that can and must be pursued at the same time. You can’t afford to take care of the environment if you don’t have a strong economy. Getting our economy on track so everyone in this country has the shot at the American dream is Senator Scott’s focus. President Biden’s proposal [sic] liberal agenda would bankrupt this nation and take away the ability to invest in things Americans care about — like the environment.”

Got that? Doing anything to fix our worsening climate is bad for the economy, so we should essentially do exactly what Scott did as governor — nothing.

I don’t know about you, but I have this feeling about Sen. Scott. It’s a strange feeling. It feels like Scott’s repeated avoidance of endorsing any plan to fix climate change means he’s not doing something important. But what is it? Oh yeah, now I remember. His job.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.