Sen. Marco Rubio, GOP’s choice for State of the Union response, doubts climate change

03/22/2013 3:48 PM

03/22/2013 3:48 PM

Sen. Marco Rubio will offer up the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address next week, demonstrating the younger, more diverse face of the party as the nation confronts such issues as immigration.

But Rubio doesn’t think much of climate change, one of the other hot political topics of the moment. That puts the 41-year-old Rubio squarely in the anti-science wing of his party and among a shrinking number of Americans with doubts about global warming.

The Florida senator this week in an interview questioned whether “man-made activity” is contributing most to global warming, and he suggested there’s reasonable debate on whether there’s “significant scientific consensus” on the human role. He also questioned whether there’s anything the government can do to make a difference.

“When you look at the cost-benefit analysis that’s being proposed, if you did all these things they’re talking about, what impact would it really have on these changes that we’re outlining?” Rubio said during the interview with BuzzFeed. “On the other hand, I can tell you the impact it would have on certain industries and on our economy, and that’s where it falls apart.”

The Sierra Club in Florida issued a statement that oozed with incredulity. In recent years, extreme weather has “seriously damaged Florida’s infrastructure,” said Frank Jackalone, the staff director of Sierra Club Florida.

Already, local governments are developing regional plans to deal with rising seas, which are projected to make problems much worse along the Florida coastline. Studies show that Florida faces some dire consequences even with modest sea level rises. They include saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies, damage to infrastructure such as roads and sewer lines, and flooding that could force people to abandon beachfront property. Some studies show sea levels rising as much as six and a half feet over the next century, said Harold Wanless, chairman of the geology department at the University of Miami.

“We cannot afford to sit idly while the threat of climate change becomes a dangerous reality,” Jackalone said. “By denying the climate crisis and rejecting climate action, Marco Rubio’s got his head buried in the sand – and that’s a bad place to be when the seas are rising."

A spokesman for Rubio, Alex Conant, said, “Sen. Rubio doesn’t think that big government can control the weather. But big government can hurt Florida’s economy and destroy jobs.”

There’s no doubt that fiscal matters, immigration and gun control are expected to take precedence in the coming months. Yet Obama almost certainly will address climate change in his State of the Union speech. Obama said last month in his inaugural address that Americans have a moral obligation to address the consequences of global warming, and he’s expected to offer more details Tuesday night.

Already, federal agencies are beginning to issue climate adaptation plans that outline what can be done to limit exposure of federal programs, assets and investments to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise or more frequent or severe extreme weather. The Environmental Protection Agency warned in its preliminary adaptation plan that until now, the agency “has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate.”

“However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future.”

Rubio’s remarks were especially troubling to climate scientists, including Wanless of the University of Miami. Wanless has spoken to Rubio about climate change before, and he’s issued an open invitation to the senator to learn more about the topic from top scientists in the field.

The university has been sponsoring free seminars to teach people more about global warming, and how to be effective communicators about the risks and consequences to the state from climate change. Wanless suggested that Rubio, who as a state lawmaker was receptive to a plan to limit carbon emissions, could attend one such meeting.

Wanless said it’s “flagrantly irresponsible” for Rubio, who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to ignore the issue, particularly in Florida.

“We have so much to lose that it’s his absolute obligation to become extremely well informed by the top scientists,” he said.

Rubio’s views are increasingly unpopular nationally, polls are showing. Some 54 percent of Americans believe climate change is primarily the result of human activity, according to a Duke University poll released this week. The poll found that 64 percent favor some sort of restriction on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cars and factories. Paid for by Duke’s Climate Policy Working Group, it surveyed 1,089 respondents. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

It was the first to poll public opinion on global warming after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the New York and New Jersey coastlines last year, said Sarah Adair, co-author of the survey and an associate in research at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The poll shows a marked shift from 2010, when public interest in global warming waned. Researchers suspect that widespread media reports tying climate change and extreme weather together have had an effect on public opinion. Obama’s mention of it during his inaugural address also may have had an effect.

“We can’t attribute it to any one thing, but one of the things we do point out is that the coverage of Hurricane Sandy has linked the storm to climate change,” she said. “That’s a message folks have seen over the past few months.”

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