As flooding from rising sea levels becomes a political issue in several southeastern states, a rift has emerged among Republican politicians over whether to acknowledge the reality that climate change is a driving factor.
Ed Gillespie, Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor, released a plan in August to address sea-level rise for Virginia’s Hampton Roads area that omitted any mention of climate change, global warming, or greenhouse gases.
Gillespie’s seven-page plan leans heavily on facts and figures from studies which credit the rising sea levels in Hampton Roads to climate change. One study cited in Gillespie’s plan, from the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary Law School, notes that “the combination of global climate change and relatively significant land subsidence in the region have already contributed to the highest rates of relative sea level rise along the U.S. East Coast.”
Gillespie’s plan cites another study from the Union of Concerned Scientists detailing the growing vulnerability of Virginia’s military bases, accurately calling “sea level rise, increased tidal flooding, and heightened storm surges” “climate-driven trends.”
Other statewide Republicans in the region have gone even further in their effort to avoid the taboo “climate” phrase. In Florida, the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, another Republican, reportedly attempted to ban state officials from even uttering the words “climate change” or using them in state documents in 2011. (The Scott Administration denied those claims, which multiple Department of Environmental Protection officials confirmed.) Scott said that he was “not a scientist” when asked his views on climate change in 2014, and continued that approach even after Irma’s flooding: “Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is,” Scott said after the storm.
Storm surge is exacerbated by rising sea levels. Scientists project that hurricane intensity and precipitation levels will increase in a warmer climate.
Local Republicans in flood-prone areas embrace climate science
Unlike Gillespie or Scott, local Republican officials who represent communities that are increasingly plagued by sea level rise and flooding have been ready to invoke climate change science, with some of them breaking party orthodoxy to propose solutions.
Miami’s Republican mayor, Tomás Regalado, pushed back against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s assertion that it would be “disrespectful” to discuss climate change in Irma’s wake.
“This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change,” Regalado, said. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents Miami, said that climate change’s role in contributing to sea level rise was “not a tricky question.”
“That’s science. That’s provable. There’s no doubt about it … All South Florida needs to get wise where we rebuild and wise when it comes to dealing with the reality of climate change.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, another South Florida Republican, said climate change should be part of the post-storm discussion. “It’s certainly not irresponsible to highlight how this storm was probably fueled — in part — by conditions that were caused by human-induced climate change.”
And in Gillespie’s home state of Virginia, a Republican state delegate that represents Virginia Beach, Ron Villanueva, has three times attempted to introduce legislation to force utilities to pay for their carbon pollution, and to use the funds to adapt to sea level rise and recurrent flooding on Virginia’s coast. The efforts failed.
Heavy support from Kochs, fossil fuel funders tie Gillespie’s hands
Even if Gillespie wanted to acknowledge that climate change is driving sea level rise, he may be hamstrung by his campaign donors, many of whom have deep ties not only to the fossil fuel industry, but also to companies and organizations that have funded pervasive efforts to deny the reality of climate change.
Gillespie has collected $147,900 from the coal industry, $120,550 from the oil industry, $25,250 from the natural gas industry, and $35,875 from electric utilities during his campaign for governor, according to campaign finance records collected by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). Those numbers were true as of September 15. VPAP is still analyzing new disclosures from the campaigns submitted that day, but Gillespie has received at least an additional $10,000 from the Committee for Effective Government Virginia Natural Gas and another $10,000 from the US Marcellus Gas Infrastructure, which gave the same amount to Gillespie’s opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam.
Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s trade association, gave $35,000 to Gillespie.
Gillespie received $60,000 from retired coal executive Marvin W. Gilliam, and $85,000 from Bruce C. Gottwald, a former executive of a petroleum additives company.
Virginia Monopoly utility Dominion has made a corporate donation to Gillespie of $27,500, with employees having given $6,875 more and two board members having given an additional $15,000. Koch Industries made a $10,000 donation.
A much larger donation from the Kochs has come in the form of their political arm, Americans For Prosperity, which has played a central role in pressuring politicians toward inaction on climate change, and has provided a consistent platform for climate denial.
AFP said this month that it would spend $1 to $2 million in a “first round” of ads attacking Gillespie’s opponent, Ralph Northam, with more to come.
Gillespie also disclosed that as a lobbyist, he represented the Institute for Energy Research (IER) in 2016. IER has also received significant funding from fossil fuel interests, including API and the Koch Brothers, and has cast doubt on climate science and the effects of climate change.
The Democrat in the race, Ralph Northam, has also received significant funding from Dominion Energy, but his campaign accepts the reality of climate change and says he will reduce carbon pollution.
Gillespie and Northam will debate in Hampton Roads tonight.