The Environmental Issue Republicans Can’t Ignore

Red-state governors are focusing on water issues—which could be a bridge to climate change.

Green algae blooms on the Caloosahatchee River on July 10, 2018
Green algae blooms on the Caloosahatchee River on July 10, 2018 (Joe Raedle / Getty)

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared on his inauguration day that water is “part and parcel of Florida’s DNA,” and vowed to fight the pollution and toxic algae that choked the state’s beaches and fresh waters last summer, his critics rolled their eyes to the Tallahassee heavens above. DeSantis had a poor environmental voting record in Congress. He’d helped found the House Freedom Caucus, which urged President Donald Trump to eliminate the Clean Water Rule and dozens of other environmental safeguards.

But two days later, the critics looked to those same heavens in wonder. Florida’s new governor began his tenure with one of the furthest-reaching environmental orders in state history, calling for a record $2.5 billion for Everglades restoration, a harmful-algae task force, a chief science officer, and an office of resilience and coastal protection to fund and coordinate Florida’s response to rising seas. Under the headline “Florida’s Green Governor,” the state’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, declared that DeSantis “has done more to protect the environment and tackle climate change in one week than his predecessor did in eight years.”

DeSantis’s actions reflect a broader effort by some red-state governors to confront the unifying issue of water, even though they remain quiet, if not completely silent, on the larger crisis of a warming world.

Concern about climate change has surged to record levels over the past year. Yet anti-science operatives funded by the fossil-fuel industry still relentlessly spread misinformation; the recent video “Why Climate Change Is Fake News” has drawn 10 million views on Facebook. And as his administration systematically rolls back environmental regulations, Trump seems to like stoking distrust of the scientific establishment. It is no surprise, then, that political affiliation continues to shape belief: 86 percent of Democrats believe the climate is changing, compared with 52 percent of Republicans, according to a University of Chicago/AP poll released last week.

What’s happening to water around the nation, however, permits no alternative claims: the piles of stinking algae and rotting fish heaped up on both coasts of Florida last year. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage and hog waste that swirled in the North Carolina floodwaters after Hurricane Florence. The chalky walls—now too large to be called bathtub rings—exposed as Arizona’s Lake Mead drops to record-low levels.

Like DeSantis, Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey focused on water in his first major address of the new year—without using the words climate change. During his reelection campaign, water was “one of the issues I was asked about most by real people,” he said. Noting that Arizona faces a January 31 deadline to figure out how to reallocate its dwindling portion of the Colorado River, Ducey urged the legislature to see beyond politics and partisanship to “do the things that matter and secure Arizona’s future.”

“At the top of that list,” he said, is “securing our water future.”

It was the same in Idaho, where newly elected Republican Governor Brad Little devoted part of his State of the State speech to “Idaho’s lifeblood”—water—spotlighting the once arcane issue of Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer replenishment.

These red-state GOP governors are not taking aim at greenhouse-gas emissions like their blue-state Republican counterparts Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Phil Scott of Vermont. Still, environmentalists should not dismiss their momentum on water. In several states won by Trump, water, literally a chemical bond, is also proving a bond that brings disparate people, groups, and political parties together around shared concerns for the Everglades, the Great Lakes, the Colorado River, and other liquid life systems. “We have this phenomenon where one of the ways to work on climate change without triggering the cultural wars is to work on water,” says John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, who researches the Colorado River and solutions to water scarcity.

Water progress is climate progress. It takes an intense amount of energy to extract water, treat it, and dispose of it, and to clean water when it’s polluted. Nationally, water consumption peaked in 1980 and has dropped steadily, even as the economy and population have grown. That shift, in waterworks and minds, affirms Americans’ willingness to live differently once we understand how painless the better path is. The same will be true for decoupling carbon growth from economic growth, though it may have to wait out Trump: U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions surged last year, even as a near-record number of coal plants shuttered.

If DeSantis, Ducey, and Little can make strides on water, they will also make strides for the Republican Party, said Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA administrator and Republican governor of New Jersey. “It comes down to issues of human life and safety,” she said, “and that’s what we’re supposed to be all about.” America’s Everglades and Chesapeake Bay restorations, Great Lakes compact, Colorado River drought planning, and other hard-won partnerships have taken decades of bipartisan leadership to bear fruit. By preserving and even strengthening those state-federal alliances in the Trump era, the governors help their party salvage a legacy to which the GOP is entitled.

A half century ago, President Richard Nixon pushed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and other safeguards in response to a broad public outcry over the industrial and sewage pollution then fouling rivers, bays, and coastlines. This June 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire credited with sparking that outcry. But amid all the events and retrospective articles planned to commemorate that date, the more important one to remember might be 1868. That was the first of at least a dozen times the Cuyahoga burst into flames, sparking a century of pollution disasters, some fatal.

All that time, Americans accepted industrial pollution as an inevitable consequence of progress. Now we don’t have the hundred years we spent watching the Cuyahoga burn to watch the planet do the same. We must hope that the red-state governors’ attention to water will lead them to act on climate change, because the sorry truth is that even the boldest work on water won’t mean much if we can’t also stop warming.

In the early 2000s, Australia faced a drought so severe that abandoning major cities such as Perth seemed like a real possibility; the continent was feeling the water effects of climate change earlier than the rest of the world. For two decades, the Aussies have pioneered desalination, water markets, sewage recycling—and generally some of the most conscientious water habits in the developed world. And yet all that is not enough. It is summer in Australia. This month, record temperatures have contributed to wildfires, horses found dead in dry watering holes, and unprecedented fish kills in the iconic Darling River.

Hundreds of thousands of fish float belly up there, in striking and sickening similarity to Florida’s summer. DeSantis said it best: Water issues “do not fall on partisan lines.” Nor, ultimately, will climate change.