Hurricane Irma cut a wide swath of devastation, but it also created a new media star: Rick Scott. During the deadly storm, the 64-year-old Florida governor was a ubiquitous presence on cable TV, the kind of high-profile make-or-break moment that defines a political career (see George W. Bush, Hurricane Katrina). And so far, Scott has come out looking like Gen. Patton standing tall against Mother Nature.
Whoever designed the universe must have a twisted sense of humor. It would be hard to cast a more unlikely hero than Scott for this catastrophic event. In fact, Scott’s triumph is its own kind of catastrophe, one that says a lot about why the politics of climate change and disaster relief are so screwed up in America.
Politically, Scott is Trump without the bluster and the golf clubs. On climate change, Scott refuses to acknowledge its existence. During his 2014 campaign, whenever the subject came up, he would shrug and say, “I am not a scientist” – as if that absolved him of any responsibility for thinking about the risk posed to millions of people in the state he proposed to run.
As governor, Scott has done everything he can to do nothing. He made sure the state of Florida contributed zero dollars to Miami Beach’s $400 million plan to improve storm drainage. He took more than $1 million from Big Utilities, who tried to stop rooftop solar power in Florida, which could help reduce carbon pollution. He effectively dismantled the Florida Energy and Climate Commission, which had been assembled by Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, to help Florida officials think strategically about climate adaptation. As Kathy Baughman McLeod, a conservation expert who served on the commission, told the Washington Post, “There is no state leadership on climate change in Florida, period.”
In 2014, after months of lobbying, a group of scientists scored a meeting with Scott, hoping to convince him that climate change was real and Florida was in the crosshairs. “He just sat there and stared at us with lizard eyes,” one of the scientists at the meeting told me. “I don’t think he heard a word we said.”
On the other hand, maybe he did. The following year, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that Scott’s administration had commanded state employees not to use the terms “global warming” or “climate change” in any state business. Scott later denied it, but there was plenty of evidence it was true: An epidemiologist was forced to take the words “climate change” out of a study done with the Department of Health; a university researcher was made to pull the phrase from a report summary. Scott supported Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. He also signed legislation, pushed by real-estate developers, to weaken Florida’s building codes, even though the legislation was opposed by Florida’s emergency management director, as well as Craig Fugate, the former head of FEMA under President Obama, who argued that by loosening the building codes in a hurricane-prone state like Florida, lawmakers “are putting your state and your citizens at risk.”
Even if Al Gore had been governor of Florida, Irma would have wreaked havoc in the state. But Scott’s negligence was so extreme it was almost as if he were inviting a catastrophe. At the very least, Scott gambled that if a big storm wiped out Florida, voters would be too distraught and overwhelmed to hold him accountable. Scott bet his political career on the fact that it’s better to play the hero during a catastrophe than to spend money and political capital trying to reduce the risk of a disaster before it happens. And it’s a gamble that he appears to have won, at least for now. But this is Florida. The wind and water will be back – and thanks to our superheated atmosphere, they will likely return with a vengeance.