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Donald Trump’s assault on climate change has consequences for the Florida Keys, where most of the 120-mile-long island chain lies a few feet above sea level.
The Trump administration is rolling back regulations that required builders to consider the impacts of rising sea levels, deleting references to climate change on government websites and publicly denying that higher carbon dioxide levels contribute to climate change.
“I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change,” Trump said in Miami during 2016 campaign.
Trump’s attitude and actions could have direct impacts on the Keys, where scientists estimate a two-foot rise in sea level would put 71 percent of the islands under water. A 2015 estimate projects a six- to 10-inch sea level rise in South Florida by 2030, and 14 to 26 inches by 2060.
“The impacts of sea-level rise in the Florida Keys are visible to anyone that’s paying attention,” said Chris Bergh, a Keys resident who is director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in South Florida. “You see freshwater plants dying out and being replaced by mangroves.”
But the Keys voted for Trump in 2016, the first time the islands voted for a Republican in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Interviews with voters and local politicians show that climate change isn’t an issue that captivates the attention of residents on a day-to-day basis.
“I don’t really hear too much talk about climate change down here,” said Diane Scott, a registered Democrat who sported a homemade necklace with the slogan “Racism Lives Here” at a recent city council meeting in Marathon, a town of about 9,000 people about halfway between Key West and the mainland.
Instead, a lack of affordable housing is the biggest political issue for both Democrats and Republicans. The 2008 recession exacerbated a longtime affordable housing crisis, and working- and middle-class residents were forced to leave the Keys in droves. In their place are older, wealthy voters who are more likely to vote Republican than the workers they replaced. Every morning, dozens of buses leave South Miami-Dade bound for the Keys, filled with low-income workers who can’t afford to live there.
“We are on a postage stamp-sized island,” said Marathon Mayor Dan Zeig, a Republican elected to a nonpartisan post in 2016. “It’s very expensive to live here.”
“We’ve run off all the working class people,” Wendy Bonilla, a cleaner in Marathon, said.
“When the real estate economy tanked we lost people, we just are seeing a lot more wealthier folks,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who represents Key West.
The Keys have been trending Republican over the past few years — Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama by less than 200 votes in 2012 — after the county lost residents during the 2008 recession. The residents who left have been replaced and the county is growing, though the percentage of residents over the age of 65 jumped by four percentage points between 2010 and 2016.
Republicans represent the Keys in Congress and in Tallahassee, and the GOP typically wins most local elections outside of Key West, but local officials care deeply about climate change and its impacts, a stark contrast from the Trump administration.
Zeig, the Marathon mayor who supported Trump in the 2016 election, said the Paris climate change agreement was “pretty much a sham that was financed by the United States” and that Trump’s decision to pull out of it doesn’t have any impact on the Keys. But he acknowledged that local residents, businesses and governments are taking steps to prepare for sea-level rise.
“If the sea level were to be up two feet, then, my goodness, a lot of the land mass would disappear,” Zeig said. “Many of the homes are about two feet over the high-water mark. If indeed our sea levels are going to go up an inch every 10 years, we’re already starting.”
For Key West Mayor Craig Cates, a five-term Republican in a non-partisan post, the recent lack of hurricanes in the Florida Keys plays a role in the way many of the new residents view climate change. The Keys haven’t faced a hurricane since 2005, and he said the lack of a major storm has caused recent transplants, many from outside Florida, to view the warnings of climate change as superfluous.
“We haven’t had a hurricane in 12 years so there’s many, many people that live in the Keys and live in Key West that have never experienced a hurricane,” Cates said. “I’ve been here for four generations… so I know the effects of hurricanes and the damage they can do. If we had a bad hurricane, people would have a lot more respect for what [climate change] could do.”
Dr. Mark Felts, a chiropractor in Marathon and Republican who declined to vote for Trump in 2016 — he wrote in Jeb Bush — said residents in the Keys aren’t concerned about climate change because it’s “happening slowly.”
“It probably won’t flood my house in my lifetime,” Felts, 51, said. “We live in a coastal community, but we don’t like to point fingers and blame others. We’re not waiting for big government to solve our problems.”
Libby Frazier, a 42-year-old utility department worker from Marathon who also works at a sushi restaurant to make ends meet, voted for Trump in 2016, the first time she decided to cast a ballot. She doesn’t believe climate change is caused by humans but said “we should take care of the environment for sure.”
She voted for Trump because her income hasn’t kept up with rising property taxes and because of his hardline stance on immigration.
“I’d like not to struggle as much,” said Frazier, who works 60 to 62 hours a week. “I don’t have time to enjoy living here.”
Bergh said that while local officials are united in identifying climate change as an important issue, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to inform people that its physical impacts are already happening.
“I think a lot of people don’t know what they’re seeing when they look at the dying trees or flooded roads. People who are new to the area think this is the way it’s always been,” said Bergh, who has lived in the Keys since the 1970s.
But while Trump’s government continued to remove mentions of climate change on official websites, the local news led with an only-in-the-Keys topic of debate: whether to name an amphitheater in Key West after Jimmy Buffett.
“The voters of Monroe County are a very independent-minded people for the most part,” Zeig said.