Florida’s algae crisis has turned into a major political football as Democratic candidate for Florida governor Andrew Gillum squares off with Republican opponent Ron DeSantis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

E.A. Crunden writes in thinkprogress.org that Florida’s first gubernatorial debate was dominated by environmental and climate issues, with an emphasis on the state’s algae crisis, which has persisted throughout the midterm election cycle.

Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis sparred over their fiercely competing visions for Florida this past Sunday night, in their first meeting. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, emphasized his progressive bonafides, touting health care and immigration reform, while DeSantis, who recently resigned from Congress to focus on his campaign, aggressively aligned himself with President Donald Trump.

On climate issues, however, the debate took on a different note: Mr. DeSantis repeatedly referenced environmental protection but refused to say whether he accepts the science behind climate change; Mr. Gillum, by contrast, emphasized the need to embrace science-based policies and touted a shift to clean energy.

For months, Florida has been plagued by a two-pronged toxic algae crisis, with both “red tide” algae blooms that can turn water a rust color – and blue-green algae infiltrating the state’s waters. The algae has devastated tourism, killed thousands of fish and other marine animals, and sickened humans. Bipartisan consensus has emerged on the algae, with Republicans and Democrats alike speaking out and pledging to fix the problem, a trend most evident in the Senate race between Gov. Rick Scott (R) and incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

But Sunday proved the issue is a major gubernatorial focus as well. “I also think we need to protect our environment and clean our water, restore the Everglades, and fight red tide,” Mr. DeSantis said in his opening remarks. That focus on environmental issues continued into the rest of the debate.

“What Florida voters need to know is that when they elect me governor they are going to have a governor who believes in science, which we haven’t had for quite some time in this state,” Mr. Gillum said, laying out his commitment to sustainability and countering climate change through a financial lens, touting a “green economy” in the state. The Democrat has been backed by a number of the state’s green groups, including the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter.

Linking Mr. DeSantis to polluting industries in Florida, Mr. Gillum argued that his rival has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from companies “dumping high levels of nitrates into our groundwater.”

While Florida’s algae crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, scientists have repeatedly drawn a link between agricultural runoff and other man-driven pollutants, which have fed the algae and enabled it to grow far beyond its usual breeding grounds, in addition to warming waters.

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