EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Florida — Amid lurking alligators and the steamy heat of Florida's Everglades, President Barack Obama on Wednesday sounded the alarm about damage from climate change he said was already wreaking mayhem in Florida and across the United States.
In an implicit rebuke to Florida's governor and other Republicans, Obama accused those who deny the man-made causes of climate change of sticking their heads in the sand. He said rising sea levels that have infused the Everglades with harmful salt water have already jeopardized Florida's drinking water and its $82 billion tourism industry.
"You do not have time to deny the effects of climate change," Obama said, with the sprawling wetlands as his backdrop.
Obama's quick visit to the South Florida landmark, timed to coincide with Earth Day, marked his latest attempt to connect the dots between carbon emissions and real-life implications. With his climate change agenda under attack in Washington and courthouses across the U.S., Obama has been on a mission to force Americans to envision a world in which cherished natural wonders fall victim to pollution.
So the president ditched his usual suit and tie Wednesday for a casual shirt and sunglasses as his helicopter touched down in Everglades National Park. A park ranger at his side, Obama walked the Anhinga Trail, west of Miami, where a series of wooden walkways took him through dense shrubbery and over the slow-moving river. Small alligators could be spotted swimming in the waters and shallow areas nearby, as a few large birds ducked in and out of the deep-green waters.
The vast Everglades, known as the "River of Grass," fuel the region's tourism economy and water supply. Now roughly 1.4 million acres, the park comprises most of what's left of a unique ecosystem that once stretched as far north as Orlando.
Yet damage that started early in the 20th century, when people drained swamps to make room for homes and farms, has only grown more alarming as sea levels rise. Researchers fear by the time the water flow is fixed, the Everglades' native species could be lost to invasive plants and animals.
"This is not a problem for another generation — not anymore," Obama said. "This is a problem now. It has serious implications for the way we live right now."
Even still, the political overtones of Obama's visit were impossible to avoid.
Two Florida Republicans gearing up presidential campaigns for 2016 — Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush — have treaded carefully on the issue of climate change amid deep pockets of opposition within the Republican Party. And GOP Gov. Rick Scott has attracted national attention over his resistance to acknowledging man-made causes of climate change head-on.
Scott, ahead of Obama's visit, accused the president of cutting millions in his budget for repair of an aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, Florida's largest freshwater body. Although Obama didn't mention Scott by name, he offered a series of thinly veiled jabs over allegations his administration banned state employees from using the terms "climate change" and "global warming" — a claim Scott has denied.
"Simply refusing to say the words 'climate change' doesn't mean climate change isn't happening," Obama said. "It can't be edited out. It can't be omitted from the conversation, and action can no longer be delayed."
Florida and the federal government have partnered on a multibillion-dollar Everglades fix, but the effort has languished amid legal challenges and congressional inaction. But Scott sought to put the blame on Washington — and Obama in particular — for leaving Florida on the hook for the repair. "Our environment is too important to neglect and it's time for the federal government to focus on real solutions and live up to their promises," he said.
Unable to persuade Congress to act on climate, Obama has spent much of his second term pursuing executive actions to cut carbon greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and abroad. Aides say Obama sees spurring action on climate as a central part of his legacy. But steps he's taken on his own, such as strict emissions limits for power plants, have elicited fierce political opposition and a host of legal challenges that could undermine parts of his plan.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay contributed to this report.
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