Politically, Tampa, Fla., was a perfect choice to host the Republican National Convention -- the city sits at the heart of a swing district in a crucial 2012 battleground state. Practically, it may have been less so -- as organizers worry that it remains right in the path of Hurricane Isaac.
It wasn’t hard to predict this problem. Florida is one of the most hurricane-prone states in the nation. Late August is the peak of the hurricane season. In fact, Gulf Coast hurricanes disrupted both of the last two Republican National Conventions. In Minneapolis in 2008, the threat of destruction from Hurricane Gustav prompted GOP nominee Sen. John McCain’s campaign to consider cancelling some or all of the event. During the 2004 GOP convention in New York City, Florida was hit by Hurricane Charley, and Gov. Jeb Bush was forced to stay home to manage the disaster instead of attending the nomination of his brother.
"In terms of the overall statistical risk of encountering a dangerous hurricane, the risks are well documented in Florida,” said Kerry Emanuel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of atmospheric science, who has authored one of many scientific reports on the increasing frequency of high-intensity hurricanes due to climate change.
Emanuel added, “In the longterm sense, we’re very worried about Tampa.” That’s because, he said, Tampa has long, shallow coastal shelf, which could make it more vulnerable to destruction from a surge of water due to an intense hurricane -- the type that his studies predict are likely to increase in the future.
While scientists caution that no single weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, major weather events associated with climate change, such as this summer’s drought, and the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita, tend to fire up the incendiary debate about climate change -- which could happen once again if a massive political convention gets hit by a major storm.
The Republican party has shifted hard to the right on climate change since the last presidential election -- in 2008, McCain campaigned on the promise of tackling climate change, and embraced the cap-and-trade policy that has since become politically toxic within his own party. Now, denying the scientific findings linking oil and coal pollution to climate change has become mainstream in the GOP, and nominee Mitt Romney has publicly walked back his formerly expressed views that humans contribute to global warming. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has also questioned the science of climate change, and environmentalists have criticized the party for embracing an energy platform aimed at aggressively expanding oil production while slashing programs for renewable energy.
Some Republicans say they’re not worried that a hurricane at their party will ignite criticism on their party’s climate change positions.
“The only thing harder than predicting election results is predicting the hurricane season. There is absolutely no way of knowing what nature will send your way,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida political strategist.
But stronger hurricanes are among the most serious consequences of climate change induced by the burning of fossil fuels that the Romney campaign is pushing, and Florida and the Gulf Coast are likely to experience the worst impacts, according to a 2012 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and 2009 report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S.,” authored by 13 federal agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That report concludes that in the U.S. southeast, “compared to the present coastal situation, for which vulnerability is quite high, an increase in hurricane intensity will further affect low-lying coastal ecosystems and coals communities along the Gulf and South Atlantic coastal margin. An increase in intensity is very likely to increase inland and coastal flooding, coastal … Major hurricanes also pose a severe risk to people, personal property, and public infrastructure in the southeast, and this risk is likely to be exacerbated.”
Fossil fuel interest groups, including the oil and coal industries, are playing a big role at the Tampa convention. The American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil industry, is hosting several major parties and events in Tampa. API president Jack Gerard, a close friend of Romney’s, acknowledged that a hurricane might well prompt critics to point fingers at his group. He said they’ll try to send a message that as an industry, they’re actually helping solve the climate problem.
“We walk the walk,” he said. “The oil and gas industry since 2001 has invested $71 billion in zero-and low-carbon emitting technologies -- this industry does more than the government,” he said.