Philip Levine is running for governor of Florida and supports climate liabilityPhilip Levine, former mayor of Miami Beach and current candidate for Florida governor, supports the state seeking climate liability against the fossil fuel industry. Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

In a state pummeled by the effects of climate change, yet full of leaders who would rather talk about just about anything else, one candidate for governor has already taken a bold stance heading into the election later this year.

Philip Levine, a Democrat and former mayor of Miami Beach, has suggested that the state should tackle climate change by suing fossil fuel companies the way states took on the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

“What I’ve experienced for many years is that the rising sea levels all over our city are causing a tremendous amount of damage to our communities,” said Levine. “It’s my belief that we should examine the potential to go after fossil fuel companies to help pay for the resiliency efforts that our state will have to take because of climate change.”

Many of Florida’s political leaders in the state capitol deny or ignore the science that pins the vast majority of the blame for global warming on fossil fuel burning. The state’s environmental agency banned the use of “climate change” in its email, reports and policies.

Yet this southern state is a favorite landing pad for intense hurricanes and the invading sea. The Florida Keys is looking at raising its roads to beat the rising sea levels, and early estimates peg the cost at several million dollars per mile. Intruding salt water also threatens the state’s fresh water supplies and its tourism industry.   

“It’s one of the most regressive states, which is ironic because it’s got so much to lose,” said Shi-Ling Hsu, associate dean of environmental programs at the Florida State University College of Law.

During this election year, however, state residents will hear more about the urgency of addressing climate change from candidates for statewide offices. Some of the candidates are making the issue part of their platforms.

Levine, however, has taken it a step further.

He first mentioned the potential lawsuit during a meeting with voters in Tampa last month and posted a video clip on Twitter. In it, he compared the fossil fuel companies to cigarette makers. He referenced the lawsuit filed by more than 40 states in the 1990s to force the tobacco industry to help pay for the healthcare cost of smoking-related illnesses and to fund anti-smoking campaigns. The tobacco makers settled the lawsuits and agreed to pay a total of $246 billion over 25 years to the states, including Florida.

Levine isn’t alone in believing that the government needs to do more to address climate change. Other Democratic candidates for governor have talked about it, as well as mayors and voters in South Florida—the state’s ground zero for climate disasters.

Last November, voters in Miami approved a $400 million bond that was championed by the outgoing mayor Tomás Regalado, a Republican. Roughly half will be used for climate change-related impacts, including installing flood pumps and sea walls.

Under Levine, Miami Beach started a $500 million program to raise roads, install seawalls and generators and pumps to deal with flooding.

“For Philip Levine, he’s really setting the pace on the conversation on climate,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who asked the question from the audience that prompted Levine to propose the lawsuit against fossil fuel companies.

“It’s highly unlikely that the current administration would file any climate liability suit,” Glickman said. “Taxpayers will be picking up the tabs for the problems created by the fossil fuel industry.”

Levine would face major hurdles if he intends to launch such a suit as governor, legal experts said. For one thing, Levine would need the support of the state attorney general.

“The incumbent, Pam Bondi, would not file a suit, nor would most Republicans,” noted Charles Barrilleaux, chair of the political science department at the Florida State University. “If Levine and a Democrat were elected to the AG post, the likelihood would increase, but I’m still uncertain how great it would be.”

Bondi has hit her term limit and can’t seek reelection this year, but voters could replace her with another Republican. Republicans have held the attorney general post since 2002 and governorship since 1999 (Charlie Crist was a Republican before he switched to independent in 2010).

While voters can see or even experience the impact of climate change, they may still not consider it crucial in their voting decisions, Hsu said. George Gonzalez, political science professor at the University of Miami, cast similar doubts.

Gonzalez noted specifically the opposition to climate-related policies from real estate developers and property owners.

“People want to continue to build aggressively. They think if they don’t talk about climate change, then it’s not going to happen,” Gonzalez said.

Levine said he’s shown it’s possible to convince voters that dealing with climate change will protect the value of their property.

“Miami Beach, which has to be the most valuable real estate market in the state per square feet, the avalanche of people who buy properties is unparalleled, and it’s continued,” Levine said. “By the same token, we have taken such aggressive action and showed that we’ve built resiliency. Investors have developed a sense of confidence based on the actions we’ve taken.”

Gonzalez noted that filing lawsuits doesn’t always get to the core of the problem, which is the enormous amount of emissions from burning fossil fuels. Tobacco farming and cigarette sales continue to be a multibillion-dollar industry despite the legal settlement 20 years ago.

“Let’s look at it realistically and honestly, it might cut into (oil companies’) profits, but they will continue to operate,” Gonzalez said.