Op-Ed: Can the Caring Middle save the environment?

Students rally for clean energy in front of San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 28.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

At the populous edges of the nation, red, color of danger, billows through forest and sea. The uncontrolled wildfires in California and red tide in Florida have darkened summer in the states named for gold and sunshine. Burned-up homes and belly-up marine life stretch for miles in some of America’s most-famous respites, emptying the white-canvas tents of Yosemite and the white-sand beaches of southwest Florida.

Wildfires and toxic algae burn the lungs, leave a stomach-churning stench and share much more in common: Both occur naturally, but their effects worsen the more we encroach upon the wild. Both proliferate in high temperatures. And both are among the political sleepers of this election season.

President Trump weighed in on the wildfires in a series of tweets that blamed “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized.” The statement mystified fire and water officials, who stressed that California has more than enough water to fight fires. Contra Trump, the immediate challenges have been the record size of the blazes (visible from space, as are Florida’s harmful algal blooms), and a searing heatwave. July was the hottest month ever recorded in California, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported earlier this month.

Trump’s attention to water and wildfire was atypical. Though these phenomena reflect the most urgent environmental issues of our time, and are intimately tied to climate change, the administration has scorned Earth science in general, including water and wildfire research. The White House budget proposal for 2019 would slash science investment at the Interior Department and NOAA by more than 20% each. It seeks to eliminate federal partnerships with local communities and universities, such as Interior’s Joint Fire Science Program and NOAA’s Sea Grant, which works on harmful algal blooms from coast to coast and in the Great Lakes.


Axing wildfire and algae research during wildfire and algae emergencies is unpopular, and election-seekers are hearing as much. If there is one whiff of promise from the scorched landscapes in California and wrack lines of dead fish in Florida, it is this rising voice of America’s Caring Middle.

The Caring Middle is the supermajority – too often, the silent majority – of Americans who care deeply about the environment. The more they know, the more they care. Seventy-four percent of Americans feel strongly about environmental protection, according to the Pew Research Center. Seventy-three percent now believe the scientific evidence for climate change, according to the spring 2018 National Survey on Energy and the Environment.

The Caring Middle is the supermajority – too often, the silent majority – of Americans who care deeply about the environment.

No doubt, the polls also reflect a wide political divide on environmental regulation; Pew reports that six in 10 Republicans say it costs too many jobs and hurts the economy. But in GOP-dominated southwest Florida, where toxic algae have clogged inland waterways and shuttered water-based businesses this summer, voters of all stripes are clamoring for solutions, including stricter pollution controls.


The red tide stretching 100 miles up the Gulf Coast is only part of the algae crisis fouling Florida. Agricultural and urban nutrient pollution has turned Lake Okeechobee into a cauldron of blue-green goo. Federal flood control sends the water out both sides of the peninsula through rivers, sliming coastal estuaries and the waters in between.

In Florida’s closely watched Republican primary for governor, the algae emergency has led frontrunner U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Fox News darling with a consistent anti-environment voting record, to declare support for “smart, targeted regulation” of the pollution that fuels the toxic blooms. In fact, fixing the algae crisis is DeSantis’ only fully articulated Florida policy proposal in a primary campaign built around Trump’s endorsement and illegal immigration.

To see one of Florida’s most conservative congressmen calling for environmental regulation is a powerful reminder of the strength of the Caring Middle when it finally raises its voice. In both Florida and California, residents have packed town hall meetings to learn about the once-arcane topics of phosphorus and flood control, fuel breaks and U.S. Forest Service budgets.

Like DeSantis, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott has made fighting toxic algae a centerpiece of his bid for U.S. Senate despite his eight-year record of aggressive cuts to environmental agencies, enforcement and regulation. In Northern California’s fire-prone 4th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), one of the state’s outspoken climate change skeptics, moderated his message at last week’s annual Lake Tahoe Summit when he asked: “Doesn’t a warming epoch make active forest management all the more important?”

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Given the increasing numbers of Americans whose lives will be affected by climate change, this movement of the pendulum from anti-environment extreme to Caring Middle looks likely to continue beyond the midterm elections.

Half a century ago, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in response to broad public outcry over the industrial pollution fouling America’s rivers, bays and coastlines. Grandmothers in pearl necklaces joined the protests over rivers that burst into flames. Nixon was not a fan of regulation or even nature; he famously walked California’s beaches in black wingtips. But he was moved by disasters like the Santa Barbara oil spill because it “touched the conscience of the American people.” He was baffled that so many Floridians wanted to preserve a vast swamp, but he had the political intelligence to help save the Everglades from a proposed jetport.

Nixon declared clean water and air “a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”


Our common home is still our common cause, particularly when it’s under threat. Keeping our families and businesses safe from worsening wildfires, harmful algal blooms and the other fast-spreading perils of a warming world is not Republican or Democrat, too much government or too little. It’s good government. In a time of unprecedented efforts to divide us, the unifying conscience of the American people can prevail.

Particularly when the Caring Middle is seeing red.

Cynthia Barnett, the author of three books on water, first described the Caring Middle in a commencement address for Unity College. She teaches environmental journalism and environmental leadership at the University of Florida.

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