Consider this paradox. If one is trying to be elected to Congress in either Florida or Arizona, it is not a good idea to make “combating global climate change” the centerpiece of one’s campaign. Yet both of these states are hotbeds of local political activity focusing on climate adaptation. A bill passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 and signed into law by its tea-party Governor has initiated city- and county-level proceedings to formulate measures for protecting the state from the impact of projected sea-level rises, which are expected to be aggravated by the increased incidence of hurricanes.
Arizona is the site of similar initiatives. Overseen by that state’s conservative Governor (who once punched a reporter for asking her whether she believed in global warming), the Arizona proceedings are aimed at anticipating expected stresses on regional water supplies.
Climate science—of the highest quality, and supplied by expert governmental and academic sources—is playing a key role in the deliberations of both states. Florida officials, for example, have insisted that new nuclear power generation facilities being constructed offshore at Turkey Point be raised to a level higher than contemplated by the original design in order to reflect new seal-level rise and storm-activity projections associated with climate change. The basis of these Florida officials’ projections are the same scientific models that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, now considered a likely 2016 presidential candidate, says he still finds insufficiently convincing to justify national regulation of carbon emissions.
The influences that trigger cultural cognition when climate change is addressed at the national level are much weaker at the local one. When they are considering adaptation, citizens engage the issue of climate change not as members of warring cultural factions but as property owners, resource consumers, insurance policy holders, and tax payers—identities they all share. The people who are furnishing them with pertinent scientific evidence about the risks they face and how to abate them are not the national representatives of competing political brands but rather their municipal representatives, their neighbors, and even their local utility companies.
What’s more, the sorts of issues they are addressing—damage to property and infrastructure from flooding, reduced access to scarce water supplies, diminished farming yields as a result of drought—are matters they deal with all the time. They are the issues they have always dealt with as members of the regions in which they live; they have a natural shared vocabulary for thinking and talking about these issues, the use of which reinforces their sense of linked fate and reassures them they are working with others whose interests are aligned with theirs. Because they are, in effect, all on the same team, citizens at the local level are less likely to react to scientific evidence in defensive, partisan way that sports fans do to contentious officiating calls.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that local engagement with adaptation is impervious to polarizing forms of motivated reasoning. The antagonistic cultural meanings that have contaminated the national science communication environment could easily spill over into local one as well. Something like this happened—or came close to it—in North Carolina, where the state legislature enacted a law that restricts use of anything but “historical data” on sea-level in state planning. The provision got enacted because proponents of adaptation planning legislation there failed to do what those in the neighboring state of Virginia did in creating a rhetorical separation between the issue of local flood planning and “global climate change.” Polarizing forms of engagement have bogged down municipal planning in some parts of Florida—at the same time as progress is being made elsewhere in the state.
The issue of local adaptation, then, presents a unique but precarious opportunity to promote constructive public engagement with climate science. The prospects for success will turn on how science is communicated—by scientists addressing local officials and the public, certainly, but also by local officials addressing their constituents and by myriad civic entities (chambers of commerce, property owner associations, utility companies) addressing the individuals whom they serve. These climate-science communicators face myriad challenges that admit of informed, evidence-based guidance, and they are eager to get guidance of that kind. Making their needs the focus of field-based science-communication experiments would confer an immense benefit on them.
The social science researchers conducting such experiments would receive an immense benefit in return. Collaborating with these communicators to help them protect their science communication environment from degradation, and to effectively deliver consequential scientific information within it, would generate a wealth of knowledge on how to adapt insights from lab models to the real world.
There are lots of places to do science communication field experiments, of course, because there are lots of settings in which people are making decisions that should be informed by the best available climate science. There is no incompatibility between carrying out programs in support of adaptation-science communication simultaneously with ones focused on communicating relevant to climate policymaking at the national level.
On the contrary, there are likely to be numerous synergies. For one thing, the knowledge that adaptation-focused field experimentation will likely generate about how to convert laboratory models to field-based strategies will be relevant to science communication in all domains. In addition, by widening the positive exposure to climate science, adaptation-focused communication is likely to create greater public receptivity to open-minded engagement with this science in all contexts in which it is relevant. Finally, by uniting on a local level all manner of groups and interests that currently occupy an adversarial relation on the climate change issue nationally, the experience of constructive public engagement with climate science at the local level has the potential to clear the air of the toxic meanings that have been poisoning climate discourse in our democracy for decades.