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Local adaptation & field testing the science of science communication

from Making Climate-Science Communication Evidence-based—All the Way Down:

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.

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Reader Comments (6)

This is very useful, Dan. I would add that certain constructs -- such as those concerning departures from long term temperature or flooding trends at the local level -- are differentially freighted with the baggage of cultural tribes. Engagement about local or regional changes in flooding or drought is less likely to drag in antagonistic cultural meanings than are efforts to engage over changes in temperatures. The latter is more polluted, in the sense of the science communication domain being clogged with inflamed cultural claims. It is important that we try to avoid the spread of such pollution to other domains of science communication.

I am struck by the cultural narrative perspective, in which villains are an essential component. The point, made by Mike Jones and others, is that effective political argument requires a story containing heroes, victims, and villains. Without villains, its harder to get stories to "stick" because the story is not readily recognized by cultural types. Do villain-ectomies reduce the effectiveness of science communication?

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHank Jenkins-Smith

@HJS: great points (backed up w/ data from this great paper). These communities have shared narratives that feature their ability to "weather" adverse climates. They are using the language, meanings, & roles that those narratives supply as a resource to help them figure out what situation they are in & what their options are. They'll disagree about which option to choose, of course; that's normal democracy -- & their normal politics. But their way of life has always relied & will continue to rely on recognizing the best available evidence on how to master their circumstances.

February 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, one of the things that sprung out for me is that there is a buy-in because of life experiences and location. It is not something in the far future. It is not some general feel good project whose results are unquantifiable, but rather the opposite. It is controlled at the local level. Since all climate change will be on the local level if it is discernible to the point of adaptation, the measures they are taking reflect their knowledge, not CC knowledge. These two knowledges are distinct. They have agreed to adaptation, not mitigation. I do not think succes on the local level for adaptation indicates success on the national and international level for mitigation. Looking at it this way, one can understand how someone can support something that YOU veiw as a reaction to CC, who would still want to punch ME in the nose if I said they were a CC alarmist.

This should be contrasted with what is usually presented wrt CC. In other words, what you have presented here are examples of what can be sold. I think you need to include a step of sales capability in your iterative process, similar to what consultants do for their clients when they are looking at a new market. I do not mean the snake oil sales pitch, but the demographics and other information used in a feasibility study. Perhaps that is what you should name the step. S&F included something similar in managing risk, so perhaps this part of my comment is unnecessary.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

I essentially agree with what you say. I am moved to respond:
a. I don't think it is ethical or constructive to see science communication as "selling" anything. Not saying you are proposing that, but your reaction--which is not uncommon--is occasion for saying what I want, which is that the goal is to create conditions that people would themselves agree are conducive to thoughtful and reflective engagement with evidence important to their well-being. Also, they have to agree that the role one is playing in creating those conditions is something they view as appropriate too. I don't think what I'm proposing as a role here is unfamiliar; it is what a good *teacher* does in creating a discussion that is geared to promoting reflection & insight.
b. The measurements you allude to are necessary. But likely as the paper form which this is excerpted makes clear, it is possible to figure out what to measure & why only in the course of on-the-ground collaboration between researcher & communicator. The researcher who sells what he or she is able to measure in a lab as sufficient is doing a disservice!

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Dan, I think you missed the importance of my using "buy-in" or I did not state it well enough. I used it and sale as an allusion to the collaboration of the parties. The sell/buy in is being part of your market of knowledge in my mind.

I do see distinct differences in local and adaptive that I expounded on in a post above. I think the differences of local adaptive versus a more abstract mitigate counterfactual need to be considered. IMO both the physical and the mental constructs are different enough to warrant attention in your SoSC.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

@John: I was reacting to ghosts. What you say is perfectly fair.

February 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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