What SE Florida can teach us about the *political* science of climate change

This is another section from new paper “Climate Science Communication and the Measurement problem.

That paper, which I posted yesterday, presents data showing that “conservative Republicans” know just as much as “liberal Democrats” about climate science (a very modest amount) and more importantly are just as likely to be motivated to see scientific evidence of climate change as supporting the conclusion that we face huge risks.

The reason they evince “climate skepticism” in responding to survey items on “belief in” human-caused global warming is that those items aren’t measuring what people know; they are measuring “who they are, whose side they are on,” in a mean, illiberal, collective-knowledge-vitiating, individual-reason-effacing cultural status competition.  Sadly, that is exactly what the “climate change” question is measuring in our political life too.

This section of the paper shows how local politicians in SE Florida are disentangling what citizens know from who they are — and the breakthrough they are achieving politically on climate as a result.

7.  Disentanglement

a.  We could all use a good high school teacher.  * * *

b.  Don’t ignore the denominator. * * *

c.  The “normality” of climate science in Southeast Florida. Southeast Florida is not Berkeley, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Southeast Florida’s political climate, for one thing, differs at least as much from the one that Berkeley and Cambridge share as the region’s natural climate does from each of theirs. Unlike these homogenously left-leaning communities, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties are politically conventional and diverse, with federal congressional delegations, county commissions, and city governments occupied by comparable proportions of Republicans and Democrats.

Indeed, by one measure of “who they are,” the residents of these four counties look a lot like the United States as a whole. There is the same tight connection between how people identify themselves politically and their “beliefs” about global warming—and hence the same deep polarization on that issue.  Just as in the rest of the U.S., moreover, the degree of polarization is highest among the residents who display the highest level of science comprehension (Figure 19).

But like Berkeley and Cambridge—and unlike most other places in the U.S.—these four counties have formally adopted climate action plans. Or more precisely, they have each ratified a joint plan as members of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.  Unlike the largely hortatory declarations enacted by one or another university town, the Compact’s Regional Climate Action Plan sets out 110 substantive “action items” to be implemented over a multi-year period.

Many of these, understandably, are geared to protecting the region from anticipated threats. The Plan goals include construction of protective barriers for hospitals, power-generating facilities, and other key elements of infrastructure threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges; the enactment of building codes to assure that existing and new structures are fortified against severe weather; measures to protect water sources essential both for residential use and for agriculture and other local businesses.

But included too are a variety of measures designed to mitigate the contribution  the four counties make to climate change.  The Plan thus calls for increased availability of public transportation, the  implementation of energy-efficiency standards, and the adoption of a “green rating” system to constrain carbon emissions associated with construction and other public works.

The effects will be admittedly modest—indeed, wholly immaterial in relation to the dynamics at work in global climate change.

But they mean something; they are part of the package of collective initiatives identified as worthy of being pursued by the city planners, business groups, and resident associations—by the conservation groups, civic organizations, and religious groups—who all participated in the public and highly participatory process that generated the Plan.

That process has been (will no doubt continue to be) lively and filled with debate but at no point has it featured the polarizing cultural status competition that has marked (marred) national political engagement with climate science.  Members of the groups divided on the ugly question that struggle poses—which group’s members are competent, enlightened, and virtuous, and which foolish, benighted, and corrupt—have from the start taken for granted that the well-being of all of them demands making appropriate use of the best available scientific evidence on climate.

The Compact Plan carries out a 2011 legislative mandate—enacted by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by its Tea Party Republican Governor—that all municipal subdivisions update their Comprehensive Plans to protect public health and resources from “impacts of rising sea levels,” including “coastal flooding due to extreme high tides and storm surge.”  The individual county commissioners who took the lead in forming the compact included Republicans and Democrats. Nor was there partisan division in the approval process for the Compact Action Plan.

What makes Southeast Florida so different from the rest of the country?

Indeed, what makes Southeast Florida, when it addresses climate change inside the Compact’s decisionmaking process, so different from the Southeast Florida that. like the rest of the country, is polaized on climate change?

The explanation is that the Compact process puts a different question from the one put in the national climate change debate.  The latter forces Southeast Floridians, like everyone else, to express “who they are, whose side they are on.”In contrast, the decisionmaking of the Compact is effectively, and insistently, testing what they know about how to live in a region that faces a serious climate problem.

The region has always had a climate problem.  The models and plans that local government planners use today  to protect the region’s freshwater aquifers from saltwater intrusion are updated versions of ones their predecessors used in the 1960s. The state has made tremendous investments in its universities to acquire a level of scientific expertise on sea-level and related climate dynamics unsurpassed in any other part of the Nation.

People in Florida know that the region’s well-being depends on using the information that its scientists know.  The same ones who are politically divided on the question do you “believe in” human-caused global warming overwhelmingly agree that “local and state officials should be involved in identifying steps that local communities can take to reduce the risk posed by rising sea levels”; that “local communities should take steps to combat the threat that storm surge poses to drinking water supplies”; and that their “land use planners should identify, assess, and revise existing laws to assure that they reflect the risks posed by rising sea level and extreme weather” (Figure 20).

That’s normal.  It’s what government is supposed to do in Southeast Florida. And it better be sure to pick up the garbage every Wednesday, too, their citizens (Republican and Democrat) would add.

Public mtg on climate action in SE FlaThe Compact effectively informed its citizens of the appropriateness of using the best available science for these ends but not through a “messaging” campaign focused on “scientific consensus” or anything else.

The Compact’s “communication strategy” was its process.  The dozens of open meetings and forums, convened not just by the Compact governments but by business, residential, and other groups in civil society filled the region’s science communication environment with exactly the information that ordinary people rationally rely on to discern what’s known to science: the conspicuous example of people they trust and recognize as socially competent supporting the use of science in decisionmaking directly bearing on their lives.

No polluting the science communication environment with partisan meanings!Indeed, far from evoking the toxic aura of tribal contempt that pervades “messaging” campaigns (“what? are you stupid? What part of ‘97% AGREE!’ don’t you understand?!”), Compact officials aggressively, instinctively repel it whenever it threatens to contaminate the region’s deliberations.  One of those occasions occurred during a heavily attended “town meeting,” conducted in connection with the Compact’s 2013 “Regional Climate Leadership Summit,” a two-day series of presentations and workshops involving both government officials and representatives of key public stakeholder groups.

The moderator for the town meeting (a public radio personality who had just moved to Southeast Florida from Chicago) persistently tried to inject the stock themes of the national climate change debate into the discussion as the public officials on stage took turns answering questions from the audience.  What do Republicans in Washington have against science? And what “about the level of evidence that’s being accepted by private industry”—how come its doing so little to address climate change?

After an awkward pause, Broward County’s Democratic Mayor Kristin Jacobs replied.  “I think it’s important to note,” she said, gesturing to a banner adorned by a variety of corporate logos, “that one of the sponsors of this Summit today is the Broward Workshop. The Broward Workshop represents 100 of the largest businesses in Broward County.” The owners of these businesses, she continued, were “not only sponsoring this Summit,” but actively participating in it, and had organized their own working groups “addressing the impacts of water and climate change.”  “They know what’s happening here,” she said to the moderator, who at this point was averting her gaze and fumbling with his notes.

Town Hall mtg, 11/7/13. Mayor Jacobs, far right“I would also point out,” Jacobs persisted, “when you look across this region at the Summit partners, the Summit Counties, there are three Mayors that are Republican and one  that’s Democrat, and we’re working on these issues across party lines.” Pause, silence.  “So I don’t think it is about party,” she concluded. “I think it is about understanding what the problems are and fixing them and addressing them.”

Five of the lead chapter authors of the National Climate Assessment were affiliated with Florida universities or government institutions. As more regions of the country start to confront climate threats comparable to ones Florida has long dealt with, Florida will share the knowledge it has invested to acquire about how to do so and thrive while doing it.

But there is more Florida can teach.  If we study how the Compact Counties created a political process that enables its diverse citizens to respond to the question “so what should we do about climate change?” with an answer that reflects what they all know, we are likely to learn important lessons about how to protect enlightened self-government from the threat posed by the science of science communication’s measurement problem.

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