The answer is how utterly normal it is for all sorts of people in every walk of life to be concerned about it and to be engaged in the project of identifying and implementing sensible policies to protect themselves and their communities from adverse impacts relating to it.
That was msg I tried to communicate (constrained by the disability I necessarily endure, and impeded by the misunderstandings I inevitably and comically provoke, on account of my being someone who only studies rather than does science communication) in my presentation at a great conference on sea level rise at University of California, Santa Barbara. Slides here.
There were lots of great talks by scientists & science communicators. Indeed, on my panel was the amazing science documentary producer Paula Apsell, who gave a great talk on how NOVA has covered climate change science over time.
As for my talk & my “communicate normality” msg, let me explain how I set this point up.
I told the audience that I wanted to address “communicating sea level rise” as an instance of the “science communication problem” (SCP). SCP refers to the failure of widely available, valid scientific evidence to quiet political conflict over issues of risk and other related facts to which that evidence directly speaks. Climate change is a conspicuous instance of SCP but isn’t alone: there’s nuclear power, e.g., the HPV vaccine, GM foods in Europe (maybe but hopefully not someday in US), gun control, etc. Making sense of and trying to overcome SCP is the aim of the “science of science communication,” which uses empirical methods to try to understand the processes by which what’s known to science is made known to those whose decisions it can helpfully inform.
The science of science communication, I stated, suggests that the source of SCP isn’t a deficit in public rationality. That’s the usual explanation for it, of course. But using the data from CCP’s Nature Climate Change study to illustrate, I explained that empirical study doesn’t support the proposition that political conflict over climate change or other societal risks is due to deficiencies in the public’s comprehension of science or on its over-reliance on heuristic-driven forms of information processing.
What empirical study suggests is the (or at least one hugely important) source of SCP is identity-protective cognition, the species of motivated reasoning that involves forming perceptions of fact that express and reinforce one’s connection to important affinity groups. The study of cultural cognition identifies the psychological mechanisms through which this process operates among groups of people who share the “cultural worldviews” described by Mary Douglas’s group-grid scheme. I reviewed studies—including Goebbert et al.’s one on culturally polarized recollections of recent weather—to illustrate this point, and explained too that this effect, far from being dissipated, is magnified by higher levels of science literacy and numeracy.
Basically, culturally diverse people react to evidence of climate change in much the way that fans of opposing sports teams do to disputed officiating calls.
Except they don’t, or don’t necessarily, when they are engaged in deliberations on adaptation. I noted (as I have previously in this blog) the large number of states that are either divided on or hostile about claims of human-caused global warming that are nonetheless hotbeds of collective activity focused on counteracting the adverse impacts of climate change, including sea level rise.
Coastal states like Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, and the Carolinas, as well as arid western ones like Arizona, Nevada, California, and New Mexico have all had “climate problems” for as long as human beings have been living in them. Dealing with such problems in resourceful, resilient, and stunningly successful ways is what the residents of those states do all the time.
As a result, citizens who engage national “climate change” policy as members of opposing cultural groups naturally envision themselves as members of the same team when it comes to local adaptation.
I focused on primarily on Florida, because that is the state whose adaptation activities I have become most familiar, as a result of my participation in ongoing field studies.
Consistent with Florida's Community Planning Act enacted in 2011, state municipal planners—in consultation with local property owners, agricultural producers, the tourism industry, and other local stakeholders—have devised a set of viable options, based on the best available scientific evidence, for offsetting the challenges that continuing sea level rise poses to the state.
All they are doing, though, is what they always have done and are expected to do by their constituents. It’s the job of municipal planners in that state —one that they carry out with an awe-inspiring degree of expertise, including scientific acumen of the highest caliber--to make what’s known to science known to ordinary Floridians so that Floridians can use that knowledge to enjoy a way of life that has always required them to act wisely in the face of significant environmental challenges.
All the same, the success of these municipal officials is threatened by an incipient science communication problem of tremendous potential difficulty.
Effective collective action inevitably involves identifying and enforcing some set of reciprocal obligations in order to maximize the opportunity for dynamic, thriving, self-sustaining, and mutually enriching forms of interaction among free individuals. Some individuals will naturally oppose whatever particular obligations are agreed to, either because they expect to realize personal benefits from perpetuation of conditions inimical to maximizing the opportunities for profitable interactions among free individuals, or because they prefer some other regime of reciprocal obligation intended to do the same. This is normal, too, in democratic politics within liberal market societies.
But in states like Florida, those actors will have recourse to a potent—indeed, toxic—rhetorical weapon: the antagonistic meanings that pervade the national debate over climate change. If they don’t like any of the particular options that fit the best available evidence on sea level rise, or don’t like the particular ones that they suspect a majority of their fellow citizens might, they can be expected to try to stigmatize the municipal and various private groups engaged in adaptation planning by falsely characterizing them and their ideas in terms that bind them to only one of the partisan cultural styles that is now (sadly and pointlessly, as a result of misadventure, strategic behavior, and ineptitude) associated with engagement with climate change science in national politics. Doing so, moreover, will predictably reproduce in local adaptation decisionmaking the motivated reasoning pathology—the “us-them” dynamic in which people react to scientific evidence like Red Sox and Yankees fans disputing an umpire’s called third strike—that now enfeeble national deliberations.
This is happening in Florida. I shared with the participants in the conference select bits and pieces of this spectacle, including the insidious “astroturf” strategy that involves transporting large groups of very not normal Floridians from one to another public meeting to voice their opposition to adaptation planning, which they describe as part of a "United Nations" sponsored "global warming agenda," the secret aim of which is to impose a "One-World, global, Socialist" order run by the "so-called Intelligentsia" etc. As divorced as their weird charges are from the reality of what’s going on, they have managed to harness enough of the culturally divisive energy associated with climate change to splinter municipal partnerships in some parts of the state, and stall stake-holder proceedings in others.
Let me clear here too. There are plenty of serious, intelligent, public-spirited people arguing over the strength and implications of evidence on climate change, not to mention what responses make sense in light of that evidence. You won’t find them within 1,000 intellectual or moral miles of these groups.
Preventing the contamination of the science communication environment by those trying to pollute it with cultural division--that's the science communication problem that is of greatest danger to those engaged in promoting constructive democratic engagement with sea level rise.
The Florida planners are actually really really good at communicating the content of the science. They also don’t really need help communicating the stakes, either; there’s no need to flood Florida with images of hurricane-flattened houses, decimated harbor fronts, and water-submerged automobiles, since everyone has seen all of that first hand!
What the success of the planners’ science communication will depend on, though, is their ability to make sure that ordinary people in Florida aren’t prevented from seeing what the ongoing adaptation stakeholder proceedings truly are: a continuation of the same ordinary historical project of making Florida a captivating, beautiful place to live and experience, and hence a site for profitable human flourishing, notwithstanding the adversity that its climate poses—has always posed, and had always been negotiated successfully through creative and cooperative forms of collective action by Floridians of all sorts.
They need to see, in other words, that responding to the challenge of sea level rise is indeed perfectly normal.
They need to see—and hence be reassured by the sight of—their local representatives, their neighbors, their business leaders, their farmers, and even their utility companies and insurers all working together. Not because they all agree about what’s to be done—why in the world would they?! reasoning, free, self-governing people will always have a plurality of values, and interests, and expectations, and hence a plurality of opinions about what should be done! reconciling and balancing those is what democracy is all about!—but because they accept the premise that it is in fact necessary to do things about the myriad hazards that rising sea levels pose (and always have; everyone knows the sea level has been rising in Florida and elsewhere for as long as anyone has lived there) if one wants to live and live well in Florida.
What they most need to see, then, is not more wrecked property or more time-series graphs, but more examples of people like them—in all of their diversity—working together to figure out how to avert harms they are all perfectly familiar with. There is a need, moreover, to ramp up the signal of the utter banality of what’s going on there because in fact there is a sad but not surprising risk otherwise that the noise of cultural polarization that has defeated reason (among citizens of all cultural styles, on climate change and myriad other contested issues) will disrupt and demean their common project to live as they always have.
I don’t do science communication, but I do study it. And while part of studying it scientifically means always treating what one knows as provisional and as subject to revision in light of new evidence, what I believe the best evidence from science communication tells us is that the normality of dealing with sea level and other climate impacts is the most important thing that needs to be communicated to memebers of the public in order to assure that they engage constructively with the best available evidence on climate science.
So go to Florida. Go to Virginia, to North and South Carolina, to Louisiana. Go to Arizona. Go to Colorado, to Nevada, New Mexico, and California. Go to New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
And bring your cameras and your pens (keyboards!) so you can tell the story—the true story—in vivid, compelling terms (I don’t do science communication!) of ordinary people doing something completely ordinary and at the same time completely astonishing and awe-inspiring.
I’ll come too. I'll keep my mouth shut (seriously!) and try to help you collect & interpret the evidence that you should be collecting to help you make the most successful use of your craft skills as communicators in carrying out this enormously important mission.