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What should science communicators communicate about sea level rise?

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.  

click me!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.







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Reader Comments (21)

What about sea level change? Nothing much happening between the historical rate and the present rate.

From 1880 to date, sea level has risen at a fairly constant 3" per century.

Now there are some very scary models out there, but they are being shown to have as much reliability as the models that have predicted massive increases in the worlds temp, which is to say none.

April 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

@Ed: What would you tell the local businesses -- members of tourism industry, developers, farmers, insurers et al. -- who will be participating in the Chamber of Commmerce mtg on the impact of sea level rise (which is perceived as magnifying the adverse impact of hurricanes by increasing the extent of flooding &, worse still, saline intrusion) on commercial life in Fla? As you note, sea level rise has been occurring for decades; the effects are cumulative. They *know* how much it has risen in the last 20 yrs; they have estimates about how much it will rise in the next 20-30-40, even the most conservative of which given them concern. If you showed up and said what you did in your comment, would you be telling them -- what? To go home & not worry about it? Is your comment part of their discussion -- or some debate that isn't of tremendous consequence for what they are doing?

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


My academic training is in urban planning and construction engineering and my current work is in public works construction, so I do understand the process.

At 3" per century, there is no problem with urban planning and public works projects due to seal level change. The affect and height of storm surge, which can be listed in 10's of feet or more, overwhelms centuries of sea level rise. The normal life cycle of buildings and highways tends to be less than one century of usable life, so normal replacement takes care of any needed mitigation for expected sea level changes.

There are many studies with data showing no increase in hurricanes, strenght of hurricanes, or number and strenght of tropical storms, so if this is perceived by those that are "selling" AGW, this erroneous perception needs to be addressed. That said, storm surge on normal hurricanes and tropical storms needs to be addressed as they are quite destructive as was seen in tropical storm Sandy that hit New York. If, as happened with Sandy, you have high tides with the right phase of the moon at the same time as the storm is coming in at the right angle, storm surge will be high and potentially devastating. An additional plus or minus foot would have meant nothing to Sandy's storm surge.

It is designing for storm surge one must pay attention to, not sea level change. Unfortunately, this is expensive and few localities want, or can, pay the money needed for protection. I remember reading planing reviews on New Orleans in the years prior to Katrina. If hit by a Cat 4 Storm under the right conditions and failures, the projected casualties reached into the 10's of thousands. What happened there was no shock to the planing community. The consensus was that New Orleans was lucky as it could have been much worse.


April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

" If you showed up and said what you did in your comment, would you be telling them -- what? To go home & not worry about it?"

If I showed up, I'd start with a talk about rivers, coastlines, erosion, and deposition, and Charles Darwin's interesting theory about coral atolls..

Rivers erode rocks and carry it downstream until it reaches sea level, when the gravity-driven flow stops, and the silt is dropped. The sea is filled in to form new land, which is why a lot of fertile land is so flat and so close to sea level. Considering sea level was a lot lower only a few thousand years ago, all that land is geologically new, and continually re-formed and maintained against erosion.

Along the coastline, and depending on the currents, some bits of coast are eroding, and other parts are being deposited. Where the water slows, sediment is deposited to form sandbanks, mudbanks, shoals and beaches. Again, new land if formed at sea level, and follows it. Mud gets compressed and squeezed by the weight of the material settling on top of it, and compacts over time. This process has been happening for as long as we've had oceans.

And Charles Darwin on his voyages cam up with an interesting explanation for coral atols. When a volcano first pierces the surface of the sea, corals can grow on it. Then as the volcanic rock erodes and slumps, the corals grow up to meet the surface. They cannot grow much higher than the surface, as they need to be submerged to survive, and the carbonate rock is soft and erodes rapidly. And yet below sea level the coral grows much faster than sea levels rise. So you get islands forming exactly at sea level, even though sea level is now far from where it was a few thousand years ago. It's not a coincidence.

As another illustrative example, I would show pictures of an archaeological dig. I would point out that the deeper you go, the older the artefacts. Soil is created and deposited, and the land rises slowly over the centuries. The rate of rise varies from place to place, but on flood plains it can be very rapid.

I would tell people that the land is dynamic. In some places it comes and goes, and to the extent that things stay the same this is a dynamic balance between competing contributors, of which sea level rise is one. If it continues to rise at the same rate, the same dynamic balance will be maintained and nothing much will change. Only if sea level rise accelerates far beyond the rate at which it is continually being formed will there be any new difficulty, and the effect will be that the regions of deposition will shrink somewhat and those of erosion will expand. But that once the forces balance again the changes will stop at the new equilibrium point. There are a few highly unrealistic computer models of ice sheets that speculate that it might, but not even the IPCC thought they were solid enough to be worth including in their projections.

And finally, I would discuss the contribution of man. On the one hand, land reclamation around cities has meant that many have grown faster than the seas have risen. There are some nice maps of New York here that you can run your mouse over to see how it has expanded over the ages.

On the other hand, flood defences stop the process of deposition, but the processes of sediment compaction, erosion, and - yes - sea level rise continue, resulting in the situation in New Orleans which the city has dropped below sea level and is surrounded by levees. If an alternative to floods is not put in place, you'll have problems whether the seas rise or they don't.

So yes. Coastal defence is necessary, perfectly normal, and has been a long-standing issue for as long as we've built on coasts and flood plains. People with no interest in global warming will still be interested in this. At the same time, it's less of a problem than some people like to claim, because it is a dynamic balance of competing processes, and it is one where we already have technological solutions, and are bound to develop even better ones over the coming century.

So my advice would be don't go home yet - we all need to decide what we're going to do about it - but not to worry - it's a manageable problem we already deal with routinely.

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@Ed: Are you in public works construction in Fla? What part? I'm eager to keep learning.

So far the people I've talked to in state tell me that the sea level rise occurring over the last decades has itself increased storm surge assocaited with hurricaine (a point having nothing to do w/ hurricaine strength) &, worse, the penetration of saltwater into fresh water auqifers in the state. I've read materials from the 1960s that address this -- materials prepared by Floridians engaged in dealing w/ the problem *in* Florida then. Memobers of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce aren't "selling 'AGW'"; they are selling things like hotel rooms, oranges, beach front property etc. The 2011 Community Planning Act wasn't passed b/c the state legislature and governor (!) are climate change crusaders. They find it annoying when anyone on either side says that any position on AGW is of consequence for the things that it makes sense for people there to consider doing.

What to do-- that's complicated and the sort of thing that involves costs & benefits & distributive effects that are always a matter of contention in democratic politics in places like Fla. & LA, &other coastal regions-- as @NiV points out. The sorts of things he points out about the natural rate of increase are things they know -- but also know are in fact in aggregate a threat to the way of life they enjoy; they've been containing and pushing back on natural processes of that sort for *decades*! So what's complicated is not less so if one believes that the only thing those states have to worry about is continuation of historical trends in sea level rise.

It's possible too that sea level will rise faster. Flordians can figure out how to work that contingency in too.

But when someone says, "what sea level rise problem? AGW is overblown!" then these citizens -- homeowners, business people, municipal planners etc. -- see that person as someone who isn't really thinking about life in Florida; they think he or she is someone who is just trying to cause trouble & agitation of a sort that they want no part of & they get pissed off.

Or at least that is the attitude I have encountered there. Is your experience different?

April 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

No direct work experience with storm surge other than reading reviews such as for New Orleans as I noted. I work in California which has more planning requirements for 100 yr floods than for storms.

I worry more about levy failure in the California Central Valley where you look up at water flowing 10 or more feet over your head in some subdivisions. When (not if ) these fail due to a major flooding event, there will be collective gasps about how this could have happened. Same as the cries of disbelief in both New Orleans and New York, neither of which took damage that had not been forecast in planing reviews.

Florida has real problems in quite a few areas, but saying that "taming" AGW will cure these problems does the public a disservice. Sea level change is not the problem. The main problems as I understand it relates to water overdraft and lax land use policy that is allowing land to subside and less flow from the rivers that allows salt to encroach farther inland and building in areas that are prone to storm surge.

Crying "sea level change" is, IMO, the equivalent of blaming witches for bad weather as happened in the 15 & 16 hundreds when the world was in the LIA. The historical rate of increase says not much more than normal increases are expected for sea level change. For low level areas, like Florida, they will have increasing problems, but not at any rate greater than can be adapted for.

South Carolina passed legislation that required planners to take into consideration historical rates of sea level change for land use planning. Activists were upset because the law requires planers to use the historic rate ( 3" / century ) and not the 39" / century the models show. This SC planning requirement is only good sense and something that Florida should look at as an example.

April 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

I find this an interesting & valuable exchange. I think you *agree* w/ me by & large -- & that @NiV the same.

But you understand me in some way, I think, that I not only don't intend but keep trying to disavow.

I am talking about a political process in Fla involving lots of diverse ordinary Floridians -- property owners, businesses, municipalities, insurers, farmers; university scientists who work in state universities in programs dedicate to understanding all the complex issues related to the states water issues; also conservation groups & others, but they only as one stakeholder group in a constellation of ones that have for 30-40-50 yrs been doing exactly what they are doing now.

You criticize "selling climate change," & disservice of "taming AGW."

But none of these concepts or anything remotely like them figured in my post. They *aren't* the way that the Floridians I'm talking about -- & in particular the municipal officials carrying out the mandate of the state's 2011 legslation -- talk. I think, in fact, they would believe it is confusing & counterproductive to talk that way.

You mention South Carolina -- actually, it was North Carolina, I believe -- that passed legislation saying to focus on "historic" sea level rise projections. Historical is enough, actually, in state like Fla & like N. Carolina too to justify continuing engaging w/ project of making the way of life in those states somethign that can continue in a profitable way. But N. Carolina passed that legislation to *do* what they are doing in Fla. And in Va, they passed legislation that doesn't mention "climate chnage": but that allows consideration of any model that anyone thinks might have relevant information in it -- for same purpose!

My *post* is about communicating that this project is *not* the climate debate. You respond constructively, in ways actually that are helping me to understand more; I appreciate that. But you *do* keep addressing the issue as if what sort of attitude one shoudl adopt about the self-government project I'm talking about in Fla were somehow an extensio nof the debate about "climate change models" & "climate change science" in some broader sense. Why?

And most importantly, *what* can people in Fla do to make it clear that that's not the way to think about this issue b/c in fact it is confusing & divisive precisely b/c of the antagonistic cultural meanigns that that completely unnecessary way of thinking of the issue injects into the discussion? Do you agree w/ me that this is a problem to be solved for them? That it is unfortunate that their efforts are taxed, essentially, w/ the polarizing associations of cliamte debate as it has taken shape, & that their project needn't &shouldn't be stigmatized that way?!

I have actually made a wager -- a significant one-- that you *do* agree w/ me on that. If not, fine. But if yes, tell me, too, how to make it pay off, b/c your reactions are information that can help. What can be said to dispel the inference you in fact draw that what I'm talking about is "selling AGW" & "taming AGW"?!

April 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Yes, it is NC. I live in SC.

I will say that there are aspects where all the comments are correct, and it is a lack of nuance that makes the disagreements look larger than they are.

However, I have dealt with COG's, council of governments, which include people with broad experiences including NGO's and the public on coastal concerns. Becuase of their lack of expertise but shared exchanges in meetings, COG's can come to conclusions contrary to facts that an engineer consideres relevant. I have had similar experience and the root cause is the limited numeracy of engineering criteria in the general public and politicians. This is unsuprsing; engineering is a specialist knowledge.

The lack of understanding has this effect: the sea is rising, man is responsible for some of it, thus storm surge is worse because of man and needs to be addressed. What is not realized is that in the time that the old structure existed, and the new structure is schedule to exist, the highest credible rise with current knowledge is 5 to 10 times less than our ability to actually measure storm surge. Add the fact that surge varys to each individual area and event, such as highest tide of the year as with Hugo, even an average value has large uncertainties; especially since each structure is designed for the conditions it is expected to meet. Most do not schedule for a Sandy or Hugo event which has been estimated at a one in 500 year event for each section of eastern seaboard coast.

In my meetings, the first item I address is what is engineering, how does it work, what is required, and what will you get. To give you an example of the problem with such large groups, I start by asking how do they approach a certain problem, the answer is "philosophically" or its equivalent. That is when I give them the information as to what services engineers can provide and what information or conditions are necessary for success. Usually at the end of the meeting, they schedule another meeting such that they can decide what are the specifications such that a real planning or study can be conducted.

But whether or not they believe it is climate change does not change the specifications in a very real sense since specifications are set to meet the expected conditions, how one arrives at the estimates or specifications becomes secondary in the sense of a small input as the current sea level rise. This is especially true in an area such as storm surge, or even wastewater treatment, when reality is so variable.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

So what do you say about the 'scienc communication" problem here?

I think it goes like this: if *you* & @Ed were the planners here, and said,

"the existing regime we have here for dealing w/ sea level impacts -- which includes sea walls constructed by the Army Corp. of Engineers in 1960s -- are no longer adequate. We are at point where we can see that the impacts we face yr in & yr out during hurricaine season are overwhelming the existing precautions (& not necessarily b/c the hurricaines are more frequent or intense). We need to make significant improvements, then, in existing infrastructure."

50 people would leap out of their chairs & scream that *you* are trying to "sell AGW agenda." This will cause lots of people to wonder whether they should listen to or trust you. You will then try to explain your science -- it won't work; b/c the issue is whether you are trustworthy, b/c if you aren't, why believe your numbers (which are not really something members of the public should be expected to understand clearly anyway; they hired *you* to deal with that!). Your job is becoming impossible. And the business communikty is pissed off b/c if the collective goods of containing the impacts isn't provided for, then Fla tourism and & agriculture are screwed. And of course, you say, "I'm not talking about AGW!!!!" But weirdly, no one hears that....

Do you see the issue? Do you agree, this is not a good communication environment? If so, what *should* be said *by whom* so that people in Fla have the same confidence in *you* that hey have had for 50 yrs?

April 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"They need to see, in other words, that responding to the challenge of sea level rise is indeed perfectly normal."

This is the rub. Sea level change at the historical rate of 3" / century is not a problem. If we use the models produced by the activists with 39" / century it is more serious.

I changed my major from Poli Sci to Public Admin ( not that much different ) mainly due to the fact I was MUCH more comfortable in the engineering environment than the political environment.

I actually have to go out to the field and do some work, so it will be a bit before I can respond to your questions to me :-)


April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

@Ed-- go into the field & do your work! thanks for your responses.

When you come back, and answer the "communication questions" I posed, consider whether even the historical rates of sea rise. NC, Va, La, Fla & other states are ones that citizens in those states (ones who aren't involved in climate change politics!) could view as grounds for concern. They all believe that. That's the point of my question.

They also believe that there will be more than 3" per century b/c even in recent decades it has been higher than that. The very informative & helpful link you supplied in your 1st comment (thanks!) itself reports 0.7 inches per yr from 1880-- or 7 inches per century. It also reports that rise has been 0.11 to 0.13 in period from1990 -- or century rate of 11 to 13 inches. (Do you not see what I do at that page?)

In SE Fla, the rise has been 5-8 inches in last 50 yrs. The projection -- based on historical alone -- is for 3" by 2030 or so. Or so people I've talked to in Fla say.

Sea level rise in gulf states (LA, e.g.) has supposedly been around 2 cm per decade in recent decades (8 inches per decade). This is also from the link you supplied.

I'm sure these figures are open to reasoned debate and interpretation, but they aren't ones that turn on IPCC report projections or like ones associated with debate over climate change nationally or internationally etc.

Obviously, Floridans are discussing what it woudl mean, too, if sea level rises *faster*, as it is projected to do under various models informed by one or another undestanding of evidence on climate science. Same thing In Va & other states. But the stake holders here are ones that share the understanding that it makes sense to do things -- just to continue donig them; they always have been doing them -- even under most conservative estimates. Likely some of them would say "do only most conservative," & others try to say "do somethign that goes beyond if the cost is justified given the likelihood that the higher estimates will be correct, etc." This is all normal debate. If someone says, "it's not worth doing anything, b/c everyting we do will be overwhelmed by sea level rise projected by climate change models" -- as could well be asserted by some -- he or she actually won't be a meaningful part of conversation, although in truth I could see how some would worry too about the efficiency of engaging in efforts now the effects of which might be enjoyed only for 2 or 3 decades (particularly if the cost of those efforts is borne by citizens in Florida more remote from the most effected communities -- or even ones outside it as clearly is true when the fed govt gives $50 billion to NJ/NY/CT to engage in efforts to fortify against sea level rise affecting them (actually, sea-level rise in upper NE has apparently been at *high* end of normal for last couple decades -- 8 inches in last 50 yrs).

But again, I'm less intersted in what the right numbers are than in how people who live in these areas, who aren't invested in any bigger "AGW debate," but *who are* interested in trying to figure out through their own democratic deliberations what the facts are & what to do should deal with the *noise* & *distraction* of people (on both sides!) who keep trying to link what they are up to strong, culturally polarized positions about cliamte change in national debate.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Dan, first Ed is correct and it agrees with what I stated: from an engineering veiw such a small increase is just part of the safety factor. Dan the existing regime as you state it is not what you think it is as far as I can tell. What the engineer does is to get the policy makers and budget to agree to a standard. That standard is usually refrerenced as a 100, 250, or 500 year storm, or flood. Your beginning statement of ""the existing regime we have here for dealing w/ sea level impacts -- which includes sea walls constructed by the Army Corp. of Engineers in 1960s -- are no longer adequate"" I can not see occurring unless someone is busy poisoning the conversation, because it is not real as an engineer would consider real. 3" in a century is immaterial to a calculation that has a +/- 1 foot interval for a structure that may last intact on the order of 50 years.

As I stated what the conversation is, is to explain in this case, what a 100, 250, 500 year event means, what it costs to build, costs of maintenance, and expected lifetime. Several scenarios would be offered. The conversation would, if allowed, be controlled so that opinions as to cause would not be considered, because they are irrelevant.

One of the interesting sidelines to this is that those who wanted infra-structure needs be based on historical data is because that is actually how it is done. Engineers and their standards are frequencist in nature. Whether 3 inches or 6 inches in a century with a large error that will give a 10 to 20 fold safety factor above whether it is 3" or 6".

If someone is saying that we need significant infrastructure improvements based on AGW they do not know existing lifespans and engineering standards, or they do have something to sell. What it is they are selling, I would have to ask questions to determine and they may well be untruthful about it.

What we do know in the case of hurricanes on the east coast is that every 500 years as an average, every mile of coastline and islands are scoured to sea level or below. I know it stars in the gulf coast for this stat. I can't remember how much above Virginia it includes. Of course, it is more frequesnt in Florida, and less frequent in Maine, but that is where the use of past historical data is used. A 100 year standard for Florida may well approach a 1000 year standard for Maine.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

"But again, I'm less intersted in what the right numbers are than in how people who live in these areas, who aren't invested in any bigger "AGW debate," but *who are* interested in trying to figure out through their own democratic deliberations what the facts are & what to do should deal with the *noise* & *distraction* of people (on both sides!) who keep trying to link what they are up to strong, culturally polarized positions about cliamte change in national debate."

Well, 'top tip' number one is to not mention the words "climate change". And it would also be a good idea to not make "sea level rise" so central. It's actually about "coastline management" - erosion, deposition, flood defences, sea defences, aquifer management, rivers, harbours, beaches, urban planning, etc.

Sea level rise is only one factor, and probably not the most important one. Climate change is, from an engineering point of view, not relevant. It will have no significant consequences within the relevant engineering time scale. So why mention them?

I suspect the real answer is that it is because you can get extra funding for climate change adaptation - but of course that puts you square in the middle of the political debate. To take advantage of the political situation is to involve oneself in it, and to take a position on it. Maybe the price is worth it.

However, if you want to avoid political controversy and polarisation, the easiest approach is simply to not introduce the topic of "climate change" into areas where it is not relevant. It sounds so easy in principle...

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: But notice who keeps saying "AGW/climate change" etc. I'm not saying that those involved in adpation never do, of course. Many do in fact-- maybe they "shouldn't" strategically but in fact they are just trying to sort out what their situation is. But it is the organized & orchestrated insistence that the need to do things in relation to the impacts from rising sea level rise is "part of" or "depends on" any particular position on how climate change will affect their future that they resent! That's what the post is about. What should they do about that?!

@John: Same question. Unless you are saying -- are you? -- that that those working on adaptation on Florida are wasting their time & their own & others' resources. Maybe I should leave out the "engineer," if you think he or she has nothing to say (in fact there are plenty involved in the discussion there). But what should those planners who *are* offering their opinion, at things like the Chmber of Commerce event in Miami, supposed to do when people say, "Oh, you are just saying that b/c of the bogus science being advanced by climate change alarmists, who are themselves involved in socialist power grab"? Actually, can you see how weird it is to tell business peole in Fla they are parties to a social power grab? I'm sure you know many of them are in Fla *b/c* of a socialist power grab; that many of them would be very happy -- b/c they *were* or their fathers or uncles were -- to be handed a weapon & sent down to invade Cuba by the US, although of course they'd really need a lot of evidence to believe that the US would actually back them up this time!

I think really, @JFP & @Ed, that I'm talking about a group of Floridians that include many people who see eye to eye w/ you on climate change generally & likely on all kinds of other things, from who should be President of US to how to cook a steak to whether the line on the Georgia Tech vs. LSU bowl game or the the Georgia Tech vs. South Carolina game one is off -- or who wouldn't & would happily argue w/ you about that & a million other things w/o ever having any reason to feel about you anything other than that you are just one of their neighbors who is enittled to his own silly opinion etc. That's *not* the picture, though, by people who want their neighbors to see people who are showing up at things like the Miami Chamber of Commerce meeting (!) as "socialists crusaders" etc. Leave aside whether it is 3" historically or in fact more than that, historically, as suggested by the link that @Ed pointed us to, and tell me, b/c I still think you probably agree w/ me, that this is a "communication problem" that deserves a solution, how the people involved in this process should respond?

April 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, you stated "I think really, @JFP & @Ed, that I'm talking about a group of Floridians that include many people who see eye to eye..." That is correct. What NiV, Ed and I are pointing out is one of the problems with paradigm of climate change that comes from political aspects, not physical aspects. The local adaptation for almost any phenomena you want to consider, heat, hurricanes, tornados, drought, flood is set by a standard or one that will be developed. But note, the problem, a hurricane is not climate change. Further for each of these, the supposed increase due to CC is not significant with respect to the expected lifetime of the structure and the total variation that has to be met to meet the operative definition such as "safe" or that it meets a 100 year flood. Meeting these are set by local conditions, they will not necessarily be the same in Florida as in Maine as I pointed out.

Thus if someone is stating that it is because of CC they are unaware of capabilities, or are selling something such as an idea, or some other reason. Not physical capabilities. One does not build 100 versus a 101.5 year flood. One's materials of construction and the modularity of the construction techniques will dictate whether one has met a 100, 135, 150, etc condition. This often occurs due to standard building materials and forms. Also, as one goes up in years which is actually an increase in wind, flood, etc, one reaches a condition of diminishing returns for any design. A famous designer told a story on himself when he decided he wanted to design a building that could withstand 250 mph Cat 5 hurricane, about a 500 year standard, designed one that would work. However, at constant wind speeds below about 75 mph, the building became unstable and tended to self-destruct. This is what the standards help with. This is part of the reason that New Orleans flooded as it did. It was a lack of political will to pay for a higher flood level. Depending on the foundation or lack, a small height increase is an exponential cost increase.

Dan, we are pointing out that those who say we need to build certain things for climate change will tend to create resentment because, at this point, it is nonsense in most situations. This is one of the reasons persons such as myself are called deniers when we point out the fallacy. There are no measured reasons to do so. The result of mitigation will be a counter factual. A requirement to be able to withstand 75 mph sustained winds in a building zone where sustained winds of 100 mph can be seen on a decadal basis is NOT going to be effected by a 1% increase in likelihood. The building and the design is a fact. Think about it. This puts it at the actual opposite of what policy of mitigation does for us. On the other hand, local conditions are local and evidence of cause or risk estimates are not discrete enough for the increase expected in the models to be relevant. The variability is too high. This is one of the legitimate points about those who are pointing out there is no average temperature. They just do such a bad job of it because they are attacking the wrong phenomena, and are not doing science.

On a personal/professional note I care not if they are socialists or conservatives, it does not change my design to meet standards. Now how much money they are willing to spend, that will change what I can design or build for them.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

NiV -

It will have no significant consequences within the relevant engineering time scale.

No uncertainty there? And anyone who might have some uncertainty, who might consider a cost/benefit risk analysis worthwhile, in the process of policy evaluation, is just wrong to do so?


Dan, we are pointing out that those who say we need to build certain things for climate change will tend to create resentment because, at this point, it is nonsense in most situations.

The cause-and-effect for the resentment is more complicated than that.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Quick drive by using Wiki on storm surges

"The highest storm tide noted in historical accounts was produced by the 1899 Cyclone Mahina, estimated at 43 ft (13 meters) at Bathurst Bay, Australia, but research published in 2000 noted the majority of this was likely wave run-up, due to the steep coastal topography.[13] In the United States, one of the greatest recorded storm surges was generated by 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which produced a maximum storm surge of more than 25 ft (8 meters) in the communities of Waveland (41.5 ft), Bay St. Louis (38 ft), Diamondhead (30 ft) and Pass Christian (35 ft) in Mississippi.[14] Another record storm surge occurred in this same area from Hurricane Camille in August 1969, with the highest storm tide of record noted from a HWM as 24.6 ft (7.5 m), also found in Pass Christian (the back side of St. Louis Bay got up to 35 ft).[15] The worst storm surge, in terms of loss of life, was the 1970 Bhola cyclone and in general the Bay of Bengal is vulnerable to storm surge.[16]"

1, 2, or 3 feet means nothing when designers look at numbers such as above.

April 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

"But notice who keeps saying "AGW/climate change" etc."

The government?

I was looking at a few of your links above. "Southeast Florida Climate Compact"?

Who were you thinking of?

"I'm not saying that those involved in adpation never do, of course. Many do in fact-- maybe they "shouldn't" strategically but in fact they are just trying to sort out what their situation is."

You mean they're not organised and orchestrated?

"But it is the organized & orchestrated insistence that..."

Are they not "just trying to sort things out"?

Who exactly do you think is organised and orchestrated, and who is organising and orchestrating them?

"What should they do about that?!"

It has nothing to do with climate change. It has little enough to do with sea level rise. You can't stop people bring the subject up, but you can move it from centre-stage by talking about all the things that *are* relevant.

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: Do you -- or do you think members of the public will see the word "Climate" in "Southeast Florida Climate Compact"--an agreement formed by four Fla counties (Broward, Monroe, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach) for the purpose of coordinating thier municipalities compliance with 2011 Florida Community Planning Act (that's the answer, I believe, to the "who is orchestrating & organizing" *them*)-- as a reason to distrust the intentions of the officials involved? And also of the various groups in civil society -- businesses, property owner associations, et al.? That could be. Maybe they should have done something different. Maybe they should never use the phrase "climate change," either as many of them of course do (although no one actually disputes that the "climate" "changes" b/c it has always been changing & in ways that people there have always had to deal with). I guess that was the message legislators who wanted to initiate the same sort of planning proces "got" in Virginia.

The "put what's relevant on centre-stage" point is actually the point of my post, too, is it not? They should simply *show* citizens who they are & what their intentions are; that matters more than graphs & images of floods etc.-- is more responsive to the uncertainty and doubt that ordinary citizens likely are experieincing about what the aims of the municipal actors are. The parties who will make it difficult for them to communicate that very true picture of what's going on, moreoever, are various; I will very happily acknowledge that (and if the occasion arises, unhappily remark it, no matter who it is that is interfering).

So it is a sad situation; a sad representation of the difficulty of containing the toxicity of the contemporary climate debate as it migrates from national to local level. I find myself wishing that *that* assessment, at least, could be one that people could agree on independently of the identities that motivate positions in the national controversy -- b/c if they could, there would be some prospect for them figuring out how to stop the spread of this form of pollution and to adopt practices that might avoid recurrence of this sort of contamination of the science communication envioronment.

But we need a new topic, don't we? (Or a new version of this topic; there really isn't any other on this site)

April 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Do you -- or do you think members of the public will see the word "Climate" in "Southeast Florida Climate Compact" [...] as a reason to distrust the intentions of the officials involved?"

It's not a question of "distrusting" them. It's a question of recognising them as a partisan in the political climate change dispute. Climate change activists have formed lobby groups to get their favoured political actions implemented at a local level, bypassing Congress, and they put the words "climate change" and "sea level rise" in their literature and proposals as markers of their partisan allegiance. People recognise who they are.

It's a standard political campaigning technique. Partisans in government make public funds available for "adapting to climate change" which is used to fund local groups who campaign for various changes with a "climate change" tag, and by cynical non-partisans who see inserting the current buzzwords and fads into their proposals as an easy way to get more funding, thereby further advertising them. People follow the herd - so if they see actions being taken and policies implemented with the "climate change" tag, they figure it must be something to take seriously and follow along. (And maybe it is, but you can't tell from watching the movements of herds.) They seem to have taken over the local planning function and turned it into a climate change mitigation activity, at least as far as its public image is concerned.

But while that re-labelling of an unrelated administrative function works to shift the general perception of climate change mitigation as 'something we do' rather than merely 'something we campaign for', it also attracts opposition, particularly if they are directing public money towards it. That aims to shifts perceptions towards it being 'just another political fad they're wasting our money on'.

Which if it results in necessary coastline engineering being messed about, is a sad outcome. I agree with you that this represents a pollution of the science (engineering?) communication environment with loaded partisan meanings. I just think it happened earlier, when they started loading it with "climate change" terminology, and that the people running around talking about 'UN Agenda 21' are only the natural reaction to it. I think the antidote, as I said earlier, is to make it clear by explaining the science of coastal dynamics that climate change and sea level rise have little to do with it, and it's all utterly normal, business as usual.

Although some would no doubt argue it would be partisan to do so. After all, "utterly normal, business as usual" is a partisan position, isn't it?

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Joshua, yes there are many reasos for resentment. I spoke of one that is directly related to the actual sequence of shareholder meetings to structure sequence. There are others as NiV points out in this sequence.

NiV, yes it is pollution of science. An engineer is a "practical" scientist.They builds things that meet standards that give the desired result based on science, though almost always empiricist/frequectist.

April 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

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