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The "living shorelines" science communication problem: individual cognition situated in collective action

Extending its Southeast Florida Evidence-based Science Communication Initiative, CCP is embarking on a field-research project on "living shoreline" alternatives/supplements to "hardened armoring" strategies for offsetting the risks of of rising sea levels. The interesting thing about the project (or one of the billion interesting things about it) is that it features the interaction of knowledge and expectations.  

"Living shorelines" offer the potential for considerable collective benefits.  But individuals who learn of these potential benefits will necessarily recognize that the benefit they can expect to realize from taking or supporting action to implement this strategy is highly contingent on the intention of others to do the same. Accordingly, "solving" this "communication problem" necessarily involves structuring acommunication process in which parties learn simultaneously about both the utility of "living shorelines" and the intentions of other parties to contribute to implementing them.

The project thus highlights one of the central features of the "science of science communication" as a "new political science": its focus not only on promoting clarity of exposition and public comprehension but on attending as well to the myriad social processes by which members of the public come to know what's known by science and give it due effect in their lives.

Elevating “Living Shorelines” with Evidence-based Science Communication

1. Overview. The urgency of substantial public investments to offset the impact of rising sea levels associated with climate change is no longer in a matter of contention for coastal communities in Florida.  What remains uncertain is only the precise form of such undertakings.

This project will use evidence-based science communication to enrich public engagement with “living shoreline” alternatives (e.g., mangrove habitats, oyster beds, dune and wetland restoration)  for “hardened armoring” strategies (concrete seawalls, bunkers, etc.). “Living shorelines” offer comparable protection while avoid negative environmental effects--beachfront erosion, the loss of shoreline vegetation, resulting disruption of natural ecosystems, and visual blight—that themselves diminish community wellbeing.  The prospect that  communities in Southern Florida will make optimal use of “living shorelines,” however, depends on cultivating awareness of their myriad benefits among a diffuse set of interlocking public constituencies.  The aim of the proposed initiative is to generate the forms of information and community interactions necessary to enable “living shorelines” to assume the profile that it should in ongoing democratic deliberations over local climate adaptation. . . .

3. Raising the profile of “living shorelines.” There are numerous living shoreline” alternatives to hardened armoring strategies. Mangroves—densely clumped shrubs of thick green shoots atop nests of partially submerged roots—have traditionally combatted the impact of rising sea levels by countering erosion and dissipating storm surges. Coral reefs furnish similar protection. Sand dunes provide a natural fortification, while wetland restorations create a buffer. There are also many “hybrid” strategies such as rutted walls congenial to vegetation, and rock sills supportive of oyster beds.  These options, too, reduce reliance on the forms of hardened armoring that impose the greatest ecological costs.

As a policy option, however, living shoreline strategies face two disadvantages. The first is the longer time horizon for return on investment. A concrete seawall begins to generate benefits immediately, while natural-shoreline alternatives attain maximum benefit only after a period of years.  This delay in value is ultimately offset by the need to augment or replace hardened armoring as sea levels continue to rise; the protective capacity of natural barriers “rise” naturally along with sea-level and thus have a longer lifespan. However, the natural bias of popular political processes to value short over long-term gains and to excessively discount future costs handicaps “living shorelines” relative to its competitors.

The second is the diffuse benefits that living shorelines confer. Obviously, they protect coastal property residents. But they also confer value on a wide-range of third parties—individuals who enjoy natural beach habitats, but also businesses such as tourism and the fishing that depended on the ecological systems disrupted by armoring. 

In addition, the value of coastal property will often be higher in a community that makes extensive use of “living shorelines”, which tend to be more aesthetically pleasing then concrete barriers and bunkers.  But the individual property owner who invests in erecting and maintaining a living shoreline alternative won’t enjoy this benefit unless other owners in his or her residential area take the same action.  As with any public good, the private incentive to contribute will lag behind the social benefit.

The remedy for overcoming these two challenges is to simultaneously widen and target public appreciation of the benefits of  natural shoreline protections. The constituencies that would enjoy the externalized benefits of natural shoreline strategies—particularly the commercial ones—must be alerted to the stake they have in the selection of this form of coastal property protection.  Likewise, business interests, including construction firms, must furnished with a vivid appreciation of the benefits they could realize by servicing the demand for “living shorelines” protections, including both their creation and their maintenance.  Recognizing that local coastal property owners lack adequate incentives to invest in natural coastline protections on their own, these interests could be expected to undertake the burden of advocating supplemental public investments. The voice of these groups in public deliberations will help to offset the natural tendency of democratic processes to overvalue short- over longer-term interests—as would the participation of financial institutions and other actors that naturally discount the current value of community assets and business appropriately based on the anticipated need for future infrastructure support. The prospect of public subsidies can in turn be used to reinforce the incentives of local property owners, whose consciousness of the prospect of widespread use of natural shoreline protections will supply them with motivation to support public provisioning and to make the necessary personal investments necessary to implement this form of climate adaptation.

The project is geared toward stimulating these processes of public engagement.  By furnishing the various constituencies involved with the forms of information most suited to enabling their recognition of the benefits of natural shoreline strategies, the project will elevate the profile of this strategy and put it on an equal footing with hardened armoring in public deliberations aimed at identifying the best, science-informed policies for protecting communities from rising sea levels and other climate impacts.

4.  Evidence-based science communication and living shorelines. . . . .

[T]he challenge of elevating the profile of “living shorelines” features the same core structural elements that have been the focus of CCP’s science-communication support research on behalf of Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. Science communication, this work suggests, should be guided by a “multi-public” model.  First are proximate information evaluators: typically government decisionmakers, their primary focus is on the content of policy-relevant science. Next are intermediate evaluators, who consist largely of organized nongovernmental groups, including ones representing formal and informal networks of local businesses, local property owners, and environmental and conservation organizations: their focus is primarily on how proposed policies affect their distinctive goals and interests. Finally there are remote evaluators: ordinary citizens, whose engagement with policy deliberations is only intermittent and who use heuristic strategies to assure themselves of the validity of the science that informs proposed policies.

The current project will use this model to guide development of communication materials suited to the public constituencies whose engagement is essential to elevating the deliberative profile of “living shorelines.”  Proximate evaluators here comprise the government officials—mainly county land use staff but also elected municipal officials—and also homeowners, including homeowner associations, in a position to make personal investments in “living shorelines” protections. With respect to these information consumers, the project would focus on maximizing comprehension  of the information embodied in TNC’s computer simulations. Existing research identifies systematic differences in how people engage quantitative information. Experimental studies would be conducted to fashion graphic presentation modes that anticipate these diverse information-processing styles.

The intermediate evaluators in this context consists of the wide range of private groups that stand to benefit indirectly from significant investment in “living shorelines.”  These groups will be furnished information in structured deliberations that conform to validated protocols for promoting open-minded engagement with scientific information. 

These sessions, moreover, will themselves be used to generate materials that can be used to develop information appropriate for remote evaluators. Research conducted by CCP in field-based science communication initiatives suggests that the most important cue that ordinary citizens use to assess major policy proposals is the position of other private citizens they view as social competent and informed and whose basic outlooks they share.  In particular, the attitude that these individuals evince through their words and actions vouches for the validity of policy-relevant science that ordinary members of the public do not have either the time or expertise to assess on their own.

From experience in previous evidence-based science communication projects, CCP has learned that interactions taking the form of the proposed structured deliberations among intermediate evaluators furnish a rich source of material for fashioning materials that can be used to perform this vouching function.  The participants in such deliberations are highly likely to possess the characteristics and backgrounds associated with the socially competent, knowledgeable sources whose vouching for policy-relevant science helps orient ordinary citizens.

Moreover, the participants in such sessions are likely to be socially diverse.  This feature of such sessions is highly desirable because the identity of individuals who perform this critical vouching function, work in and outside the lab confirms, varies across diverse cultural subcommunities. In addition, being able to see individuals who perform this role within one community deliberating constructively with their counterparts in others assures ordinary citizens from all of these communities that positions on the issue at hand are not associated with membership in competing cultural groups. This effect, CCP field research suggests, has been instrumental to the success of the diverse member communities of the Southeast Florida Climate Compact in protecting their deliberations from the influences that polarize citizens generally over climate change science.

Accordingly, using methods developed in earlier field work, CCP will use the intermediate evaluator deliberations to develop video and other materials that can be used to test how members of the public react as they learn about “living shorelines” as a policy option for their communities. The results of such tests can then be incorporated into communication materials geared to generating positive, self-reinforcing forms of interactions among the members of those communities.

Finally, evidence of the positive interactions of all these groups can be used to help form the state of shared expectations necessary to assure that “living shorelines” receive attention in public deliberation commensurate with the value they can confer on the well-being of communities that use this option. . . .

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Reader Comments (1)

Interesting reading. Similar efforts are needed for the Salish Sea / Puget Sound. On the East Coast, north to south beach sand transfer processes for coastal barrier islands frequently mean that single actions to install a breakwater affect neighbors who then feel the urge to do the same, but collective non action is good for all. The system may be as accretionary as it is erosional. But that sort of ready cooperative solution is not available everywhere.

See for example:

And: " Coastal bluffs are the primary source of beach sediment along the Puget Sound shore, and their natural erosion is critical for maintaining beaches and spits over the long term. " Meanwhile: "Waterfront property, whether along high bluffs or on low, sandy spits, constitutes some of the highest-value real estate in the region." "A chronic problem is society’s tendency to ignore the fact that beaches and bluffs are not static systems, and that interfering with their dynamic processes may have undesirable consequences. Human use of beaches and bluffs can jeopardize habitats and reduce the sustainability of the features. The construction of waterfront homes puts them in areas prone to natural hazards. Building houses on spits and beaches poses serious hazards from coastal flooding and storm damage and may cause increased erosion. Erosion control and diking associated with building near beaches can cause the destruction of salt marshes and backshore habitat. Constructing access roads to developments at beaches often restricts water flow into estuaries, altering habitats and aesthetic qualities. Building on bluffs can exacerbate landslide hazards due to loss of stabilizing vegetation and alteration of drainage patterns. Attempts to stabilize bluffs and reduce erosion through the construction of bulkheads and seawalls ultimately decreases the supply of sediment to nearby beaches, altering habitats and possibly shifting erosion problems to other shorelines. The cumulative impact of human modifications to the shoreline (currently one-third of Puget Sound’s shoreline has been armored) may be far-reaching in terms of both habitat and existing human activities, particularly in the face of anticipated increases in the rate of sea level rise."

But my favorite is on the coast, Washaway Beach where denial is delightful: and

November 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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