How Academics Got Traction on Climate Change with Florida Politicians

 

Jeff Chanton explains climate change to Florida Governor Rick Scott.  Photo: Jennifer Portman

Jeff Chanton explains climate change to Florida Governor Rick Scott. Photo: Jennifer Portman

In the year 2000, I watched the Gore-Bush debates with a sense of disbelief. Al Gore was talking about putting social security in a lock-box and not tackling George W. Bush on climate issues. What about the CO2 problem? Climate wasn’t mentioned in those debates or in the campaign. And, over the next decade, Democrats were afraid to bring up the issue, reckoning that everyone who was concerned about it would vote for them anyway, and they didn’t want to alienate independents confused by fossil-carbon industry hype.

Suddenly, this year, in Florida at least, we’ve got a Republican governor casting himself in a green light, and a Democratic candidate who wants to air the issue. How did this happen? Maybe the tidewaters in the streets of Miami on clear days had something to do with it? Maybe it was the concern of local governments in the southern low-lying areas of the state? Whatever the cause, we got traction and faculty members drove it — finally.

The specifics of this transition were related to two things. First, Florida Governor Rick Scott had recently amended his position as a climate change denier. He announced that he was not a scientist and was therefore unable have an opinion. Second, a power corporation unveiled plans to build a second nuclear plant at the bottom of the Florida peninsula. Taking their best estimates into account, the corporate officers allowed for a 12-inch rise in sea level by 2100. University of Miami Professor Harold Wanless was concerned about this under-estimate, and wrote a letter to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Scott, expressing his concern. He suggested that as policy makers and leaders of a state as vulnerable to climate change as is Florida, they should consider meeting with him and collecting information — from a scientist.

Susan Glickman, an activist and a friend of Professor Wanless, then entered the picture. Susan is the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a longtime associate of the National Resources Defense Council. She organized 9 more climate scientists and faculty members, including me, to sign onto Wanless’s letter. I had worked with her 7 years earlier in a successful effort to derail the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Perry, Florida, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. I had gotten involved with that effort because I was contacted by local citizens in Perry who were fighting the location of the coal plant in their community, and I met Susan while at a meeting in Perry. If any other non-scientist had called me about signing onto Wanless’s letter, I might have declined. And I admit at the moment she called I felt somewhat harassed: I was reviewing papers, working on proposals and counseling my students on writing their papers. But, I agreed, even though it felt like a distraction.

Don’t misjudge me, I’m a climate advocate. I cover the subject in detail in my undergraduate classes. Living in Florida’s capitol, I give talks to government entities, including the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission. I’ve pounded the beat of local churches, civic groups (the Lions Club), and high schools. Fifteen years ago my wife and I and several neighbors even started a local environmental group that bought climate change educational supplements in the newsletter of our natural food coop. But honestly, of late it was feeling rather fruitless. The fossil carbon industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has kept up a steady stream of misinformation to confuse the public.

Four days later Susan called again and asked me to hand carry the signed letter to the governor’s office. She arranged for a reporter, Mary Ellen Klas, from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times to meet me there. Mary Ellen photographed me handing the letter to the governor’s staff and wrote articles and online stories about the request of 10 climate scientist to educate our non-scientist governor. It must have been a slow news week, because these stories received a lot of attention. I even had an interview on “Here and Now,” an NPR radio program. Governor Scott, on the campaign trail, was asked about the request in several press conferences. He said that he’d have his staff meet with us.

The next day, I got a call from Scott’s Democratic challenger, former Governor Charlie Crist. I met with him on July 25. My university, Florida State, asked me to do this off campus at the Florida Press Center. The room was full of media folks, and Republican demonstrators picketed when Crist arrived. He listened carefully to my 30-minute climate change presentation and asked some good questions. Afterwards he talked to the press, advocated for solar energy, and stated that even though he wasn’t a scientist, he had a brain, which he could use and talk to a scientist.

Three days later, I was contacted by the governor’s staff to set up a meeting. We set the date far enough out so that other signers of the letter could join. Five of us met at the governor’s office on August 19 at 4:30 pm. We got 30 minutes with the governor, roughly half of which was spent on introductions. At the end of the meeting, he thanked us, and quickly left the room. In subsequent days, he did call for increasing attention to the environment, mentioned sea level rise, surface and ground water clean up, and Everglades restoration, but did not speak directly to climate change. Nonetheless, environmental concerns are being addressed by both candidates in this election, which is, in my book, a huge victory.

Timing – of course — is everything. The timing that made this effort successful was its coincidence with the gubernatorial Florida election, which pits a Tea Party conservative against a former Florida governor who was an Arnold Schwarzenegger Republican — fairly liberal, and especially on climate. He was so liberal, in fact, that he became a Democrat. He had to, after embracing Obama on health care. Additionally, there have been stories of late about high water levels in South Florida streets. Finally, there was not much other news that week. Had we to compete with the events that unfolded in Missouri the next month, there would have been no story for us.

I would like to add that my university has been entirely supportive of my activities. I have received supportive emails from the president, my college dean, and my department chair. David Hasting, another of my colleagues in this endeavor, has become the star of Eckerd College, which is going to host a climate solutions summit in October. From the start, I was careful to inform FSU administrators of my activities and I clearly communicated that I was not conducting lobbying activity. I always made it clear that this work was strictly of an educational nature. I couched it terms that while I regularly presented the science of climate change to young adults, I rarely had the opportunity to educate older adults who directed policy and that this was sorely needed. My administrators agree with this assessment.

Jeff Chanton, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Beyond “More Data Are Needed”: How Scientists Can Participate in the Policy Process

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Karen Lips admiring a red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). A new chytrid fungus of salamanders has recently been discovered in Europe; infected imports of pet salamanders could threaten US salamander diversity. (photo: Carly Muletz)

How exactly do you do policy? That was my question when I applied for the Leopold Advanced Training session on Hitting the Policy Mark last August. I signed up because I wanted to learn more about the policy process and how it might offer practical tools to reduce the loss of amphibians from invasive pathogens. While a graduate student and later as an assistant professor I had observed disease epidemics pass through several of my research sites and wipe out the amphibians. We had no idea of how to stop this disease, where it came from, or much about its biology. What we did know is that this microscopic fungus was devastating amphibian populations around the world, and the loss of all those amphibians was causing problems for the animals and ecosystems that depend on them. Worst of all, we saw little evidence that this disease could be eradicated once it was established at a site.

Clearly something needed to be done to stop the spread across the globe. For example, in the U.S. a federal regulation or other policy could be designed to allow us to test live animals in trade for disease, and then prevent them from escaping into the wild to infect other populations of amphibians. After some research I was surprised to learn that while polices exist to prevent the import of diseased livestock and agricultural pests (overseen by the US Department of Agriculture) and similar policies give the Center for Disease Control authority to control the arrival of human pathogens (like Ebola); no regulations exist that allow for disease surveillance of wildlife imports or that give US Fish and Wildlife Service the power to prevent the import of diseased wildlife. That’s right – any kind of wildlife, not just amphibians. This is a problem, and one that is likely to get worse with huge numbers of wildlife species traded globally and new infectious diseases being discovered every year.

What wasn’t clear was what was needed to develop a policy to tackle this growing problem. Who was in charge of writing such a bill, or implementing such a regulation? What kind of information did they need? Where did I, a field ecologist, fit into the process? So I went to the internet. But I could find no textbooks on “Policy 101” (I looked), useful online guides (I googled that), or academic papers describing how to get involved in the policy process. I wasn’t even sure what it meant “to do policy.” What kinds of activities does that entail? How does one get involved? And what exactly do we, as scientists, have to offer that would be of any help?

With the guidance of the Leopold trainers I started digging into the issue of wildlife disease policy, talked with colleagues who worked in agencies and NGOs on policy-related wildlife issues, and met with policymakers to hear their opinions. I requested meetings with the natural resource committees in both the House and the Senate, and I participated in the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species Legislative Fly-in. NECIS arranged meetings between a group of us scientists with legislative assistants from several Congressional offices, and organized a Congressional briefing on Invasive Species, where three of us presented research related to H.R.996.

Recently, Chad English, the Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS who facilitated the training, told me I’d done it! I’ve “done” policy! I talked to colleagues, got meetings with legislative staff, and have been closely connected to the ongoing policy discussions now trying to address this issue. I know lots of scientists who’d like to get more involved, but aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I learned from this experience:

1) Leverage your networks. If you want to get more involved in policy, use your existing networks to provide openings, introductions and opportunities. In my case the Leopold Network provided the guidance and suggestions for how to start, and then I contacted my friends and colleagues who work on wildlife policy issues. Living in the DC area, and working with various agencies and conservation organizations as part of my academic position, I already knew some key people who worked on this issue. One colleague became my navigator – somebody who explained the ins and outs of the issue, identified the concerns of opposition groups, and was willing to work with me and others as part of his job. I was lucky that some of the outreach activities and academic projects I had worked on in the past reappeared in this policy context and served as important links to ongoing policy activities. Those past efforts showed my new contacts that I had established connections and previous policy experiences, and that I was serious. My scientific network was especially critical when it came time to write a 10-minute briefing; I contacted several of my old friends for the most up-to-date info, insights and opinions on the topics I didn’t know as well.

2) Clear, concise communication is important. This was true at every step of the way. When I met with committee members or when the NECIS group met with Congressional staff, it was critical that speakers provided concise but relevant comments that explained the concern, why it matters, and what, if anything could be done. These meetings were short – all were less than an hour, most were 30 minutes or less – and there was no time for rambling, tangential, or sloppy explanations. Crafting a thorough, engaging, and accessible 10-minute talk for the briefing was a great test of the communication skills I’d learned in the Leopold Leadership Program. I totally rethought how I was going to present this talk and led with a more dramatic and personal story than I would normally use in a scientific talk, because I wanted to get the audience’s attention and communicate concern about this issue. I created a storyline that related my research to the loss of our native biodiversity and highlighted the gaps in our existing policies, which allow imports of wildlife without testing for infectious diseases or pathogens. I ended with a reference to existing legislation awaiting action in both houses.

Effective communication was especially apparent at the July hearing held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The subcommittee convened two panels of experts (one of federal scientists and one of scientists from private conservation organizations) who presented testimony on S.1153 and seven other bills. I was impressed at the brevity of the testimony – we heard introductions from several senators, testimony from four different experts, and a Q&A between the senators and experts on all eight bills and they still finished within 75 minutes! That’s because the full written testimony is entered into the congressional record, but all presentations were less than five minutes. If only faculty meetings were so efficient!

3) Know your audience. As when giving a good talk or media interview, it was important to know something about each legislator’s district and its issues, and the legislator’s background and interests to prepare for the group meetings. I used this iPhone app to read up on bill sponsorship, committee actions, committee membership, and voting records of all the legislators we visited. It was relatively easy to identify one or more invasive species that were a financial or health risk for every district or legislator. And while we scientists like to promote the ecological benefits of taking action, and the moral and ethical aspects of conserving biodiversity, the most powerful arguments were those that showed the financial burden of invasive species introductions. Every expert and senator, regardless of their position on the bills they were considering, mentioned the expected financial burdens to taxpayers and to agencies of every proposed bill, or the costs that would result from not passing such a bill. Requests for more research funding or claims that “more data are needed” won’t cut it here.

4) Work with what you’ve (already) got. At every stage in the process, it was especially helpful to be able to discuss specific legislation – in this case the companion bills H.R.996 and S.1153. Even though both bills had a low probability of becoming a law, they provided a starting point for a conversation that I tailored to fit that person’s interests. For example, in some of my meetings I discussed general issues of invasive species; in others, the usefulness of these bills in filling a regulatory gap; in still others I asked about the reasons for the lack of cosponsors or what an improved version of the bill would include.

I saw another example of this during the NECIS Fly-In, where I got to see how consultants and lobbyists worked with conservation organizations to advocate for particular legislation. I heard them discuss the political realities of invasive species legislation, which items were noncontroversial and likely to gain bipartisan support, and how new political, social or scientific developments would affect reception of the bill. It was obvious that these were ongoing discussions between colleagues that were important in sharing knowledge and finding areas of agreement where the various stakeholders might find a mutually beneficial outcome.

Final Thoughts

In the end it was clear that the legislative process, much like other forms of outreach and engagement, requires a lot of patience and persistence to build support and maintain momentum. As of July 2014 S.1153 was still in the Environment and Public Works committee awaiting mark-up for the reconvening of Congress after August Recess. Meanwhile, in July another bill was introduced in the House, H.R. 5156 that would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to identify and declare wildlife disease emergencies and to coordinate rapid response to these emergencies.” It has been referred to several subcommittees for consideration, so perhaps we will see future discussion of this issue before the end of this session. I’m not sure what the future holds for any of these bills, but I am hopeful that all this legislative activity reflects the real concern I heard regarding the risk of new wildlife diseases being imported into the US.

This was an incredibly valuable opportunity to see how the legislative process works, and also how the legislative process interacts with regulatory agencies. I learned a lot about the policy process and was encouraged that many of the skills and approaches also apply to the general issues of communication, outreach, and engagement (see also this article on what scientists need to know about policy). It took some time to meet the right people, but nothing I did required any special skills or connections. The hundreds of people I saw visiting their representatives this summer reminded me that government decisions rely on both public opinion and on science.

So how about it? Are you ready to “do policy?” It’s a good time to let your voice be heard.

Karen Lips, a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor and directs the graduate program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter (@kwren88).

Teaching Leadership: Inspiration for the New Academic Year

ReciprocityStickyNotes

The reciprocity ring: a reminder that leaders are willing to ask for help, and everyone has something to offer

The start of the academic year can be a natural time to try something new. If you’re looking for inspiration for new course content on leadership, read Kate Knuth’s recent post on IonE’s Boreas Environmental Leadership Program blog. Kate, who directs Boreas, facilitated a special session on environmental leadership at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in August. It attracted participants across the spectrum of career stages — from undergraduates to retirees — and sparked a lively, engaged conversation on these questions:

  • Where and how have you learned best about your own leadership and potential for impact?
  • What skills/connections/practices/support systems do you think are important for developing environmental leaders? How do these differ at different points in a person’s career?
  • How could organizations you are part of help to develop people’s leadership capacities? Think of universities, agencies, professional societies, etc.

There’s a great summary of the group’s insights and advice in Kate’s post. What leadership idea or practice are you most interested in exploring with students this year? Leave a comment.

Before and After: Applying “Communication Design” Rules

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about storytellingpresenting, and design.  Of all the changes that I have made as a result of these lessons, the most immediate impact has been in the way that I think about and visualize my message. The following before and after examples show just how easy it is to do this….

The most effective visuals are those that have a single focus. As Garr Reynolds points out in his book Presentation Zen Design, there are two simple ways to emphasize what is important in images, charts and graphs. The first is to use contrast by exploiting differences in color, shape, proximity, and size. The second is to use a declarative title. For example, “Deforestation Rates Peaked at 27% in 1995” quickly relays the meaning of a figure while the more common “Deforestation Rates over Time (1990-2010)” is more elusive.

Note that people will interpret your slides and figures first by reading the titles, then by looking at the shapes or images in the foreground, and lastly by focusing on details like the legends, axes title and any other extraneous information. You want to design your images to complement this visual flow.

The following 3 “before and after” examples apply these and other concepts from my previous blog to old presentations that I have given and figures that I have improved on for publication. I created the figures in Stata, but they can be easily reproduced in software as simple as Excel, or in other programs like R, with a few additional lines of code.

Figure 1A – Slide with Photos of Deforestation 

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The slide above is from an old presentation. Notice that the three photos create clutter because they are small and do not provide a uniform theme. The title is descriptive, not informative.

Figure 1B – Revised Slide with Single Focus

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In this revised slide the clutter is removed, the image is full bleed (see Akash Karia’s book for more examples), and the title is included within the photo. I have increased the blank area of the photo (where the title is located) by matching the background color to the sky. The image has been cropped to fit the space, making sure to maintain the asymmetry (the house and the cow are off-center).

Figure 2A: Deforestation over Time for the Original Control and Treatment Groups, 1990-2009

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This second example is a time-series line graph. It is intended to display the increase in deforestation over time for a control and a treatment group. The colors and legend are the defaults in Stata.

Figure 2B:  Deforestation on Farms of the Original Control and Treatment Groups (Mean Hectares by year, 1990-2009)

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The revised figure is a simpler, cleaner version of the prior. Note that I changed the background color to white; used a warm color  (i.e., one from the red, orange and yellow hues) to highlight the treatment group (because these colors pop out rather than blend in with the background; see Reynolds); and have created a title that is informative. In addition (see Schwabish), the y-axis title is moved to the subtitle and the legend removed. The y-axis tick mark labels are rotated to be horizontal (and easier to read), and the mean lot size is added to provide a benchmark. The result of these edits is that the differences between the control and treated groups are quickly evident.

Figure 3A: Table of Associations Used in Study of Social Networks

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This final example shows one way to translate tables into figures for presentation. The table above includes information about household participation in 10 different farming associations. While the information is relevant to the study and appropriate for inclusion in our paper, this is too much information to display in a presentation.

Figure 3B: Household Participation (Percent) in 3 Most Popular Associations over Time

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Figure 3B provides one alternative to the Figure 3A above. It displays the participation rate in the top 3 associations. Note that the bars are listed horizontally to better capture trends over time (as you move downward) and that the totals are placed within the bars instead of outside to better balance the image. The y-axis label is not included because this information is in the title.

The above before and after examples are just three of the endless ways in which you can improve upon your visuals. If you want to learn more, one of the simplest ways is to open your eyes to the lessons that are all around you in advertisements, on billboards, and on your smart phone. Keep in mind that you can achieve simplicity in design with the three fundamental principles: “restrain, reduce, and emphasize.”

Do you have any old slides or images that you’d like to update with these design tips in mind? If so, note a comment below and submit them to me: jlcaviglia-harris@salisbury.edu. I can include these on a future blog with additional tips or just get back to you personally.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

5 Essential Elements of Impactful Design

Dome

Design is the language of the eye

Design can make the difference between an impactful message and a forgotten claim. Design is not decoration, but rather plays a functional and organizational role in delivering a message. As David McCandless points out in his TED talk “The Beauty of Data Visualization,” design is the language of the eye. Given this potential, it is surprising how often the opportunities to create this impact are lost in academic presentations and figures in publications.

My mother exposed me to design when I was a child with a color wheel, tutoring me on the differences between hue, tint, and the importance of contrast… and painting our house a new color almost every year. She taught me calligraphy when I was 10, creating the opportunity to learn about font, serif, and the flow of text. This outlook helped me to see the world differently, but I can’t say it impacted my career until recently. It was hard to see how design could be applied to communication when the recipe for presentations at academic conferences is set (and veering from this can have negative consequences). This changed after I stumbled across Jon Swabish‘s article “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data.” Combining this with the long list of resources I had only just begun to review opened me up to the profound impact of design in communication.

To make images more impactful, it is important to understand the golden rules of design.  First, one of the simplest ways to make a composition visually appealing is to work in odd numbers. One, three and five are more interesting than two, four, or six. This is because even numbers allow the brain to group more easily, making them less memorable and appealing than their odd cousins. Designers also use the rule of thirds to guide placement (see Ang Tian Teck’s Sticky Presentations for a great visual on this concept). In this context, the subject is located along one of the 3 x 3 grid intersects of the image.

These rules are just the start. I have found the following elements of impactful design to be most useful in communicating research findings:

1. Test Your Design Knowledge. Learn what you know (and don’t know) about design solutions by testing your knowledge with the “Graph Design IQ Test” on the Perceptual Edge Web site www.perceptualedge.com.

2. Keep It Simple. Whether you’re preparing slides for a presentation or a figure for an article, you want to reduce clutter and focus on one point. Forget about slide limits. They are free. Use as many as you need (keeping to only one point per slide). In figures emphasize the main point with color and focus. Delete extraneous information and detail. Embrace white space. This creates natural contrast, allows the brain to “breathe” and provides focus where you want it.

3. Make It Big. Your audience should be able to read your text from the back of the room during a presentation. Your reader should be able to understand your figures without squinting. As Nancy Duarte notes in Resonate, your slides should have more in common with billboards or road signs than the images you see elsewhere. In other words, they should be understood quickly and seen from great distances. To gain a perspective on the right size, Garr Reynolds suggests in his book Presentation Zen Design that you view your slides in the slide-sorter. If you can’t understand or read them in this view, your text or image is probably too small for those in the back of the room.

4. Know Your Fonts. Most experts in design recommend the use of one, or at most two, different fonts in a presentation. As Akash Karia recommends (How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides), you should use size (and not various fonts) to depict importance and create emphasis.  Serif fonts aid readability for longer sections of text because the serifs (or the end strokes) lead your eye from one word to the next. On the other hand, sans serif fonts are often preferred for figures and slides since the lack of end strokes makes each individual letter easier to distinguish.

5. Seek Asymmetrical Balance. Asymmetrical balance is achieved when both sides of an image are not identical, yet appear to have the same visual weight. On the other hand, symmetrical (or formal) balance is achieved by creating the reverse of a design on the opposite side of a vertical or horizontal axis. While symmetry achieves balance through repetition, asymmetry achieves balance through contrast. Similar to the use of odds and the rule of threes, asymmetrical balance results in beautiful and impactful images because of the work the brain has to perform to recognize the visual weight.

In my next blog I’ll share examples using these essential elements. What helps you most to design impactful presentations and figures? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) see her additional entries on storytelling and presenting and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.