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.

How Can Research Better Inform Decision-making? Let’s Discuss….

As a Leopold Leadership fellow, one of my primary practice year goals is to do research that has impact on major sustainability challenges. Many of the resources available to help scientists inform decision-makers focus on communication – how to engage with non-scientists, speak in clear language, and distill your main messages. I’ve learned a lot about these techniques through the Leopold program, which has encouraged me to make a “message box,” engage on twitter, and interview for information.

But if what we do as scientists is truly going to help solve complex global problems involving humans and the environment, we need to embed this kind of thinking not just into our outreach and engagement, but into how we do our science itself.  That is, the goal of having impact should inform the design, methods, and process of our research as well as its communication. At MIT, I’ve been working with a group of other faculty and researchers who are interested in how we can do better research when our goal is to inform policy-making.  The MIT Leading Technology and Policy (LTP) Initiative, made possible by a generous donation, has sponsored a variety of events around science and technology policy, and supports ongoing research in this area by awarding postdoctoral fellowships.

In September, we organized a small workshop at MIT to kickstart a conversation on this topic. To focus our discussions, we chose the topic of energy, environment and sustainability, but invited selected colleagues from across the U.S. and Europe whose focus was both within and outside this domain. We discussed specifically how methods of analysis can better capture the role of technical and natural constraints in research to inform policy. Participants discussed their latest work in watershed science, carbon management, climate variability, and globalization of clean energy technologies, among others. In focused, small-group discussions, we addressed selected broad issues faced by the technology and policy community.

One of these focused discussions addressed how educational programs can better train future scientists and engineers to address policy-relevant issues, which often involve social, natural and technological dimensions. MIT’s Technology and Policy Program has, through its nearly 40-year history, trained both academics and practitioners in this area. Much research has also been done, largely in the social sciences, to better understand why and how scientific information is influential in decision-making contexts. However, we found during the workshop that while many of us were broadly familiar with relevant literature, we did not have a shared body of knowledge to ground our discussions. To follow up on this issue, I’ll be working with interested faculty from other institutions to collect relevant syllabi, resources and case studies to help inform future education, including full-length courses, modules, and short courses.

Ultimately, we hope to catalyze a larger community of research and practice interested in technology, policy and related issues. If you are interested in participating, we have started a collaborative web site to share materials and coordinate future activities. We also anticipate having further discussions at the next CESUN conference in June 2014. We look forward to intellectual exchange and input from colleagues around the world in this endeavor.

Structured Conversation on “Public Intellectualism”

The Leopold Leadership Program is designed to encourage academic scholars to play a larger role in public and political debates on critical environmental issues.  While I am excited to step more fully into this role, what some might call that of a “public intellectual,” I think that we need to be careful and cognizant that there are hazards along the way.  If we are not careful, we may find ourselves losing the legitimacy of the role of an objective academic scholar to being seen as an interested and subjectively biased advocate.  There is an important need to discuss and layout the landscape of public engagement for academic scholars.  So, to start this process, the following notes and questions offer a way to create a structured discussion on the questionHow to play (tactics, pitfalls) the “public intellectual” without stepping over the line to losing the objectivity of academia?

To begin the discussion, Roger Pielke Jr. (in his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2007) offers four roles that scientists can play in policy debates.

1.  Pure scientist:  Focus on research with no consideration for its utility—“more frequently a myth”

2. Issue advocate:  Focus on implications of research with a particular policy agenda—“reduce scope of  available choice”

3. Science Arbiter:  Seeks to stay removed from politics, but resolves positive questions from politicians  (ie. National Research Council)

4. Honest Broker: Seeks to integrate scientific knowledge with a stakeholder concerns by offering  alternate possible courses—“expands scope of available choice”

With this as a starting structure, here are a series of questions that can guide discussion on this important topic:

1.  How far outside our area of specialization can we drift in our public comments?  We have seen economists comment on climate modeling, and climate scientists comment on cap and trade.  Is this out of bounds for us as academics?

2.  On that count, where do we draw the line between being an academic and being a public citizen?  Certainly we can talk in the abstract about putting different hats on. But in practice it is not so easy or clear.

3.  When we get hostile emails, do we reply?  When we have hostile comments following an article or editorial, do we reply?

4.  Are there any outlets are illegitimate (journals, editorials, blogs, tweets, business conferences, skeptic conferences, etc)?

5.  Should we lend our name to notably political issues?  For example, there is a referendum on a Renewable Portfolio Standard here in Michigan (25% by 2025).  Is there any risk to my academic legitimacy by adding my name so such an initiative?  What if it was more extreme – a ban on all meat sales, to be extreme.

6.  Roger Pielke describes the “Honest Broker” as one who “expand the scope of choice available to decision-makers…and explicitly integrate scientific knowledge with stakeholder concerns in the form of alternative possible courses of action.”  He/she provides all information on a particular topic and allows policy makers and the public to reduce the scope (i.e. make a decision).  He differentiates this from the “Pure Scientist” (who focuses on research with no consideration for its use or utility. He adds that this role is more frequently found in myth than practice), the “Issue Advocate” focuses on the “implications of research for a particular political agenda,” and the “Science Arbiter” who will answer questions from decision makers to clarify research (i.e. the National Academies).  Do people agree with this structure, or do they find it too confining?

7.  Pidgeon and Fischoff argue that the current climate debate will require the coordination of multiple roles within climate science: “(1) Subject-matter experts to present the latest scientific findings, (2) decision scientists who can identify the most relevant aspects of that science and summarize it concisely, (3) Social and communication scientists who can assess the public’s beliefs and values, propose evidence based designs for communicating content and processes, and evaluate their performance, and (4) Program designers who can orchestrate the process, so that mutually respectful consultations occur, messages are properly delivered, and policymakers hear their various publics.”  Does this resonate with people?  Should academic scholars rely on others in the research process stream to disseminate their work?

8.  Do people have good role models of academics who stay academic scholars while wading into the public and political debate?

9.  How does the idea of playing the role of public intellectual change our publication strategy and outlets?

10.  Is this a role that can only be played at certain stages of our careers?

11.  How do we work this idea into the four part structure that Roger Peilke develops in his book “The Honest Broker”?

12.  What other questions are out there for how to play this role?  I feel that the terrain is not well mapped out.