It’s the data, stupid: How scientific illiteracy among politicians — and everybody else — puts us all in danger

click to enlarge RANGER RICK: The guv’s environmental politics may suck, but he had fun donning park-ranger drag in 2012. - FLGOV.COM
RANGER RICK: The guv’s environmental politics may suck, but he had fun donning park-ranger drag in 2012.

Nobody expects Donald Trump to say anything enlightened about any issue, even climate change.

On Sept. 17, during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, though, he made some particularly uneducated comments about the phenomenon scientists have been documenting for half a century.

“I consider it not to be a problem at all. I think it’s weather, I think it’s weather changes,” he said, adding that he’s more concerned with “nuclear climate change.” Neither statement prompted a question from the show’s hosts.

To those who actually have careers within scientific fields, Trump’s comments, while not entirely unexpected, were bafflingly ignorant.

“That’s doing a real disservice to the scientists who’ve spent their careers actually reading the scientific literature and contributing to the scientific literature,” said Craig Joseph, a professor of astronomy and planetarium director at St. Petersburg College. “For a politician to just give sort of a hand-waving dismissal of all that really kind of irritates me.”

It’s doubtful Trump — or any of his counterparts — would ever attempt to slog through one of the thousands of painstakingly researched scientific papers affirming aspects of climate change, like ocean acidification or sea-level rise, let alone the bleak reports the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published in recent years.
Such literature is generally, of course, not the easiest read. But that’s not the reason Trump and his ilk haven’t ventured.

It’s because those in his camp — like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who famously banned use of “climate change” or any related terms among Florida government workers — refuse to endorse the behavior changes necessary to reduce carbon emissions.

A common refrain among climate deniers like Scott, many of whom get substantial backing from industries that stand to lose if Florida or the U.S. takes any significant measure on climate change, is “I’m not a scientist.”

“People have been duped by oil companies and other things since the early ’80s about the reality of climate change,” said Hal Wanless, chair of the geological sciences program at University of Miami. “Exxon used to be the leader in carbon dioxide, climate change research until the early ’80s. And then they decided to put off getting involved … and started what became this massive denial thing.”

Wanless was in town earlier this month to take part in a conference dealing with the potential effects of sea-level rise, one of the most talked-about impacts of global climate change, especially in Florida.

His audience consisted largely of academics and employees of environmental nonprofits, but sprinkled among them were elected officials.

“We’re entering a new world where the old rules aren’t going to apply,” Wanless told his audience. “You need to understand this so you can know how to go in and make a real difference.”

For most scientists, the debate over climate change isn’t whether it’s happening or whether humans caused the bulk of it. Their focus is on how soon we’ll see its effects, how to address them and the degree to which they’re reversible.

Meanwhile, the deniers — both politicians and private citizens — cling to ignorance.

“There is a consensus in the scientific community that global warming is real,” Joseph said. “There’s no question about it, really, and yet when you listen to the news or read the newspaper, you often see people say things like ‘I don’t believe in global warming’ and things like that. And it’s not a matter of belief. There are hard, solid facts.”

click to enlarge WATER’S EDGE: A USGS chart shows how much of our region is close to sea level; the highest spots (10 to 32 feet above) are represented in red. - United States Geological Survey
United States Geological Survey
WATER’S EDGE: A USGS chart shows how much of our region is close to sea level; the highest spots (10 to 32 feet above) are represented in red.

To climate scientists,
coastal cities like St. Petersburg, Tampa and Miami have a lot of preparing to do if city leaders don’t want to watch the coastline lap inward, making waterfront areas uninhabitable.

You’d think the increase in the number of flooding events — like those associated with Miami’s regular, high "king tides" — would silence the political dithering, given the fact that the trend is a strong indicator that water levels are increasing.

But the governor calls such events “nuisance flooding,” and many of Florida’s coastal residents are equally clueless.

Wanless recalls a conversation he had with a condo resident whose parking lot was left impassable after recent flooding. She blamed the incident on a water main break.

“She said, ‘The city was going to fix this. What’s wrong? Why haven’t they done this?’ And I said, ‘Welcome to sea-level rise.’” (According to Wanless, there was no water main break.)

Ignorance on part of the public is one thing — you can’t mandate science literacy, and many take their cues from pundits, popular culture, lack of education or misinformation from media outlets.

“People just seem to choose to believe or not believe what they want, and kind of ignore the scientific evidence or data that supports some of these ideas,” Joseph said. “Even something like landing on the moon. One-third of the American public thinks it was faked, it was a conspiracy of some sort.”

But for elected officials to deny a phenomenon repeatedly proven true over years via hard data and objective analysis is another thing, given that they’re supposed to be making decisions in the public interest.

“All of these things are going to get more difficult, and it’s not going to be suddenly in 2050 or 2060. Every year, it’s going to be worse,” Wanless said. “It’s going to become more and more frequent, more and more severe, and when we get our hurricanes on top of it, it’s going to be more and more catastrophic. How come we have a governor and a Republican senator from Florida that’s denying this? At this point, it’s an abomination that we would elect them.”

While know-nothings at the state and national level continue to fulminate on whether or not climate change exists, local officials, especially in coastal communities, have to deal with reality.

Take Pinellas County, which spends millions to keep its beaches from washing away and will likely have to deal with encroaching peninsular waters.

Fortunately, the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners has a relatively unified approach to climate change.

“It has been very refreshing to be kind of all on the same page even though we’re not all in the same political party,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who was elected last year when the board became majority Democrat.

“There’s a concentration on what we have to do here rather than ideology; there are things coming up that we need to be paying attention to, so it’s not time to be spouting whatever [one’s] radical opinion might be.”

It’s a marked difference from four years ago, when a number of commissioners, inspired by Tea Party hysteria over fluoridation, voted to have fluoride removed from the county’s water supply despite outrage from parents and the science community. The county briefly became a national laughingstock for doing so.

Those days are over, Gerard said, but there’s always a chance that someone who is anti-science might get elected to the board.

“It is a little scary, thinking that we have four people up for reelection next year,” she said. “The balance can change just like that.”

St. Petersburg City Councilman Karl Nurse also emphasizes the importance of electing people who aren’t science-averse.

“Local officials create zoning ordinances, enforce and update our FEMA local codes that implement FEMA regulations, we build infrastructure regularly,” said Nurse, who was at the SPC conference where Wanless spoke. “And so if you elect people who understand that the sea level is rising, you can plug that knowledge into decisions every time you replace a bridge or build a building or create requirements for how high off the flood plain buildings have to be built or where you are going to create space for the water to go when you have floods.” 

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