Analysis: Conservancy climate change survey represents a sea change in SWFL attitudes, politics

Sunset Delnore Wiggins after TS Colin 2 6-6-16

Sunset on Delnore-Wiggins beach in Naples after Tropical Storm Colin, June 6, 2016.   (Photo by author)

Feb. 21, 2019 by David Silverberg

A new public opinion survey released by Southwest Florida environmental groups may have finally broken the local political taboo against talking about climate change.

The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey was released yesterday, Feb. 20, by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental advocacy organization. It surveyed 800 adults over 18 years of age of which 401 were in the Fort Myers area, with proportions in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. The survey was conducted online from September 25 to October 2, 2018 and had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

Its most outstanding finding was that people are aware of and believe there is climate change—something not previously apparent in Southwest Florida:

  • 76 percent have noticed more severe weather and changing seasonal weather patterns over the last several years;
  • 75 percent believe that climate change is happening;
  • 71 percent are concerned about climate change;
  • 59 percent believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.

The turning point was Hurricane Irma in 2016. As Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida stated, “Hurricane Irma was a wake-up call for Southwest Florida.”

The survey confirms this, stating that the hurricane “has made most [Southwest Florida residents (SWFR)] more concerned about climate change, motivated them to prepare for climate impacts, and inspired them to do more to stop pollution. A vast majority of SWFR agree that all levels of government should do more to protect mangroves and wetlands. High majorities view extreme weather and rising sea levels as a threat to their community. Most SWFR say red tide and algae outbreaks are being made worse by climate change.”

In addition to simply confirming that Southwest Floridians are aware and concerned about climate change, the survey discovered public support for government action to deal with the effects of climate change in Southwest Florida:

  • 93 percent agreed that local, state, and federal governments should do more to protect mangroves and wetlands;
  • 67 percent say  the government  needs  to  protect all  people  from  the  impacts  of extreme weather;
  • 62 percent say if the U.S. took steps to prevent future climate change, it would improve our health;
  • 54 percent say if the U.S. took steps… it would improve the economy;
  • 53 percent say if the U.S. took steps… it would increase jobs.

There is much more to the survey that can be accessed on the Conservancy’s website.

Analysis: A sea change

The importance of this survey to Southwest Florida’s politics and culture cannot be overstated. It is a sea change—literally.

Even after Hurricane Irma, it was taboo to discuss climate change in public life in Southwest Florida. Gov. Rick Scott (R) banned the term “climate change” from official state usage. President Donald Trump, during his campaign and after his inauguration, dismissed it as a Chinese hoax—and he continues to dismiss it to this day.

The conventional wisdom in Southwest Florida was that the area’s deep conservatism and Republicanism made mention of climate change political poison. It was never mentioned in the news and even TV weather forecasters did not use the term or attribute extreme weather events to it for fear of offending viewers, as privately told to this author.

The expectation was that any mention of climate change would bring an immediate and intense backlash. Southwest Florida officials, appointed and elected, never mentioned it or attributed local climatic changes to it. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) stated that “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age,” during a town hall meeting in February 2018.

Even Hurricane Irma did not break the stranglehold. Despite this extreme weather event, climate change was never referenced by local meteorologists to explain the storm’s formation or intensity. Subsequent wildfires, droughts and intensely hot summers brought no attribution or reference to climate change either. (To see this author’s Dec. 8, 2017 letter to the editor of the Naples Daily News acknowledging climate change, see “Climate change is here.”)

Last year the stranglehold began to break. The advent of red tide in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River made clear that larger climatic forces were at work and people were suffering as a result. It was a crisis that no one could deny or cover up and it was clearly exacerbated by official government environmental neglect and indifference.

During the 2018 congressional election campaign, Democratic candidate David Holden made environmental protection the keystone of his campaign and raised the issue of climate change, by name, for the first time in a Southwest Florida political campaign. He campaigned to make Southwest Florida the most climate change-resilient place in the nation. However, Holden lost the general election 37 percent to 63 percent. (Full disclosure: This author served as his communications director.)

For all this ferment, there was no hard data on Southwest Florida attitudes on climate change and the subject continued to largely be taboo in public discourse.

The Conservancy survey now reveals that Southwest Floridians recognize the role of climate change, are ready to publicly acknowledge it and take appropriate action both personally and officially. What is more, the survey revealed this in a rigorous, scientific way, so it will be very difficult if not impossible for climate change deniers to dismiss or refute it.

Climate change is now in the public forum and the Southwest Florida public is ready to have a real discussion based on facts and science. In this regard the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the affiliated organizations that funded the survey—the Community Foundation of Collier County and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation—have done a signal service.

It is like the world acknowledging Galileo’s confirmation that the earth revolves around the sun despite the dogma of the past. For the first time, Southwest Floridians can plan, prepare and discuss the issues of climate change in the light of facts and scientific reality without fear or foreboding.

Liberty lives in light

 

 

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