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The struggles of scientific evidence in Miami


Scary stuff happening in Miami. I read some time ago the report by Robin McKie about the rise of sea level next to a city which on average is 1,8 meters above sea level. This means that more than 2,4 million people living in the city are at risk of higher sea level and already face problems such sewage water that cannot flow, fresh water contaminated by salty water, flooding coinciding with high tides, loss of land, etc.

According to Harold Wanless (Miami University) the sea level has increased by 25 cm since the 19th century. Wanless argues that by the end of this century, if climate change and the heating of the planet continues at this pace, water level could rise by as much as 2 meters and a city like Miami would disappear.

What is striking, writes McKie, is the almost lack of reaction by the city residents and authorities. Construction sites pop up regularly and people move into the city. Reading about the troubles of Miami, is kind of symbolic of the struggle that science and research face to make it into the policy discourse as well as mainstream public opinion. Despite the fact that floods happen regularly in Miami and the countless number of studies that confirm that the soil under Miami is made of porous rock which absorbs water, for McKie there is an astonishing lack of action (or re-action at this point).

One problem is that local policy makers are for the most part climate change deniers. If they do not believe that climate change is caused by human activities, they can’t believe that changes in legislation which are advocated by scientists and climate change activists will change things. They will actually damage Miami’s economy. It is quite interesting to see how on the one hand there are scientists who bring forward scientific evidence, data, trends, etc. and on the other the policy makers who speak of ‘believing’. It is extremely hard, I think to counteract somebody’s belief with hard scientific facts.

To me the problem seems to be that in climate change debate, people (the voters) can understand beliefs but may have trouble to grasp the hard science and the implications of apparently insignificant facts such as the increase of few centimeters of sea level over a century. However, as McKie shows, some policy makers are taking a different stance. The Mayor of South Miami, Philip Stoddard, argues that not to believe about science is not enough. His point is that a policy makers cannot bring forward the argument that if one is not a scientist s/he cannot accept the data and evidence that emerges from research in the field. These positive steps to listen more and better to the evidence from science are however exceptions.

What is unfolding in Miami confirms that policy makers and their bureaucratic machines are usually reluctant to accept and be open to evidence (and not just on climate change). Republicans are elected in Florida on the basis of policies that pursue economic growth, employment, support to business and their programmes and policies do not account for the environmental degradation caused by climate change. The climate change evidence is against that policy agenda and is therefore not welcome.

Global warming is happening right now. Climate is changing. It is astonishing that despite the fact that there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that since 1950s the climate system has warmed up and that there is a 95% probability that the planet warming is due to human activities, there are policy makers still declaring that they do not believe in the evidence. By the time the probability will be 100%, parts of Miami may have disappeared.

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