What To Do After Ian
Use it to Start Some Broad, Bi-Partisan Dialogue
Winston Churchill is credited with the expression, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The context was the end of World War II, one of the most destructive and tragic events in world history. And the opportunity he found in its aftermath was the formation of the United Nations.
There’s a lot to admire in this view, and I am reminded of it now, as we confront the horrific effects of our climate crisis — most recently with Hurricane Ian.
The hurricane was truly devastating. It took lives and livelihoods, destroyed hearth and home, and generally wreaked havoc. And we know this is not the end. We all have to worry about more and worse storms in our immediate future.
But rather than sit back and worry, we can instead look for the opportunities that this terrible crisis presents.
I think one smart action would be to encourage diverse groups of people to work together on solutions right now, while the consequences are still fresh. On many occasions I’ve seen people overcome division and tribal loyalties when they work together on solving future problems. Why not try that here?
I learned about inclusive and collaborative problem solving across diverse groups when I worked at TNC. For example, we’d regularly organize Republican hunters and Democratic tree-huggers to lobby together for conservation legislation and funding. The trick was focusing on future outcomes both sides wanted and temporarily putting aside the many other topics on which they would likely never agree.
It usually worked. First, we’d build broad support for whatever policy we were pursuing. Next, the two sides would discover they actually had a lot in common and liked one another more than they expected — paving the pathway for better cooperation in the future.
I recognize that many climate advocates, fed up by years of very slow progress in addressing climate, are angry and want to attack opponents who have blocked progress. I understand, and I'll acknowledge that such a strategy can be important. But it can't be the only strategy. To accelerate policy progress in the US over the years immediately ahead, we need to build broader and stronger political support. And I think we can do it.
The Time is Now.
This would be a really good moment to try this by bringing diverse groups of citizens together in Florida to explore the very practical and timely question of how to protect themselves from a future Ian. How should Florida best address "climate adaptation?"
My prediction: Once our Floridians get together and study all options, I bet one conclusion they reach is that building sea walls for protection against sea-level rise and extreme weather is not their favorite solution. Instead, they’ll prefer "nature-based" solutions like restored mangroves or dunes to provide as much of a buffer as possible. Indeed, some real estate moguls in Miami have already figured this out.
Wouldn't it be great to see a bi-partisan group of Floridians emerge to endorse nature-based climate solutions like this right now? I don't see why that can't happen.
Once they find some common ground, the group could also be encouraged to tackle some tougher issues too. After the hurricane, should the government encourage or discourage rebuilding homes and other buildings in badly damaged coastal areas? Or would doing so just be putting people and property back in harm's way?
I can imagine our group concluding that the better choice would be to restore nature in these very areas so that they could provide a robust nature-based buffer. It wouldn’t be difficult to design programs to facilitate this kind of transition fairly. And it would be inspiring — especially right now — to see bi-partisan enthusiasm for this kind of nuanced policy.
Finally, as our folks keep getting to know one another and building rapport, they might get even more ambitious and tackle the challenge of "climate mitigation.”
Here, I believe the best place to focus would be accelerating the build out of clean renewable energy (solar, wind, storage, transmission). Economically, it just makes sense and is mostly all good news.
Costs for clean energy are falling extraordinarily quickly and will likely keep falling thanks to the "learning curve." Fossil fuel, on the contrary, will remain expensive (there is no learning curve) and will continue to cause global political challenges. Clean energy has the added benefits of improving health outcomes enormously, lessening the impacts of climate change, and providing a superior user experience – have you ever met someone who drives a Tesla and didn’t love it?
Just imagine for a minute reading in the news about a new bi-partisan initiative in Florida supporting accelerated deployment of clean energy.
Such bi-partisan advocacy could be very important in unlocking the economic incentives for clean energy and electrification in the recently passed IRA bill — as many provisions require leadership by state and local government officials, as well as utility commissions. It would be great to see broad groups of Floridians pushing officials to take full advantage of these measures.
It’s possible that in today’s fractious times, we won’t achieve all of these positive outcomes. But why wouldn’t we try? After all, people didn’t really believe we’d succeed in passing the IRA bill ... but we did.
The key to getting anywhere with this approach, in my view, is to resist the urge to blame anyone for our climate challenges in these discussions. To build the good will, trust and rapport we are seeking in this exercise, it will be important not to bash other people’s party alignment, lifestyle choices, or other matters.
How Do We Do This?
Anyone can get these discussions started: environmental NGOs, universities, maybe even several political leaders coming together from across the aisle. So let’s start pushing our own organizations, colleagues, and contacts to do so.
The Big Picture
Many of us regularly lament that society has become so divided and polarized. It’s a very familiar refrain. But instead of just lamenting, why not try to do something about this frustrating state of affairs? All people are vulnerable to climate change outcomes. Maybe — just maybe — we can find a way to bring people together to address these challenges. Let's get to work.