As polar ice melts, so should polarization

Recently, I was inspecting a seawall at a marina in Hollywood, Florida looking for signs of water. Near the southeast edge of Broward County, Hollywood sits just 9.8  feet above sea level.

Broward County was one of the places 2000 election officials had been hung on hanging chads. "I flew on Air Force Two for eight years," Gore liked to say, following the election, "and now I have to take off my shoes to get on an airplane." He leavened his message of climate change doom with humor, but while the message was needed, the messenger might have been flawed, at least in how he was received.

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In the decade and a half since “An Inconvenient Truth,” time has been lost, and even more money. That fact alone, the financial cost incurred due to extreme weather — in the hundreds of billions last year—should startle fiscal conservatives. And in communities I visited, they are well aware of the investment needed to stave off fiscal disaster. The polarization that takes place on the national level is mostly absent when competent local government addresses real risks that people can sense all around them. There is no choosing sides when the water is rising all around you.

"This issue is larger than any of us individually,"

Jennifer Jurado, the chief resilience officer for Broward County, told me. She and the county she represents are part of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which sets both the policy and tone for much of the adaptation work for southeastern Florida. In terms of population, the four-county compact is greater than that of 30 states.

Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason, one of several Republican mayors in South Florida making pragmatic decisions about climate change told me, "This is not a partisan issue.” He talked about billions in property values, but we "don't need more tax cuts. We need $20 million to build seawalls."

In Tybee Island, Georgia, the narrow causeway out to the island, U.S. Highway 80, frequently floods. Mayor Jason Buelterman has said, "I'm a Republican, but I also realize, by any objective analysis, the sea level is rising.”

In Texas, Texas land commissioner George P. Bush (eldest son of Jeb), has endorsed a plan out of the University of Texas, Galveston, dubbed the Ike Dike. That plan calls for a 55-mile long "coastal spine" along the gulf to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In some of these places, they don’t address causes. “We don’t talk about cow farts,” one city manager said. But there are few doubts about the effects, even when recast as “recurrent coastal flooding.” The other word they use is “resilience,” which seems like basic urban planning and good governance with the heightened awareness of the disruptions that can occur because of climate change.

In Norfolk, they are jumping over the political debate and planning for the future. The largest naval base on the globe is exposed to rising seas. The boats are fine, but the roads can be underwater, as can the power lines.

In these places, adaptation to climate change happens in a nonpartisan, get-it-done manner. They take calls about fixing sidewalks, pot holes, the trash, but increasingly about flooding. That issue is no longer an ideological one for them but one disrupting their constituents' ability to get to school or the store. Climate change is about what happens at the poles, but it is increasingly localized and about nonpolar issues, like the economy and national defense.   

And when civic leaders like former Democratic mayor of Charleston sell adaptation plans, they emphasize opportunity, health and quality of life. They talk to nonpolarized social networks such as churches and neighborhoods about the changes to create better lives. When one community goes first, others may fall in line. Savannah will follow Charleston, New Orleans will work with Norfolk, and finally, just maybe, Washington, D.C., will come around.

If there is a silver lining in pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, perhaps it is that cities, states and local communities will be even more committed. One city official said to me that at some point the federal government will come around to planning and funding for communities to get ready for the changes that will inevitably come. Those places that have the design plans ready will be poised to lead. But without a coherent national strategy, they are resilient isles in a threatening sea.

Rick Van Noy is the author of Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South available Jan. 15 and a professor at Radford University.