A Day with the Climatologists

December 18, 2009

I was invited to participate in a NOAA workshop this month. There were university professors, research scientists, government experts, and me. They were talking about thinks like LIDAR maps, hydrography, geomorphism, subsidence, and other easy topics like that.  When I got up to speak, I confessed to having a bit of an existential crisis since the topics on hand went far beyond anything my college environmental sciences classes had covered. Plus I didn’t speak “science-ese”, and I was afraid of committing some egregious faux pas (which I’m sure I did).

I needn’t have worried though. None of the climatologists bit me, and in fact they were surprisingly welcoming.  They wanted to hear different perspectives on the issues that they were facing.  As they look out over the next one hundred years, they see shifting weather patterns and different interactions taking place between sea and land that will have profound impacts on current development patterns. 

What are the implications of the Great Lakes subsiding?  What happens if the Greenland ice sheet tips into the ocean?  What happens if the sea level rises three to five feet? 

In short, this wasn’t a conversation about the causes of climate change, but about the effects of climate and extreme weather.  These experts didn’t want my opinion on the environmental practices of business, they wanted perspectives on what kind of climate data would help inform future economic and development decisions.  In short, they wanted to help us work on community resilience.

 

The Chamber has the Institute for 21st Century Energy and an Environmental Policy committee, so we encourage organizations that want to talk about these related issues to go there.

Our work on disaster assistance and recovery has led us to focus on community resilience.  Floods, fires, mudslides, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes are a fact of life, regardless of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. These natural phenomena affect the development not just of southern Florida or southern California, but places like Greensburg, Kansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and King County, Washington.

This is why the Office Depot Foundation Weekend in Boca conference is such an innovative concept.  As we all know, south Florida has issues.  Not just the threat of hurricanes or floods, but poverty, gang violence, 40% unemployment in the counties closest to the Everglades, and so on.  Weekend in Boca brought together non-profit leaders and asked them to wrestle with these questions.

Instead of looking at them as opponents of economic development for southern Florida (a region that is sorely troubled right now), the symposium viewed the nonprofit organizations as assets and problem-solvers. How do we mitigate future disasters and generate jobs? How do help businesses invest in the region and strengthen our natural and social assets? Do we have to trade off one goal for another, or can we find win-wins?

Participants increasingly talked about busting through the silos of their own frames and mind-sets, and strengthening their appreciation of their interdependence. The symposium was hard and uncomfortable in part because people were being asked to think about issues outside of their traditional lanes, but they greatly appreciated being asked their opinions about how someone else’s projects and ideas might affect their work. This willingness to see how the systems might work better together was at the heart of the “spirit of Boca.”

So where do we go with this? First, I’d like to thank Margaret Davidson and Mary Wong for hosting two “outside of the box” working sessions over the course of the last two weeks, and I hope they continue to work on changing the way various constituencies think about these issues.

Second, I’d like to bring these issues up at our upcoming Annual Disaster Forum in New Orleans on January 26 and 27. In fact, I think we might have to rename the Disaster Assistance and Recovery program to capture the importance of community resilience to our work.

Finally, we plan to continue to build on the relationships we have established with NOAA, the Forestry Service, and the Department of Interior, and figure out additional ways to bring non-traditional stakeholders together to address the extreme weather events that challenge our future economy and way of life.

If you are interested in working on these issues as part of our Disaster Assistance and Recovery program, please contact Gerald McSwiggan.