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Survey: SWFL has concerns about climate change

By Staff | Feb 22, 2019

JESSE MEADOWS From left, Community Foundation of Collier County Chair Mary Lynn Myers, Conservancy of Southwest Florida Chief Executive Officer Rob Moher and Southwest Florida Community Foundation's Director of Social Innovation and Sustainability Tessa LaSage.

A majority of Southwest Florida residents believe that climate change will personally affect their health and homes, and they want the government to do something about it.

Those are the results of the first-ever Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey revealed on Feb. 20, conducted by EcoAmerica and funded by a partnership between the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Southwest Florida Community Foundation and Community Foundation of Collier County.

“Sometimes you hear anecdotal stories that people are doubting it’s happening or some people think it’s real or not real. This is the first thing that sort of objectively quantifies what people’s beliefs are around climate change,” Rob Moher, chief executive officer of the conservancy, said.

Last September, 401 residents in Southwest Florida were surveyed to gauge the public’s current attitudes about climate change, as part of a national survey of 800 people.

Jennifer Roberts, director of EcoAmerica’s Path to Positive Communities program, said the main takeaway from the survey is that seven in 10 Southwest Florida residents are concerned about climate change.


“(Hurricane) Irma was really a wakeup call for this community,” she said, noting that 67 percent of people said they feel affected by extreme weather and flooding, compared to 49 percent nationally.

“The major areas where Southwest Florida residents are more aware and concerned is being affected by damage and harm from extreme weather,” Roberts said.

Ninety-three percent of those surveyed said the government should do more to protect mangroves and wetlands, and 69 percent of Southwest Florida residents recognize the link between climate change, pollution and toxic algae outbreaks.

There is a marked difference in the public’s awareness of what their local government is doing to battle climate change and what they wish their government would do.

“Nineteen percent say their city is taking action to prepare for impacts, and three-quarters wish their city would prepare,” Roberts said.


The survey also revealed strong environmental values.

Ninety-one percent said they feel a moral responsibility to keep the climate healthy, and 92 percent said clean water is a “critical right for all people.”

There was also strong support for expanding clean energy and eco-friendly public transportation systems, and 82 percent said they would support charging corporations a fee for the pollution they create.

The majority of respondents reported that they get their information regarding climate change from the news media, their most trusted sources for information are scientists, health professionals and environmental organizations, and over half have switched to eco-friendly appliances in their homes and are discussing climate change with their friends and family.

“The survey shows us that people are ready for action, they are looking to leaders to help guide them, and they are willing to make personal changes,” Roberts said.

If 71 percent of Southwest Florida residents are concerned about climate change, how can they engage the other 29 percent who are not?

Moher said the key is reframing the way we talk about the issue by pointing to lived experiences people can understand on a personal level. Threats to human health and personal property are sometimes more effective at reaching climate change skeptics.

According to EcoAmerica’s guide Connecting on Climate, recent social research has shown that “people interpret new information through the lens of their past experiences,” not their understanding of science.

“Particularly with the blue-green algae, people are much more concerned about when pets are getting sick or if it’s safe to drink the water. I get these questions all the time,” he said.

He links the warming climate to an increase in tropical diseases like Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitos that thrive in warmth and moisture, and uses the rise of flooding events in Southwest Florida as real-world examples.

“If I talk to someone who’s a climate doubter about this, they can sort of relate to that,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that I can point to Naples Beach and I can say, it’s 6 inches higher than it was 50 years ago. That’s way faster than nature would change. So let’s just acknowledge that. If you’ve got a beachfront home, you’ve got to deal with that whether you like it or not.”

He relates some people’s reluctance to accept climate change science to the long-held denial that smoking causes lung cancer.

“There was huge denial for years but now you talk to anyone, and everyone knows smoking causes cancer, it’s just accepted. What this is all about is what we can do to accelerate the changing beliefs and attitudes and connect facts and science with observable things that people can relate to,” he said.

Another hurdle for effective environmental advocacy is often party lines.

In 2013, researchers at Stanford and UC-Berkeley conducted a study on the moral basis for environmental arguments and found that liberals and conservatives operate on different moral foundations, which could explain why the issue is sometimes so polarized.

Most climate change arguments are often framed in a care-harm context that stresses compassion for victims like wildlife and children, a moral foundation for many liberals.

Conservatives, on the other hand, were shown to be more receptive to a sanctity-degradation argument that emphasizes the purity of our natural resources and expresses disgust at their desecration.

The study suggested that a reframing of the argument could make it more effective.

But it doesn’t have to be that complicated – sometimes a simple change to avoid using politically-charged buzzwords can help, too.

“One of the things we try and do is say, ‘Some of you might have noticed that the climate is changing.’ Just that (switch) from ‘climate change’ to a ‘changing climate’ actually doesn’t set alarm bells off,” Moher said. “The unifying message is, you might debate the causes of it, but there’s no doubt we’ve got to do something.”