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Is Al Gore more useful than God?


Posted By Will on November 17 2010

 
  Gabe Matyiko at work in Maryland
Gabe Matyiko of Expert House Movers eases the leaver upwards and the 296 tonne house rises into the air. This historic home is one of thousands being moved in southern Maryland. “The busiest areas for house movers are coastal zones,” says Gabe “companies are flocking to places like New Orleans and Florida because everybody is lifting and raising there”. Gabe's business will boom in the event of sea level change.

Much of America’s southern coastal regions shouldn’t be densely populated. Florida is a mosquito infested swamp, the Mississippi delta is below sea level, and the Chesapeake bay is still sinking as a result of a meteorite strike 35 million years ago.  But technical ingenuity, stubbornness, and a strong desire for waterfront property has led to the colonisation of America’s vulnerable coastal areas. And many of these areas – Nantucket, Miami Beach, Cape Cod – now have the most expensive real estate in the USA.

So how are residents reacting to the news that sea level change could wipe them off the map? One interesting case study is southern western Florida, where a group of scientists at Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council has been consulting residents in Punta Gorda about adaptation.

But before the event they agreed on two things.

1. DO NOT talk about WHY sea levels are rising. Anthropogenic climate change is an intensely political issue in America, and the Punta Gorda area is deeply conservative. Talk of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions would result in half the audience leaving before the consultation had begun.

2. DO NOT mention the word retreat when it comes to moving houses away from the shore. Wimps retreat. Americans do not. To introduce the (very sensible) idea of moving houses inland, they should use the phrase ‘managed relocation’. This avoids affronting people for whom retreating is a cowardly act.

 
Punta Gorda houses line salt water canals  
Given these constraints, the consultation was considered a success, even if the results weren’t surprising. Adaptations providing side-benefits to residents were most popular. Those infringing upon constructing property in high-risk areas got boo-ed out of town. The gist was, let’s carry on building but raise ground floors and plant more sea grass.

For us, the fascinating part was agreement to ignore the issue of WHY the climate is changing. It is something we have seen time and again in America. It reflects a landscape where talking about climate change is a very difficult issue, where science plays second fiddle to politics. Or specifically, whether or not you support Al Gore.

We have spoken with numerous people who use Al Gore’s private plane flights as an argument against climate change. And revelations about Al Gore’s marital infidelity are as good currency for deniers (and equally as irrelevant) as a particularly cold winter in Chicago.

The easiest solution for people trying to make headway in discussing climate change is to skirt around issues of causation. But by doing so they are making a double mistake committing ourselves to a vicious cycle of environmental change and rendering adaptation measures temporary solutions as sea levels continue to rise. For Punta Gorda, this might mean a $1.5 billion bulkhead, or a $3.85 billion armoured dyke. However, in 30 years time this will need re-building to accommodate new projections for the next 100 years.

 
   
Secondly, by ignoring causation, we are condemning those unable to adapt to sea level change. Having spent much of the past year working with these people, we know they are dependent on countries like America reducing their emissions, as they lack the resources for comprehensive adaptation plans.

The challenge is to carve a space in which people can discuss the issues of climate change without getting embroiled in the politics. One group doing this in America is Interfaith Power and Light. For them, it is a moral issue not a political one, relating to our responsibility as stewards of the environment. Their messengers are pastors and vicars, not politicians and pop stars. And the message therefore comes from a trusted source unencumbered by fame or fortune.

Communities like this show a way forward at a local level devoid of politics. Every movement has messengers but the more we can focus on the issues, the less polarising climate change will become. Until we can do that, the science of climate change will continue to be sidetracked by those who dredge up dirt on Al Gore’s college years. This might be good news for the house moving industry but it is much worse for those falling outside Expert House Movers’ catchment area.


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