Everglades practice

The “Cultural Cognition Project” led by Dan Kahan addresses “how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs.” He has a lengthy new paper on how people navigate the connection between what science says about climate change and their membership in particular cultural groups. Kahan points to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact as a rare example of a diverse group that sidesteps the usual “polarizing cultural status competition” on belief in climate change.

The paper argues that,

…. it is perfectly rational—perfectly in line with using information appropriately to achieve an important personal end—for that individual to attend to information in a manner that more reliably connects her beliefs about climate change to the ones that predominate among her peers than to the best available scientific evidence. If that person happens to enjoy greater proficiency in the skills and dispositions necessary to make sense of such evidence, then she can simply use those capacities to do an even better job at forming identity-protective beliefs. (p. 14)

[People]…form polarized perceptions of scientific consensus even when they rely on the same sources of evidence. These studies imply misinformation is not a decisive source of public controversy over climate change. People in these studies are misinforming themselves by opportunistically adjusting the weight they give to evidence based on what they are already committed to believing. (p. 17)

Kahan, who has participated in Southeast Florida Climate Compact work, asks,

What makes Southeast Florida so different from the rest of the country? Indeed, why is Southeast Florida that engages climate change inside the Compact decision-making process so different from itself as a part of the country that is polarized on whether human activity is causing global warming? The explanation is that the Compact process puts a different question from the one put in the national climate change debate. The latter forces Southeast Floridians, like everyone else, to express “who they are, whose side they are on.” In contrast, the decision making of the Compact is effectively, and insistently, testing what they know about how to live in a region that faces a serious climate problem. (p. 34)

It certainly is correct that people engage in confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and identity-protective behavior. I have major reservations, though, about both the main argument of the paper and the Climate Compact example. It is true that it usually pays to believe whatever the other members of our baboon troop believe. That doesn’t explain, however, why leaders of one side of the political spectrum make fewer false empirical claims. There really is a right-left “fact” difference in American politics. Jonathan Chait offers one answer for this divergence: in American politics, reliance on empiricism is an ideology. [Imagine if policy arguments always had some relationship to facts in the world!]

Second, in regard to the Southeast Florida Climate Compact I also have doubts about why this process is not as burdened by stale posturing. The usual tribal affiliation on climate issues might be set aside in this forum not by superior styles of communication but by embedded historical practices. Floridians have decades of experience in working together on regional Everglades problems. In South Florida, there are strong political rewards for Everglades bipartisanship. The experience of practicing Everglades cooperation may be what leads to a degree of success on regional climate cooperation.

We certainly need better approaches to climate and other policy problems, like those being investigated by the Cultural Cognition Project.

Demanding to be first in the water line

I was asked to write a bit more about how the House water bill gives “Special water breaks” to certain water “self-suppliers.” The details are buried deep within the 87-page bill and  are designed almost entirely to benefit agricultural users (without saying so). How do these special favors for agriculture work? A key example is a revolution in the statute’s definition of “water resource development.” It adds “self-suppliers” to those eligible for government assistance:

(24) “Water resource development” means the formulation and implementation of regional water resource management strategies, including the collection and evaluation of surface water and groundwater data; structural and nonstructural to protect and manage water resources; the development of regional water resource implementation programs; the construction, operation, and maintenance of major public works facilities to provide for flood control, surface and underground water storage, and groundwater recharge augmentation; and related technical assistance to local governments, and to government-owned and privately owned water utilities, and self-suppliers.

That same “self-supplier” term is added elsewhere to put this category of users at the head of the line:

(b) The governing board of a water management district shall give priority consideration to the identification of preferred water supply sources for self-suppliers for which access to or development of new water supplies is not technically or financially feasible. (p. 14)

Other major changes makes “self-suppliers” eligible for direct financial assistance:

373.707 Alternative water supply development.—
(3) The primary roles of the water management districts in water resource development as it relates to supporting alternative water supply development are:
(f) The provision of technical and financial assistance to local governments, self-suppliers, and publicly owned and privately owned water utilities for alternative water supply projects.

(e) Applicants for projects that may receive funding assistance pursuant to the Water Protection and Sustainability Program or receive other state funding shall, at a minimum, be required to pay 60 percent of the project’s construction costs. The water management districts may, at their discretion, totally or partially waive this requirement for projects sponsored by:

1. Financially disadvantaged small local governments as defined in former s. 403.885(5); or 

2. Self-suppliers for projects determined by a water management district governing board to be in the public interest pursuant to paragraph (1)(f), if the projects are not otherwise financially feasible. (p. 72)

Quite a set of new special privileges. But why give these special breaks to agricultural businesses at all? Agricultural activities already benefit from enormous property tax breaks. According to the Florida Department of Revenue 2014 Data Book, agricultural land is taxed at only 9% of its “just value”:

2014 Ag just value

In some counties, like Broward, Duval, Marion, Orange, Sarasota, and Seminole, assessed values for agricultural land are held down to less than 5% of just value. What a deal! Should a business that pays hardly any property taxes also get preferred or subsidized access to water?

Moral licensing; policy change

A water conservation campaign in Boston gave residents weekly feedback on water use. Researchers, in comparing those water users with a control group, found that residents with the water conservation tips reduced their water use. Yay!!! Now the not-so-good part: this group of water conservers simultaneously increased their energy use.

Moral licensing was at work. That is when “people can call to mind previous instances of their own socially desirable or morally laudable behaviors,’ making them ‘more comfortable taking actions that could be seen as socially undesirable or morally questionable.” (p. 162). Efforts to implement direct change can be surprisingly counterproductive. Other approaches can be less prone to those reversals. For example, if a state adopts more efficient plumbing standards, water use by those devices is likely to be permanently reduced. If a fee is put on every thousand gallons of water, the price signal tends also to have a durable effect.

Our individual human minds strongly resist change. It could be wiser to focus more on changing policy and less on individual behavior. Like yesterday’s Clean Water Rally at the state Capitol was to influence the policy for implementing Amendment 1. That is a great way to change policy for many years to come.

Rain barrel apostasy

Thank you, Emily Green, posting at “Chance of Rain,” for expressing your ambivalence about rain barrels. Owen Dell’s feelings, in contrast, are unconflicted. He calls them “another delusional, greenwashed, pernicious consumer scam.” Jay Lund, at UC Davis, calculates that the water provided by rain barrels water is ridiculously expensive. Even more dramatically,

…if a rain barrel’s installation removes 8 square feet of a highly watered lawn (1 to 2 acre-feet a year), the gallons saved from reducing the irrigated area would be similar to the water provided by the rain barrel.

O, People of the Rain Barrel, please consider irrigating a little less rather than buying another barrel! Consider taking that money you were going to spend on a rain barrel and use it for an efficient showerhead, a swale, or a rain garden.

Avoiding a dystopian water future

We once thought there was plenty of water in Florida. Those days are gone forever. Soon, we will be using every day the equivalent of umpety-umpteen olympic swimming pools of water! Our water future becomes more frightening every year and we are forced to make some very difficult choices.

We must not get too carried away, however. We can continue to use drinking water to flush wastes down the toilet. We also must continue spraying huge amounts of drinking water and reclaimed wastewater on thirsty planted landscapes. After all, landscape irrigation of non-native plants is what makes Florida, Florida.

It is of course, also unacceptable for agriculturalists to give up the tax breaks and other government subsidies that encourage the overuse of water. And we don’t have to buy into the myth that dairy manure could ever end up in a spring. Never forget that horticultural ferns and fresh-from-Florida sugar are essential to this nation’s food security.

We need strong, effective action to preserve our very way of life. Local, state, regional, and federal governments should help pay water users to continue their current practices. Together, we can build a bright water future.