Study: Coastal Floridians Don't Believe in Sea Level Rise

The survey finds, in fact, that showing scary maps to residents typically results in a ho-hum response.

south florida sea level rise

Researchers Dr. Risa Palm and Toby W. Bolsen conducted the survey. Writing in Fast Company, they note that:

"We sampled residents of seven metropolitan areas, including Tampa-Saint Petersburg-Clearwater, Fort Myers, Key West, Miami-Dade County, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, and Vero Beach. Half the sample received a map of their own city, rendered at a scale so that their city block was visible. The maps illustrated what could happen just 15 years from now at the present rate of sea-level rise if there were a Category 3 hurricane accompanied by storm-surge flooding."

The survey found that Republicans tend to be even more skeptical than Democrats on the risk of inundation, but members of both parties resisted the idea of Climate Change even more, after being shown potential flooding maps. In fact:

"Those who saw the maps were no more likely to believe that climate change exists, that climate change increases the severity of storms, or that sea level is rising and related to climate change. Even more dramatically, exposure to the scientific map did not influence beliefs that their own homes were susceptible to flooding or that sea-level rise would reduce local property values."

For those of us trying to heighten awareness of Climate Change and encourage change, these results are disheartening. If the sheep don't believe there's a wolf at the door, how can anyone convince them otherwise? The study leaves this challenge hanging in the air, noting that messaging about Climate Change can have "unintended consequences," and offering the suggestion that we will need more than mere facts to reach the masses, given the well-known psychological tendency of people to dismiss facts that don't fit within their existing world view.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the way people process information they don't like is the way they react when the situation forces change upon them. For example, let's say the flooding maps are dead-on accurate, and these same people lose their homes and property as suggested by Climate Change scenarios. Will their world views finally come into alignment with the scientific consensus on Climate Change?

Probably not. Instead, according to Adrian Bardoun, Professor of Philosophy, "Unwelcome information can also threaten in other ways. “System justification” theorists like psychologist John Jost have shown how situations that represent a threat to established systems trigger inflexible thinking and a desire for closure. For example, as Jost and colleagues extensively review, populations experiencing economic distress or external threat have often turned to authoritarian, hierarchicalist leaders promising security and stability."

One caveat we wanted to examine is the possibility of a demographic variable. We wrote to Dr. Palm, asking whether data on the age of respondents was collected. Our hypothesis was that this area of Florida skews senior, and this may be a major factor in receptivity to Climate Change messaging. A 65-plus homeowner is unlikely to get too concerned about a flooding threat 15 years in the future.

However, according to Dr. Palm (she sent us the chart below), age proved to be a negligible variable in whether or not people believed the facts placed before them. factors-in-sea-level-rise-belief

In other words, if these predictable disasters do come, they could actually infuse more energy into the rise of extremist figures, conspiracy theories and the decline of America's leadership role in global politics.