Climate change lessons — town by town

Last week, a congressman from Alabama who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology suggested in a public hearing that sea level rise may be caused by erosion — a possibility experts rate somewhere between absurd and laughable (on par with a grain of sand causing your bathtub to flood). But it’s hardly surprising. The willingness of climate change skeptics to grasp onto any alternative other than a warming planet fueled by greenhouse gas emissions (along with melting ice and oceans expanding as they warm) is commonly observed.

Closer to home, the Chesapeake Bay is surrounded by towns and villages where the politically conservative residents refuse to accept scientific evidence of global warming even as the tides rise and their waterfront properties are consumed. Last June, Scientific American magazine dispatched a reporter to Deal Island who had little trouble finding locals who say it’s the erosion they’ve observed all their lives and not climate change that they have reason to fear — despite studies that show their homes will be completely underwater by the end of the century because of the climate, not erosion. The same point of view is commonplace on nearby Tangier Island where President Donald Trump famously assured Mayor James Eskridge last year in a phone call that “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more."

Call such behavior wishful thinking, denial or even political opportunism, but at some point, there’s an underlying problem — lack of information. In these politically polarized times when tribalism trumps facts, there are some who have dismissed climate change without being given an opportunity to be full informed about the evidence. And even given that opportunity — by a newspaper article, for example — there is a temptation to dismiss the messenger as biased and and the “mainstream” news media as deliberately misleading. So how do you conquer the knowledge gap? How can you give people the tools to make the right choices?

This week, the Hogan administration quietly announced a great idea to achieve exactly that. They are launching a state-sponsored Climate Leadership Academy to instruct local governments and others on ways to better plan and prepare for climate change. Organizers say Maryland may be the first state to try such an approach, and they hope it might be duplicated elsewhere as towns and counties formulate policies to deal with the inevitable consequences of global warming.

The initiative, announced at a Maryland State of the Coast Conference that wrapped up Wednesday in Cambridge and by press release issued Tuesday by the state Department of Natural Resources, has been spearheaded by DNR Secretary Mark Belton and Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. The expectation is that academy sessions can not only train mayors and councils about what they’ll need to do to prepare their communities for climate change but business leaders and others, too. Daniel Kreeger of the Association of Climate Change Officers calls it an opportunity to “weave” climate risks and opportunities “into the DNA of their decision making,” according to the DNR.

What makes the effort especially noteworthy is that it’s coming from a Republican administration. Had former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a progressive Democrat, announced something similar, one can imagine the hue and cry coming out of the Eastern Shore. From Kent to Somerset counties, you would be hearing the charge of liberal politics and indoctrination. Rep. Andy Harris, the 1st District congressman who represents the region, is among those who have publicly expressed skepticism about man-made activities contributing to global warming. But will he attack a fellow Republican for seeking to inform the citizenry? Given his support of Governor Hogan in the past, probably not.

In a sense, Maryland’s governor is like Richard Nixon seeking to normalize relations with China. We mean that not in the sense that Governor Hogan has been anti-environment in the way that Nixon was anti-communist but that rural Marylanders are more apt to listen to what he has to say on environmental policy than they will from a Democrat holding the same office. On many issues, that’s largely irrelevant in a state politically dominated by Democrats. But rural waterfront towns tend to be dominated by political conservatives, so it can matter a great deal. We don’t know how Mr. Hogan can communicate that reality in his re-election campaign but it’s certainly worth noting — call him a realist or call him a closet liberal, this is a governor willing to teach the hard lessons to allies who may not want to hear them.

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