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After Climate Meeting, Scientists Still Aren’t Sure That Florida’s Governor Is ‘Climate Literate’

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"After Climate Meeting, Scientists Still Aren’t Sure That Florida’s Governor Is ‘Climate Literate’"

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Florida State University environmental science professor Jeffrey Chanton gives a presentation to Florida Gov. Rick Scott on climate change on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida State University environmental science professor Jeffrey Chanton gives a presentation to Florida Gov. Rick Scott on climate change on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 in Tallahassee, Fla.

CREDIT: AP Photos/Brendan Farrington

Five climate scientists gave Florida Gov. Rick Scott the rundown on climate change and how it’s affecting Florida and the rest of the globe on Tuesday.

But so far, it’s not certain how much Gov. Scott took out of the meeting. The governor, who’s running for re-election this year, didn’t ask any questions about the scientists’ presentations during the 30-minute meeting, and the scientists say he took up the first 10 or so minutes of the meeting making small talk — asking them what they taught at their respective universities and where they were from.

“We didn’t have that kind of discussion where there’s this important give and take that’s associated with actually, from my experience, absorbing the information,” Ben Kirtman professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t honestly believe the governor is climate literate, and I don’t think he is particularly interested in becoming climate literate.”

David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, told ThinkProgress that he thought the governor’s decision to take up “almost half” the meeting with small talk showed that he wasn’t truly interested in the meeting.

“If we were talking about things that he was sincerely interested in, that small talk would have been very short,” he said.

Kirtman said he walked out of the meeting feeling disappointed, but said that disappointment may not totally have been the governor’s fault. The meeting occurred in the governor’s office in Florida’s capitol building, with the scientists, along with Scott and an aide, sitting in a circle. That’s not an ideal setup for a scientific presentation, Kirtman said. He thinks if the meeting had been more one-on-one, with room for the scientists to show visual aids, the presentation would have been more effective. The room was also filled with members of the media, which Kirtman said may have limited the governor’s ability to engage with the scientists.

The goal of the meeting, Kirtman said, was to relay to the governor that climate science is “robust,” and that it should inform Scott’s policy decisions as a governor in a state that’s particularly vulnerable to climate change. Each scientist discussed a different aspect of climate science, and some brought the science back to Florida, talking to the governor about sea level rise and the other climate-related threats the state faces. Southeast Florida, in particular, is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise — the White House’s National Climate Assessment this year noted that in Southeast Florida, “just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean.”

Jeff Chanton, professor of oceanography at Florida State University, told ThinkProgress that he hoped the meeting would help convince Gov. Scott to “get out in front of this issue,” specifically by embracing the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He also said he wants Scott to take advantage of Florida’s potential for solar energy. The state’s abundance of sun helps it rank third in the U.S. in terms of solar potential, but its lack of Renewable Portfolio Standard helps it rank 12th in terms of cumulative installed solar capacity.

“If anybody in the country needs to do something, it’s Florida,” Chanton said. “We’re kind of the Maldives of the United States. We’re the canary in the coal mine. We’re the ground zero for climate change.”

Scott’s rhetoric on climate science has been shaky in the past. When asked in 2010 if he believes climate change is happening, he said he hadn’t “been convinced.” During this year’s election, the governor — along with several of his fellow Republican lawmakers — has sidestepped the issue, saying only that he’s “not a scientist” when asked about his views on climate change. Scott’s meeting on climate change was arranged after 10 scientists sent him a letter, saying that they, as scientists themselves, “would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

Charlie Crist, one of Scott’s Democratic challengers for governor, met with Chanton in late July. Chanton told ThinkProgress that Crist “appeared to be more excited” about the meeting than Scott did.

Scott didn’t talk to media immediately following the meeting, but he did accept questions Wednesday morning after a press conference about his planned investments on road and bridge maintenance. As Creative Loafing Tampa reports, Scott echoed previous statements he’d made on climate change by telling reporters that he’s “not an expert” on climate change, but he also said he was “looking for solutions.”

“I’m not qualified from a causation side,” he said. “I’m a business guy. I’m a solutions person. So my focus is: we know there’s issues out there — sea level rise — so let’s focus on how we solve it. That’s why we’ve put record funding in both for beach renourishment — increase it by 45 percent — also on flood mitigation, also on protecting our reefs, also protecting our springs. All these things. But there’s going to be more to do.”

Scott also referenced the environmental plan for if he’s reelected governor, a document that was released earlier this month. The plan pledges $1 billion in environmental investments but does not mention climate change.

Still, Kirtman said it was important that Scott at least said he was focusing on finding solutions. He said ideally he’d like the governor to reach out to the scientists again to ask any questions he might have or to set up another meeting, but he’s doubtful that will happen.

“If the outcome from this meeting is that the governor acknowledges there’s a problem and he won’t stand in the way by saying climate science is not real, that’s legitimate progress, and I’ll feel like we’ll have actually accomplished something,” he said.

Hastings shared Kirtman’s disappointment that the governor didn’t ask the scientists “substantial questions” or respond to the presentation in a way that showed “substantial or significant concern on his part.” But he’s still hopeful that the governor will take the information given to him in the meeting and keep it in mind when he makes policy decisions in the future.

“I think that any time scientists get to talk to policymakers about climate change science, good things happen,” he said. “It’s easy to be critical, and yet I think the fact that he was open to having a meeting is hopeful and good.”

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