PEER VOICES: A Conversation with Caroline Lewis – 21 July 2014


Greetings, I am Ricardo Alvarez and I welcome you to ².

Today is Monday the 21st day of July 2014 and we have the pleasure of launching ‘PEER VOICES’, a new segment of where we plan to interview leaders, subject-matter experts and concerned members of humanity who have made or are trying to make a difference for the benefit of our communities, and the world, by addressing issues of critical importance.

Today on this warm and sunny, but soon to be muggy and stormy day in South Florida, we are graced by the presence of our good friend Caroline Lewis, an education strategist who builds capacity, promotes innovation and inspires leadership in individuals and institutions. Caroline, our first-ever guest in PEER VOICES is the founder and executive director of The CLEO Institute.

Caroline Lewis

Caroline Lewis       Good morning, Caroline! Welcome to!
I always enjoy meeting and having a conversation with you, because I usually learn a lot from you, and I always end up feeling motivated and ready to tackle the big challenges in front of us.
This conversation will be different; you are the first person I interview for the PEER VOICES section of So, in a sense you are a guinea pig participating in an experiment.

Are you ready?

Caroline:      VERY ready. Thanks for this opportunity, Ricardo, and for YOUR good work      Why do we need a CLEO Institute?

Caroline:      We need a CLEO Institute:

Because humanity must understand the science, seriousness and urgency of human-caused climate change, as they relate to us and to all biodiversity on earth;

Because we must immediately promote and support the most effective, scalable, replicable ideas for addressing climate adaptation and mitigation effort;

Because CLEO is in the business of educating and engaging around climate change adaptation AND mitigation;

Because we engage all audiences from K to Gray, including: students, teachers, elected officials, business and community leaders, and the public at large. Daily, our circle widens locally, regionally, nationally;

Because climate change is complex, but understanding the basics of Carbon pollution and greenhouse gases is simple, CLEO breaks down complex issues for all audiences.      I have often heard you refer to something you call The CLEO Question.

What is this CLEO question?

Caroline:      Well, CLEO’s mission is:

To promote an informed and engaged public, better poised to become involved and make changes to support climate resilience locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. For us, this means everyone must be encouraged to find and share their voices on this urgent issue.
We believe a good first step is to get EVERYONE to personally answer this two-part question accurately and succinctly:
What is climate change all about, and what’s my role?
There are multiple ways to answer this correctly, and CLEO celebrates Answer-The-Question responders by sharing videos of and excerpts from their responses on social media, awarding each of them a CLEO ATQ certificate, and by displaying their names on our website’s participant showcase. We want all participants to feel part of a community of individuals concerned about the future of our planet.

Our Youth Task Force is taking on a CLEO ATQ Campaign.      How would you characterize The CLEO Institute, as an advocacy group, as an education and outreach organization, or as something else?

Caroline:      We are an education and outreach organization, vested in promoting climate leadership through education and engagement opportunities. We advocate for environmental stewardship and encourage civic engagement on critical issues like climate change.      What is The CLEO Project on Climate, or CPOC, as you call it? What are its objectives?  Who participates in it?

Caroline:      The CPOC is CLEO’s first and currently ONLY project.

Originally, we were going to focus on various issues. However, it quickly became clear that climate change not only demanded all of our attention, but was also an umbrella topic that includes other urgent environmental issues, namely: food, water, energy, ecosystems and biodiversity. Climate change affects everything from what crops we can grow to where we will be able live in the next 50 years. So, the CLEO Project on Climate, or CPOC, earned our complete focus as we grow our diverse outreach initiatives.

With respect to our goals and our audiences, CLEO’s efforts:

  • Bring together scientists and students, as well as elected, business, and community leaders, and the public at large, to promote a climate-ready future;
  • Include formal and informal trainings, events, and forums to bridge the divide between science and society on this urgent issue;
  • Drive the issue across boundaries from classrooms and town halls to the halls of Congress –because climate challenges require commitment, creativity and ingenuity from all of us; and
  • Provide our community, business, and elected leaders the needed support of a well-informed public, since tackling climate change means addressing it at every level and in all communities.    In your opinion what is the biggest problem South Florida faces relative to Global Climate Change and why?

Caroline:    Temperature increases and sea level rise are the two biggest, I think. They relate to each other and trigger a multitude of other worries, like: salt water intrusion, fresh water vulnerability, flooding, heat waves, species migration; and more.

With respect to sea level rise – we see it and feel it, especially during our king tides. As the atmosphere and oceans warm, and as more land ice melts, sea level rise will accelerate. We are the canary in the coalmine as a low-lying, pretty flat, coastal region. Thus homes, streets, businesses, and people are affected and cities, counties and regions spend millions on pumps and infrastructure upgrade.

Also – With respect to global climate change, the fact that Florida is NOT aggressively tackling mitigation by promoting solar is absurd. Less than 1 percent of FPL’s portfolio is solar – in the SUNSHINE State!     Twenty years ago the term du-jour was sustainable development, more recently it was just sustainability. Currently the preferred term appears to be resilience, but there are some who still talk about preparedness. On the other hand emergency managers have been implementing mitigation for a long time, but climate sector people call the same kind of measures adaptation. With this terminology it is getting kind of confusing to know what we all mean when discussing these matters.

Do you think semantics may be contributing to confusing the public or have anything to do with some of the controversy surrounding public discourse on climate change?

Caroline:     Yes. I think some of the confusion is genuine and some has been purposefully encouraged, for example by those not ready to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change.

The whole sustainability movement served a good purpose in getting the mindset of smaller footprints, limited vs renewable resources and the like. I was knee-deep in it and attended a United States 2004 planning meeting for the UNDESD (United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development). To some extent, “sustainability” has become a “cover” for those not ready to acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and climate disruptions. Time’s up for that, I think.

For me, a focus on global warming and climate change keeps the concepts of adaption and mitigation clear in my mind. With respect to anthropogenic global warming and climate change:

Adaptation involves adapting to or preparing for what’s here and coming. This would include building better, higher seawalls; moving wells inland; adding pumps; elevating roads, etc.
Mitigation involves reducing or stemming the tide, slowing or preventing the problem, such as anthropogenic global warming and climate change, from getting worse. This could include a Carbon-tax; building efficiency regulations; renewable energy incentives, etc.     A recent article mentions the rate or rise in global sea level has increased from 2 mm/year during most of the 20th century to 3 mm/year over the past decade or so, and goes on to forecast a total increase in sea level ranging from 0.2 meter to 2.0 meters over the next 100 years. When you consider that 3 mm is barely the thickness of two pennies, and the range between 0.2 m to 2.0 meters goes from minimal to cataclysmic, upon reading this article one wonders what kind of a message it is trying to convey? What practical, useful, actionable information is there in such an article?

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a failing grade and 10 is excellent, how would you grade the effectiveness of the scientific community in communicating the risks associated with sea level rise to the general public? Do you have any suggestions or ideas regarding how this communication may improve?

Caroline:     I’d give the scientists a 7 or 8. Three or four years ago, I gave them a 4 or 5. They are really trying and have become much clearer and more succinct over time. The IPCC and NCA (National Climate Assessment) reports are better clearer communication tools now.

I ask my scientist colleagues to reduce their messages to “consumer-able nuggets” of information. They are getting pretty good at this, and some more than others feel the urgency to advocate for action based on the compelling evidence/data. Some scientists are alarmed to the point where they are speaking out – more loudly and boldly than ever before – to communicate to lay audiences.

The media has done us few favors in over-representing a minority and infusing doubt about anthropogenic global warming in the public. Not good. So many people are concerned with making a decent salary, taking care of families, or other priorities, that it is difficult to add climate change to their plates, especially when so many think it is a distant threat.

People need the facts and they need their elected leaders to act in the public’s interest. I would love to see a clever, accessible, accurate NATIONAL Public Service Announcement campaign on climate change science, seriousness and solutions.     How do you get the general public, or anyone, interested in discussing sea level change that is equivalent to the thickness of two pennies stacked upon one another? How do you convince the public or elected officials, that this issue of sea level rise is really a problem?

Caroline:     It is challenging. Time scales seem irrelevant when day-to-day survival is the priority for too many. We try to emphasize urgency via discussion and data on rates of change; tipping points; feedback loops; consensus… But the problems we face include a whole lot more than sea level rise – We also talk about the other impacts of climate change – health, food and water security, ecosystem disruptions, species migration and biodiversity.     With the help of planners, community planning councils, and input from local residents and businesses, communities of all sizes around Florida, and around the country, have undertaken planning efforts to address expected impacts of climate change through urban redesign and planning.

I have seen some interesting ideas emerging from these studies and planning exercises, but probably the best thing that I see is the level of public engagement and interaction between all sectors of society, which shows how relevant this issue of climate change impact is for most of us. On the flip side, I see a tendency to focus on design ideas and future projections that appear utopian at best, and impractical at worst, given the fact that many of these communities do not have the luxury of a ‘clean slate’, meaning they are mostly fully built-up and developed. How do you begin to address the current problems faced by the existing built environment?

What is your view regarding this approach where a new and different urban plan and built-environment are proposed as answers to expected climate impacts 50 – 75 years hence, without addressing current problems affecting the existing urban environment, and without offering a road map to convert what exists today into that ideal future solution?

Caroline:     Excellent question. Not enough of us are thinking about this. I have few ideas right now, but I do acknowledge how important this must become when we address climate resilience. Recently I was on a call, facilitated by the White house, about climate resilience planning. My colleague, FIU professor and South Miami Mayor, Phil Stoddard, asked just that: What are the plans for repurposing the built environment as we retreat and re-design where and how we live? No good answers yet – and it seems budgeting for that is NOT a priority right now.     Imagine you are standing in front of a large group of South Florida residents and are given one opportunity to say something that will motivate, at least some, to seriously consider taking action to adapt to expected impacts of sea level rise.

What would you say to this audience?

Caroline:     This is serious – study it and take it seriously.
Our response must be urgent – get urgently involved.
Now is our time – make our mark on history a good one.     Thank you so very much, Caroline, for being our inaugural guest on PEER VOICES, and for sharing your views and your wisdom on all these topics that are so current, and so important to so many in our vulnerable communities. Your comments will undoubtedly help many of us put some of these critical issues in their proper perspective, so that we may assess not only the problem, but also some possible solutions. I trust you will accept future invitations so that we may continue this conversation, and to give me an opportunity to ask you so many other questions that I had on my list, but couldn’t because of time limitations. Thank you again, be well, stay out of trouble and keep on doing great things!

Our guest today was Caroline Lewis founder and director of The CLEO INSTITUTE, a non-profit organization that advances civic engagement on environmental issues. You can learn more about the work of Caroline Lewis and the CLEO Institute by visiting

We welcome questions for Caroline Lewis or or comments any of you may have regarding this PEER VOICES interview, or about any other topic, please use the COMMENT section that appears below to post your question or comment. We will be happy to try and answer all questions in a timely manner. We do look forward to hearing from you. Happy mitigating!


¹ © 2014 Ricardo A. Alvarez –, Inc.

² © 2014 Ricardo A. Alvarez –, Inc.

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