Ten years ago, I launched a strange little project called Drown Your Town. The premise behind Drown Your Town was simple: I created a little macro in Google Maps that allowed you to superimpose a floodwater layer on top of 3D renders of communities. It was a quick and dirty way to demonstrate sea level rise in an era where those kinds of bespoke models were hard to generate. With #DrownYourTown, anyone, anywhere could simulate sea level rise in their own back yard.
It wasn’t originally going to be an outreach tool. I was writing a science fiction novel about life in a post-climate change world and needed an easy way to visualize places in the stories might look like. The book is still available, on Amazon, along with two other novellas that I wrote, though I warn you, none of them are very good (in my defense, it was the high water mark for self-publishing ebooks and I was still trying to figuring out what my post-academic career would be).
We pushed out the app, launched a successful tumblr page where folks could request sea level rise models, initiated what remains to this day my most successful Twitter campaign of all time, and spent the next year helping people visualize sea level rise in their communities.
A sea change happened for me over the last decade, best exemplified by my keynote address at the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress: Exploration Wants to Be Shared. It’s not enough to tell people that the world is changing, you have to give them tools to explore, measure, and understand it for themselves. That was and still is the core philosophy of the OpenCTD.
But something else changed, too.
During the early days of the pandemic, it became clear the all the science outreach in the world couldn’t resist the tide of manufactured doubt, of well-financed propaganda, of unfettered conspiracy that plagued our communication environment. We brought Science Outreach to a Terror Management Theory fight that we were not, and are not, ready for.
So I started thinking: if convincing decision makers to do the right thing was going to be a constant fight against the rising tide of misinformation, would it be more effective to become the decision makers?
During the run up to 2016, there were a few organizations trying to convince scientists to run for congress. That always struck me as the wrong approach. Congress is the Great Political Show. It requires a very particular set of skills to be effective and, to put it bluntly, if your goal was to land in Congress, you likely would have pursued a very different career path than most practicing scientists. But Congress isn’t where the vast majority of decisions directly impacting your life are made, local municipal governments are, and local government, where most appointments are part time and voluntary, and where a few expert voices can carry significant weight, is where scientists can make a difference.
Environmental decisions happen on zoning boards. Planning boards set climate resilience priorities. Wetlands Commissions, Waterways, Parks and Recreation, School Boards, Library Boards, all of these committees are comprised of civically-minded volunteers (for the most part) working to make their communities a little better. I’ll have more to bore you with later about why and how scientists should run for local government, but the executive summary here is: I was appointed my town’s Climate Change/Sea Level Rise Commission. Our commission is tasked with assessing the town’s climate vulnerability, identifying critical risk areas, and pursuing funding to build and improve infrastructure in order to ensure that the community continues to thrive beyond 2050.
This January, nearly ten years after DrownYourTown, I launched St. Michaels Floodwatch. Floodwatch is a hyperlocal sea level rise mapping tool for the Town of St. Michaels, which allows residents and visitors to view the sea level rise projection that the St. Michaels Climate Change/Sea Level Rise Commission is using to make decisions about climate resilience and communicate to our constituents the threat the sea level rise and chronic flooding will bring if we’re not prepared for it.
We had some good coverage about it in our local paper: App shows sea level rise, flooding in local areas as well as a short feature on our regional news station: Technology To Prepare People for Nuisance Flooding.
When I launched DrownYourTown ten years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted that this is where the program would end up, but in retrospect, the person I was most trying to convince to take action was me.