We’ve all read the stories and seen the news clips. We all know about the trillions of gallons of water that flooded Texas. We know that Florida residents have been displaced, some killed. We know that the building materials which covered natural flood mitigation landscapes kept the water above ground. Some of our ASAP members are experiencing this personally. Our thoughts are with them.
While There’s a Microphone in Our Hands
But thoughts cannot do anything without actions to follow them.
All communities are impacted by climate change, from the storm-soaked flood zones of the South to the drought-ridden cities that are burning in the West. Even regions with more temperate conditions rely on the economic and cultural provisions of these communities in crisis.
Though we, as adaptation professionals, have known the imminent threat of these conditions, our opportunities to influence the public and protect our neighbors have been limited. But now, when we have national leadership that is so blase about the dangers of our changing world as to say “We’ve had worse storms,” we must lead the public ourselves. As Texas, Florida, and other Gulf localities start to rebuild – and as Hurricane Maria makes landfall in the Caribbean, striking U.S. territories – this is the time to speak and to act. This is the time that people are listening and watching.
E.P.A. Administrator Scott Pruitt pleaded with the nation to ignore the scientific reality, claiming that it would be “insensitive” to examine what led to the destruction. But Adam Sobel, a climate leader at Columbia University, is credited as saying, “It’s the only time people pay attention…. People say don’t politicize it. That’s ridiculous. Frankly, it’s politicized from the moment it happened.”
At the center of the storm, and at the heart of crisis stories, climate hazards are not political talking points; they are public health emergencies and must be treated as such. Part of our task in adapting to climate change is to mentally prepare communities for the major changes they personally face.
Now that we have the public’s attention, what do we do with it?
A report by Climate Access, “Toward Consensus on the Climate Communication Challenge,” suggests that the best hope for communicating clearly and effectively to the public is to build a consistent message among the climate community and collaborate with social science practitioners to distribute the message.
“Public engagement is an urgent matter,” the report said. “In this regard, public engagement initiatives must compete for attention against a host of other issues and concerns, as well as a campaign designed specifically to discredit climate science. Therefore, the engagement must be appealing, compelling, and persuasive enough to break through.”
To achieve widespread adaptation, we must build upon what the wide range of the public already understands and build their trust to move forward. With such breadth in ideologies and opinions in our national audience, the challenge is not to appease every member of the public but to make them see reason and create hope for a sustainable future.
“Experts often provide information without knowing what lay people understand. If they over-estimate they will be talking over their heads and if they under-estimate they will appear to be talking down to them,” the 2009 NOAA report “Risk Behavior And Risk Communication: Synthesis and Expert Interviews” said. “Regardless of the objective or goal, messages need to be developed according to the socioeconomic and cultural contexts in which they will be received.”
Right now, we have context to which everyone can relate. Climate communication experts agree that the doom and gloom of seemingly Biblical prophesies – flood, fire, famine – will not convince people alone. As we explain the risks which humans have brought upon ourselves, we must also extend an olive branch, a sign of hope, that we can solve some of these problems and save our families, neighbors, and homes in the future.
Looking at widespread risk mitigation for future crises is not insensitive or political. We continue to rebuild in Texas and in Florida. But now, we have a chance to build communities better.
ASAP is partnering with HARC to coordinate and deliver resilience resources, knowledge, and assistance to the Houston area post-Harvey. If you want to join the effort or know of an approach, individual or institution that we should contact, please complete this Post-Harvey Resilience Resources Intake form.