Climate change remains a polarizing issue in Washington, where members of Congress engage in endless, Groundhog Day-like debates over the (settled) science, instead of taking action.
But, out beyond the Beltway, many Americans are waking up to the reality of a changing climate. Unfortunately, that’s largely because of ever-more-frequent extreme weather events, changes in growing seasons, and other impacts. Yet those impacts present an opportunity to start a dialogue — even with those who don’t necessarily believe in human-induced climate change.
The key, my colleagues and I have found, is to focus on preparedness. Quite simply, it makes good sense to prepare for — and to reduce the risk of — climate impacts. Here are a few pointers on how to get the conversation started, drawn from a new report by my group, Climate Access:
- Preparation is practical. Most Americans agree that when it comes to extreme weather — regardless of what is causing it — it’s better to be safe than sorry. People not only support the idea of preparedness, they are willing to take action to protect themselves and their communities. Rather than continue to debate the science, talk about practical steps we can take to reduce risk, and about the economic, community, cultural, and other benefits of being prepared.
- Uncertainty does not justify inaction. We don’t know exactly how climate change will play out in our communities, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. After all, we buy auto insurance even though we are not 100 percent sure we’ll wreck our car. So, if there is even a small chance of a devastating climate impact, and there are steps we can take to prevent or prepare for the event that pay off in other ways, why not do so?
- Meet people where they are. Don’t lead with climate change if it will alienate your audience. Instead, start with what stakeholders care about and answer the question, “What does this mean for me?” Focus on local, observable impacts. For people in coastal communities, flooding looms large. For farmers, it may be water availability. For low-income people in vulnerable communities, equity concerns such as involvement in decision-making and access to assistance during storm events might be top of mind.
- Emphasize prevention. Promote emissions reductions as a preparation strategy. Heading off the worst impacts is the most effective step we can take to reduce risk, not just respond to it. Point out the human and financial cost of inaction: Given the trend lines, the challenge will only be more difficult and costly if we wait.
- Talk about co-benefits. Emphasize solutions that make sense regardless of climate disruption and provide multiple benefits. For example, forested parks can reduce the urban heat island effect and sequester carbon while providing recreation, health, and beautification benefits for communities.
- Highlight success stories. Across the country — in red states and blue states — leaders are taking action to prepare for climate impacts. While Portland and New York may spring to mind when it comes to local climate leadership, communities such as Indianapolis, Ind., and Tulsa, Okla., are also taking steps to prepare, and seeing economic and security returns. Highlight the benefits of solutions that have already been implemented and link those to a realistic, yet hopeful, vision of what else can be done.
- Connect to values. People assess risk and take action based on their values, worldviews, and identities — not just on the “facts.” That’s why it’s important to connect to deeply held, nonpartisan values like protection, responsibility, ingenuity, stewardship, and fairness.
Adopting a preparation approach is not just about finding the right language to use. In the risk-communication field, there is evidence that people respond best when they are working together to explore risks and potential solutions, rather than having the risk and response strategy prescribed for them.
Community engagement must start early in climate planning, be focused on creating a two-way conversation and decision-making processes, and be as inclusive as possible. Engaging the community isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s also a smart thing to do — because incorporating a diverse range of worldviews, knowledge, and skill bases into problem solving leads to innovative solutions and creates a strong voice for policy change.
Many leaders in Congress continue to debate the cause of climate change, but climate impacts are happening here and now. Americans are ready to take action to protect themselves and their communities. By focusing on preparedness, we can fully engage Americans — all Americans — in crafting solutions to the greatest challenge of our time.
Cara Pike is the founder and executive director of Climate Access, a resource-sharing and problem-solving network for leaders who want to involve the public in climate solutions. This blog post was produced in partnership with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation.