A Threat by Any Other Name

Climate change is political. Should planners talk about something else?

For residents of cities like Miami, acknowledging the long-term threat of sea level rise has near-term economic repercussions.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the past 50 years, the average temperature in the Great Plains has jumped 1.5 degrees. It’s enough to influence the natural world, and humans along with it: The pollen season for ragweed has expanded by as many as 16 days since the mid-1990s, songbirds in Wyoming are laying their eggs five days earlier than they did in the ’60s, and winter wheat is flowering about a week sooner that it did in the ’40s. Those small fluctuations hint at cascading effects to come. Temperature is expected to rise between 2.5 and 13 degrees by the end of this century, which will dramatically compound those changes and upend the way people manage livestock, crops, and water.

In a region that overwhelmingly supports candidates from the Republican Party, you might expect to see little action on the ground. These changes are the result of climate change, after all, a phenomenon dismissed by the Republican Party as a political scheme of United Nations bureaucrats. To the contrary, however, mayors, county commissioners, and other officials have been pushing policies to adapt to their changing environment and slow its transformation. In 2012, Rebecca Romsdahl, a researcher at the University of North Dakota, surveyed more than 200 local governments across 10 Great Plains states on their responses to climate change. More than half of them had enacted what might be broadly construed as policies to confront climate change. Some are basic quality-of-life proposals that establish biking and hiking trails or require developers to plant trees. Other, less popular initiatives were more explicit, like green fleets of municipal vehicles or zoning ordinances that account for sprawl’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

What they have in common: Planners by and large aren’t framing them as climate change measures. Instead, they talk about saving money, conserving resources, or preserving clean water. Many initiatives are spurred by local desires for clean air, outdoor recreation, or public health improvements. Climate change mitigation is considered a bonus, not the point—if it’s discussed at all. “It’s much easier for planners to frame it that way and slide climate change in on the side,” Romsdahl explained. “In many cases, it’s quite intentional that they’re going to frame the policy or the problem so that they can work with the audience in question. If they know climate change is a term they can’t even discuss with their audience, they’re going to avoid discussing it.”

In other words: As the U.S. heads for what may be the earliest spring in recorded history, is talking less about climate change a key to doing something about it? 

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According to research by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 70 percent of Americans believed in March 2016 that global warming was happening—on par with the highest level since the YPCCC began surveying in 2008. But on virtually every question about the causes, effects, and mitigation of climate change, we are widely divided along partisan lines. When it comes to addressing those issues, any consensus melts like a snowball on the Senate floor.

In 2011, the North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission warned that sea levels would rise 39 inches on the Outer Banks by the end of the century, putting a firm expiration date on the value of waterfront homes. A coalition of real estate interests fought back, fearing that a gradual abandonment of low-lying areas would occur if the forecast, linked to addresses, was established in a state database. They convinced the Republican-led statehouse to discard the panel’s conclusion, which was eventually replaced by a 30-year forecast that had the water rising only eight inches.

For residents of the Outer Banks—as for homeowners in coastal Brooklyn or Miami—discounting the long-term threat was a matter of near-term economic survival. The representatives had other justifications. “You can believe whatever you want about global warming,” said state Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican and real estate agent who sponsored the 2012 law, at that time. “But when you go to make planning policies here for our residents and protecting their property values and insurance rates, it’s a very serious thing to us on the coast.” Climate change forecasts were not considered a sound basis for policy.

Five years later, says Tancred Miller, a coastal policy manager at the North Carolina Department of Environment Quality, two things have changed. First, the attention that the controversy put on sea level rise projections—in addition to several big storms—put the issue into the public’s mind. Second, the focus has changed from speculating about climate change to talking about flooding. “That becomes very easy for folks to latch onto,” he said. “It’s not climate, it’s not sea level rise, it’s just flooding.” Many coastal towns and counties in North Carolina now have their own freeboard ordinances that push new construction above the base flood elevation—and they don’t even need to mention sea level rise to do so.

Michael Orbach, a retired professor of marine policy at Duke University, watched that struggle to adapt planning and policy to the inevitability of sea level rise. “In some places, unfortunately in the U.S. House of Representatives, you can’t use the words climate change. That’s infantile, but that’s how it is,” Orbach said. “Officials in local and state governments who are seeing the issues on the ground, they’re finding a way to talk about it. If you’re on some coastal commission in Maryland, you call it resilience planning, that’s what you do. They do exactly the same thing if they had called it climate change. And that’s just fine.”

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The word they are using to do so, more and more, is resilience. Once seen as a kind of stopgap strategy, resilience has become the modus operandi of climate planning. To be resilient now means to encompass all previous climate change strategies: to resist, to mitigate, and to adapt. Its use in international climate research and U.S. academic papers has multiplied over the past few decades.

The 2015 PREPARE Act, a bipartisan bill to help the federal government recover from extreme weather events, does not mention climate change or global warming. But it uses the term resilience 40 times.

That’s a microcosm of a greater shift. “In the climate change world, it’s a term that’s really caught on fire, and everybody uses it,” said Nicholas Fisichelli, a director at the Schoodic Institute in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Why resilience? In part, because no one knows quite what it means. Planners can use it as a nonpartisan substitute for climate change, enabling communities with skeptical constituents to start raising roads and houses without addressing the elephant in the room. Advocates market resilience as an umbrella strategy for a variety of improvements that include preparations for terrorism and natural disasters. Coastal communities can see it as a call to persevere. Politicians and companies can slap the title on proposals that amount to business as usual. The result is different people pursuing different goals under the same flag.

To its proponents, one advantage of resilience planning is that it accounts for shocks beyond those wrought by climate change. The Rockefeller Foundation has invested more than $500 million in resilience since 2005 and developed 100 Resilient Cities, an organization that helps cities around the world organize plans for climate change and other disasters. Sam Carter, a director at the foundation who works on resilience, observed that three successive events in New York—the 9/11 attacks, the housing crisis, and Superstorm Sandy—had each taught the city a lesson in risk management that could be applied in the next.

But the word’s most limited—and common—definition is that of a trait that allows something to quickly return to its prior state after undergoing a shock. And in that sense, it sounds like a way, as some researchers have pointed out, to gird for a return to the status quo. What could be more resilient than the reconstruction of a storm-ravaged beach community? And what could be less resilient than the type of government buyouts that have been initiated in flood-prone areas from North Dakota to New York City to return neighborhoods to nature?

It’s tempting to reduce such a complaint to semantics. But there’s a backlash against the term from climate change advocates who believe it can serve to mask contradictory goals. Anne Sider, a lawyer and climate change policy researcher who has worked with the Navy, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, and various cities, has written about the “incoherence” that surrounds the term even as it’s used in law and guidance documents. “It was intriguing to me to see how we all used the same language, but we meant completely different things,” she told me. Commitments to resilience sound good in PR documents, but they vary widely in practice, even among organizations and governments nominally committed to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Cat Hawkins Hoffman, the chief of the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program, worries that public perception of resilience is out of line with what it may mean to planners. “Resilience is such a common word,” she said. “We’re paying attention to it, but to the lay public in general it’s a comforting term.”

“We see this word more and more, and the more we see it, the less we know what it means,” added her colleague Gregor Schuurman. “Somewhere there is a danger of saying to the lay public, ‘Everything is going to be resilient.’ ”

The language change also recalls the earlier substitution, in scientific reports, media, and among politicians, of climate change for global warming. At least in some circles, this was viewed as a desensitizing shift “It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming,” wrote strategist Frank Luntz in a 2002 memo to the Republican Party. “ ‘Climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming.’ As one focus group participant noted, climate change ‘sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

A word that pragmatic planners perceive as a crucial tool also functions to further reduce public perceptions of risk. In December, the Federal Highway Administration removed the term climate change from the name of a program that studies how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation system: The Sustainable Transport and Climate Change group became the Sustainable Transportation and Resilience group. “The use of the term ‘resilience’ is consistent with a trend in the transportation community as a way to be inclusive when it comes to dealing with infrastructure risk,” an agency spokesperson told the Washington Post. The language changed elsewhere as well.

On balance, planners may accept that resilience is an indispensable framework, even if its meaning is open to interpretation. But its ubiquity has another effect, which is to strip climate change from the language of planning documents like the PREPARE Act. We can see what we gain from not talking about climate change. What do we lose?