After hurricane Harvey hit Texas ‒ and in the lead-up to hurricane Irma ‒ Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, made clear his feelings about discussing climate change in the context of the storms.
Such discussions about the role climate change might have played were “insensitive” and “misplaced,” he said, since all attention should be on helping people in need.
A host of critics – including the Republican mayor of Miami – disagreed.
But if climate change has become such a politicized topic that discussing its role in intensifying storms like Irma and Harvey is only likely to lead to more polarization and policy gridlock, there is another topic that is getting not just traction, but meaningful action across the political spectrum: resilience planning.
And increasingly, some experts are arguing there is good reason to decouple the two debates from each other. For one thing, not every disaster can be linked to climate change. Debating which storm fits under that umbrella, and which is simply a matter of typical weather fluctuation, does little to help communities cope with either type of storm. What's more, some of those experts hope that approaching such policy decisions through the less controversial lenses of resilience, risk, adaptation, and disaster preparedness can be a portal to the tougher – and more politically fraught – conversation about mitigation and carbon emissions.
“If you start with resilience, there’s so much learning that takes place through that process,” says Michelle Wyman, executive director of the National Council for Science and the Environment, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to improve the scientific basis for environmental decisionmaking. A conversation about flood planning might start at a local level, she explains, and bring in existing data. “Without fully realizing it, you end up very often with an outcome that includes policymakers and community folks, can trickle up to the state level, and all of a sudden we’re having a climate discussion. It makes something that’s really complicated a little easier to digest.”
Bringing a global conversation home
One reason resilience is an easier – and less politicized – topic to take on is that it’s so concrete, and so local, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He says climate-change activists, in some ways, made a strategic mistake by refusing to discuss adaptation a couple decades ago because they didn’t want to give the impression that we could adapt our way out of the problem. They only wanted to talk about mitigation – how to reduce carbon emissions and change the direction of global warming.
“The problem is that mitigation is fundamentally a global conversation ... at a level the vast majority of humanity does not think about,” says Professor Leiserowitz. “Most of us are intensely local.”
The challenges that towns on the Gulf Coast face are fundamentally different from those challenges faced by communities in North Texas, or the Chesapeake Bay, or Northern California. At the community level, the politically charged and abstract discussion of causation matters less than the tangible effects of changing rain, flood, and weather patterns.
“For the Republican mayor of Miami Beach, this isn’t some abstraction. The streets of his city are flooding on perfectly blue-sky sunny days,” says Leiserowitz. “So he knows there’s a risk now, an increasing risk that on more and more days those streets are going to be flooded.”
Miami Beach, he notes, recently spent about $500 million to increase the resiliency of the city, elevating streets and installing pumps.
For Fairhope, Ala., devastating flooding in back-to-back years with hurricanes Ivan and Katrina prompted new, more resilient building practices, and an embracing of “fortified” building standards.
Moore, Okla., and Greensburg, Kan. – both nearly destroyed by tornadoes – are other frequently cited examples of cities that took on the idea of resilience and preparedness as they rebuilt.
“What turns an extreme event into a disaster is what happens to the infrastructure, and we can do a better job of planning,” says Jennifer Jacobs, an engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of the Infrastructure and Climate Network. “There’s a lot of bottom-up effort going on from the citizens in a community saying, whatever the disaster is, or just something that causes them not to be able to get to work, they don’t find that acceptable.” Whether those disasters are tied to climate change often doesn’t matter to them, she adds.
A 'sea change' in disaster planning
Joshua Behr, a research professor at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, has been working with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to generate hyper-local models – down to the neighborhood level – of disaster recovery times in the Hampton Roads region, an area that stretches from northeast North Carolina almost up to Washington, D.C.
In his modeling, he looks at the impacts, in particular, on vulnerable populations – those who are medically fragile, or low-to-moderate income, or elderly – and what sort of barriers they might have to evacuation, or to recovery after the disaster.
Such modeling, he says, has helped to identify policies – often with a relatively small investment – that can help such populations get to safety before a disaster and recover more quickly after one.
Professor Behr says he’s seen a “sea change” in how such disaster planning is approached over the past decade or two, going from involving just a small group of emergency responders to including all sorts of related groups: advocacy groups, nonprofits, hospitals, food banks. To some extent, he thinks social media – and the farther reach it gives to disasters – has helped that rise.
“There’s a sense of intimacy with these impending storms that wasn’t around 10 or 15 or 20 years ago,” he says.
Such planning can sometimes rely on scientific projections, like sea-level rise, that is politicized, Behr acknowledges, but says it’s helped to be transparent about the assumptions and different modeling approaches. In the past, he says people who were skeptical were sometimes shouted down in meetings and simply left.
“Now, those conversations are being more frank and real about the assumptions and uncertainties involved, and those voices are starting to come back to the table,” he says.
That language of risk – so central to any sort of resiliency planning – can be a noncontroversial and less partisan way to get into climate discussions, say many experts.
Everyone – from those in the financial and insurance sectors to farmers deciding what to plant – understands the concept of risk, and how to prepare for possibilities.
“That language and context of risk can get the [climate debate] out of ‘it’s going to blow up the world’ or ‘it’s not a problem at all’ and into the real area of gray where we all make decisions in our daily lives,” says Leiserowitz.
Leiserowitz is among those who sees a benefit to talking about resilience and disaster planning in a less polarized language, but also a danger in decoupling that conversation too much from the broader climate change debate.
“In the end, our ability to adapt to the kind of changes we’re potentially facing is small,” he says. “At this point, we’ve dillied and dallied and dithered long enough.”