Climate adaptation is bringing sceptics in the US and UK onboard - but is it fast enough?

| 7th March 2011
Climate change headlines

Communities in conservative states like Florida are reluctant to accept the reality of climate change

Some of the more conservative areas of the US like Florida are now adapting to climate change yet they are still unwilling to accept the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions

In Punta Gorda, a city on the West coast of Florida, the streets are interlaced with canals and retirees move there to enjoy the warm climate and good fishing. It is a low-lying area vulnerable to sea level rise and consequently, Punta Gorda became the first city in Florida to adopt a climate change adaptation plan.

In the words of Environmental scientist Whitney Grey of the South West Florida Regional Planning Council, ‘It's a particularly conservative population, we don’t talk about why climate change is happening.’

Scientists here were very careful about their language when talking about adaptation measures. They no longer use the term ‘protection’ for armouring, dyking and other hard sea defences. Americans don’t ‘retreat’, that would never be an attractive option, although ‘managed relocation’ from rising sea levels might be feasible. With the new vocabulary residents were more receptive to solutions other than expensive but short-term hard coastal defences. It is an achievement to have created an adaptation plan in an environment where anthropogenic climate change cannot be mentioned but without mitigation, adaptation is ultimately doomed to failure.

Reaching scientific consensus on the causes and likely consequences of climate change was challenging. But communicating this is proving equally difficult. In the UK, the government says it requires an ‘urgent and radical response’ but Governments shy away from binding agreements at international conferences and individuals continue to commute by car and take long distance flights for pleasure. The problem lies in how to communicate the ‘massive threat’ in a way that inspires action rather than apathy.

Faith inspired action

In the United States the problem is particularly acute and climate change is a highly politicised issue. Although of all the developed countries the US is likely to feel the effects of climate change worst.

Perhaps, it is not just the language that needs to change. The message might be coming from the wrong medium. What if rather than hearing about climate change from a political entity you may not support, it came from someone trusted like a vicar? In the US, the Interfaith Power and Light project uses faith communities to disseminate climate change messages. The organisation has reached almost 10,000 congregations in 38 states across the US and is continually expanding its reach.

Susan Stephenson, executive director of the Regeneration Project at Interfaith Power and Light said: ‘People get their basic values in life from religious training. Climate change is a moral issue and we ought to talk about it that way. Church is the appropriate place to talk about values and moral issues, not to mention the havoc we are wreaking on God’s creation.’

She said the climate change message is well received when delivered by a trusted clergy person, adding: ‘Climate change should not be a political football. It is a call to be good stewards of God’s creation and take care of vulnerable communities. It is quite appropriate that this is something that faith communities should be involved in. It should be right up there with justice, peace and love.’

Community-level response

The idea is to address climate change in sermons and to make energy saving adaptations to the church, mosque or synagogue such as solar panels or better insulation in the hope these will be adopted by the congregation at home. Tackling religious communities in America makes sense because two thirds of the population identify with a congregation but other social networks can also be tapped.

In the UK, Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s Carbon Conversations is creating networks and developing a social norm within them for dramatically cutting carbon. Groups of six to eight people lead by two trained facilitators meet every fortnight for three months to discuss barriers to and incentives for making big carbon reductions in their lives.

Psychotherapist Rosemary Randall founder and director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint said: ‘Stopping flying touches on people’s identity. It takes an awful lot more than a slogan or a poster.’

Tackling conservative sceptics

Carbon Conversations address the sense of loss or grief that could be associated with making big lifestyle changes. The project is a success, with participants in Edinburgh recently reducing their carbon footprints by as much as 16 percent. Some people give up flying, others moved house to be closer to work or downsized. More than 700 people have taken part in Carbon Conversations and the movement is growing.

Carbon Conversations are great for people already thinking about the climate to take the next step but can they motivate die hard skeptics? Nancy Jackson chairwoman of the Climate and Energy Project, based in Kansas, US, said taking action on climate change depended on a) belief that climate change is occurring, b) that human actions are causing it, and c) it can be stopped and that the costs are worth the benefits. ‘We do not have those predicates in place,’ she added.

Jackson ran an experiment in conservative Kansas, a state full of climate change deniers opposed to too much government intervention, to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism and economic prosperity they could persuade six communities to take significant steps to save energy and use renewable fuels. The result was a reduction in energy by five per cent, it doesn’t sound much but other energy saving projects consider 1.5 per cent to be a success. Ms Jackson said: ‘Environmental benefits are icing on the cake and certainly they matter to us. But they need not be primary drivers.’

In these times of austerity, it might make sense to mobilise communities along the Kansas route – use renewable energy, cycle to work and turn down the thermostat just don’t mention global warming. Ms Jackson added: ‘Action on a local level is critical and demonstrates demand for policy at the national and international level.’

The crux is that different communities can be motivated to take action in different ways but until the electorate convinces the government that action on climate change is a vote winner we will not get an ‘urgent and radical response’ on a national level. The election of the UK’s first Green Member of Parliament is a step in the right direction but there is a way to go. Governments around the world are talking about climate change but still expanding airports and fossil fuel projects. Members of Parliament remain unconvinced the electorate would approve of truly radical initiatives.

In the meanwhile, if local communities are taking action on climate change, either because they believe in it or because it saves them money, perhaps that will communicate to government that it is a vote winner.



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