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The words we use matter in climate change adaptation

In 2012, North Carolina outlawed climate change, receiving major press as the face of conservative climate policy. The intent of the law was to stop planning processes from basing their decisions on modeled climate change scenarios of the future, which would halt large investments in coastal development. But the letter of the law actually outlawed the sea from rising, and the new legislation met the American public as the face of many public jokes making North Carolinians look quite naive about the future changes in our ecosystem. The immediate response of state agencies was to follow the letter of the law and remove the phrase “climate change” from their websites, reports, and other public-facing documents.

This fits with the cultural understanding of climate change in much of North Carolina, where many do not believe that climate change is human-caused but instead what happens to our planet is directed by God. According to this philosophy, we should trust God to do what’s right for the planet instead of moaning about how sea level rise might take your house and put it in the ocean. The new law aligns with this resurgence of religious conservatives in state politics and the general notion that you don’t bring up climate change at the dinner table.

Yet, for years before this law and continuing after its enactment, the state and its residents continue to plan for sea level rise at a community or personal level. Residents are moving their houses inland, raising them on stilts, and reconsidering coastal purchases. According to research out of ECU, these residents are perfectly okay planning for sea level rise and discuss many of the effects of climate change freely over the dinner table or in the local newspaper.

from coastalcare.org When you're facing the ocean out your front door, sometimes the cause is not that important to decide to do something about it.

from coastalcare.org
When you’re facing the ocean out your front door, sometimes the cause is not that important to decide to do something about it.

To a scientist, like many readers of this blog, this logic may seem like the very definition of cognitive dissonance: how can you talk about sea level rise without bringing up its cause, global climate change and humans drastically altering the planet’s carbon cycle? Well, because to those who ascribe to the worldview that God caused the sea to rise, these concepts are not connected. However, if God is causing the sea to rise, there’s still good reason to plan on rising ocean waters, talk about adaptation, and lift the house. In the end, to someone seeking climate adaptation and community resilience, many families are reaching that goal through the belief they’re reacting to God’s challenge, not anthropogenic climate change. But the result is in many cases the same.

The ECU research in a nutshell highlights that you have to speak to members of the community, figure out what terms people are using for the effects of climate change, how they fit them into their worldview, and how to communicate about a changing globe in the context of that worldview. Heading straight for the politically contentious fight by using the wrong terms can take the options toward successful adaptation off the table. But there is another way. Rather than attacking someone’s worldview, understand it, talk within it, and get at the concepts through a different path. If we’re all a little more empathetic, we can create more resilient communities.