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

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.


  1. Mary · January 18, 2015

    Excellent insights. An ah-ha moment. Instead of flailing and railing, you’ve given us something we can actually do about it.

  2. Bart R · January 18, 2015

    Then let’s start picking our words with greater care.

    Fossil waste dumping is the issue, as it is the one root cause of other issues beside climate change and cheaper to amend than adaption could be.

    Fossil waste dumping is what raises CO2 levels in the carbon cycle, unlike those surface actions that merely move carbon already there around a little without truly removing it from the carbon cycle.

    Fossil waste dumping is not all of fossil industry: plastic, paint, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy feedstock, binders, industrial chemicals, lubricants, construction materials all can derive more profitably and without carbon emission from fossil resources. No one will go broke if we end fossil waste dumping.

    Geothermal electric for half the world, mixed low-cement hydro hybrid water management for much of the world beside, biomass through pyrolysis and enzyme treatment that also sequesters carbon as biochar — the most economical long-term sequestration — as dispatchable baseload are all cheaper than fossil energy, and would benefit us all more without fossil waste dumping; for peak load solar and wind are already cheaper than fossil in most of the world, too, and by Economies of Scale are getting cheaper. We will have more power with less wasted on fossil spending.

    Fossil waste dumping antagonizes ethylene and gibberrellin plant hormones, diverting vigor from protein building to woody mass while contributing to metabolic locking in plants at night.

    Fossil waste dumping acidifies our world’s aquatic systems, stealing minerals from the nutrient chain of life.

    Fossil waste dumping causes soil microbes to drive vital nitrates from roots into the air as NOx pollutants.

    This is not a population control issue. Population does not and need not correlate with fossil waste dumping. This is not a human development issue: HDI grows fastest where fossil waste dumping rises least as a fraction of GDP. This is not a political issue: there are extreme deniers as well-known from the Left as from the Right, like Bjorn Lomborg and Martin Durkin. This is a fossil waste trespass issue, a concern of fundamental hygiene.

    Science treats as accurate, most nearly true as we can know, that proposition of pure inference from all observations given simplest assumptions, fewest exceptions and most universal logic of like properties of like bodies until new observation demand amended or rejected proposition. Science currently tells us through more than four thousand unrefuted independent studies all we need know of the harm of fossil waste dumping.

    Let’s use words like that. Or better, let’s act on them.

  3. Brad Rouse · January 20, 2015

    Nothing special is required to get people to adapt. What is required is to get them to mitigate. In other words, the language at the table may get a little uncomfortable. As the other comment states, fossil fuel waste dumping is the unhygienic practice we must end. God didn’t tell us that unsanitary conditions cause disease, but once we figured it out His command to care for His people and His creation dictated that we must build systems to handle human waste. Now science is telling us that fossil fuel waste dumping is a problem, and His commands require us to reduce and eliminate fossil fuel waste dumping.

  4. Capt Jill · January 20, 2015

    seems to me that is the correct response. When a person sees something they think needs action taken, then they take action. MUCH better then someone else telling them they need to do something and then trying to force them to do something when they haven’t decided it’s a good idea to do anything! If you can’t find a way to convince somebody to do something, then you should not be allowed to force them.
    Climate change is going to happen, no matter what people do or don’t do. It’s good that people are reacting to it in sensible ways, on their own initiative.
    If someone can come up with some good ideas, good enough to convince the community to follow them, then good. I hope solar becomes affordable. I would convert my house if it was. I’ve been waiting 20 years now for it to become cost effective. I would love to see all those other alternatives come into effect, but I don’t see that happening until they’re competitively priced with fossil fuels, easy to get/use, and hopefully scaled down to use on an individual level. I’m also still waiting for some other choice in transport.

  5. Hamilton · January 30, 2015

    I’ve lived in NC my whole life and can’t recall anyone ever blaming God for sea level rise. Saying that “many” in NC believe this is misleading. “Many” could mean almost a majority or it could mean a couple dozen. I think it is the latter.

    • Amy Freitag · February 4, 2015

      “Many” in this case means a majority of coastal residents, as documented by RENCI. Granted, this is definitely not the majority view for those in the Triangle and most likely not for the mountain regions. People forget that the regions of NC really do reflect huge cultural difference (hello, BBQ). The sparsely populated coastal regions of the state are a world unto themselves.

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