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Fever pitch

The news has focused on the deadly heat-waves across Europe, Asia and North America this summer, and the catastrophic heat, as well as drought-fueled wildfires in California. In Englewood, CO last month, a woman checking on a friend’s pet cat drowned when an intense, highly localized storm dumped 2.5 inches of rain in 30 minutes, creating a torrent that quickly inundated the basement apartment, trapping her in water that reached the ceiling. Neighbors in another basement apartment narrowly escaped chest-high water. Area homeowners reported they couldn’t obtain insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) despite frequent flash flooding because their neighborhood does not appear on federally approved flood maps. 

As the 2018 hurricane season approaches, flooding is bound to take over the headlines. Smarter Safer is a coalition of 30 organizations that is sounding the alarm about systemic problems with the NFIP and the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps and assesses flood risk. While the national burden of paying various states’ FEMA claims is shared equally across the U.S., some states that have received the most FEMA assistance in recent years, including Texas and Louisiana, rank at the bottom in terms of state expenditures to mitigate the causes of climate change and engage in effective strategies to prevent future damage, such as regulating zoning to avoid building in flood plains, revising building codes to make structures less vulnerable, and updating emergency management plans to prepare for storm related displacements. Systemic problems require comprehensive solutions. Smarter Safer views this as an economic issue as well as a public safety concern, and promotes free-market solutions.

As I was exploring the NFIP issues, I encountered two contrasting views about climate change messaging. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and historian who has written about numerous human traumas including the Holocaust and nuclear war, suggested in a 2017 interview that humanity will only resolve to take decisive action on climate change when we have all been personally touched by climate-related disasters. Of three decision-making factors—experience, economics and ethics—Lifton says economics is the most compelling, but that personal experience is essential in order to create the needed urgency.

Another view, based upon results of a survey conducted by the public relations firm the Shelton Group, suggests we avoid unfamiliar (too technical) and potentially polarizing concepts. “Science,” “conservation” and “sustainability” polled well in the survey, in which 2,000 Americans reacted to a list of climate-change-related words and phrases. The least popular words were “environmental stewardship,” “carbon footprint” and “regulation.”

As someone who studies and writes about how we can respond effectively to climate change, I can’t help noticing that these are words that convey human responsibility, name a specific causal phenomenon, and describe a key part of the solution. Given the “do not disturb” ethos of the survey’s conclusions, I am guessing that “survival” would also be too emotionally charged. So, in addition to overwhelming scientific evidence and carefully considered remedies, climate advocates must be pitch-perfect in somehow conveying urgency without alarm.



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