NOAA's Climate Change Adaptation Communication Resources
Coastal Processes & Hazards - News

How to advance community dialogue on climate change adaptation—without alienating your audience.

How can local officials, resource managers, and stakeholders motivate their neighbors to take steps toward adaptation so the communities they treasure will continue to thrive in the coming decades?

A growing number of coastal professionals are adopting a “no regrets” approach to climate change adaptation. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a “no regrets” approach is one in which actions taken “make sense or are worthwhile regardless of additional or exacerbated impacts from climate change.” For instance, when a coastal community acts to increase flood resilience, the community will undoubtedly strengthen its ability to thrive, whether or not climate change comes to pass.

With this approach in mind, the following tips can help coastal professionals communicate and frame local issues of hazard resilience and adaptation so that even climate-change skeptics are more likely to see the benefits.

It’s common for communicators to grab the attention of an audience with information or images that jolt them into awareness—but that strategy can backfire with the topic of climate change, says Sandy Eslinger, a hazards specialist with the NOAA Coastal Services Center.

“People listening to scary information about global climate change or looking at sensational visuals—say, an image of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by water—might either discount the information or think, ‘It’s going to happen anyway, so there’s no point in doing anything about it,’” says Eslinger. “Plus, that approach doesn’t help communities dealing with real concerns, like whether they need to develop new setback regulations for beachfront buildings because of sea level rise.”

Eslinger is a trainer for the Web-based course, Road Map for Adapting to Coastal Risks, which guides communities in addressing these sorts of real-life concerns. Course participants characterize their local exposure to current and future hazards and climate threats. They also consider how plans and policies already in force can address hazard vulnerabilities and jump-start adaptation strategies.

According to Eslinger, communicators or facilitators can work toward group consensus and away from pointless conflict. One helpful strategy is to encourage community members to develop a coastal hazards profile listing the concerns they all acknowledge, such as stormwater infrastructure that is due for an upgrade or repairs to a bridge damaged by heavy flooding. “Once your group agrees on addressing certain hazards, you can move on to talk about the increase in these hazards that is anticipated and consider some local adaptation solutions,” she notes.

Help your audience identify economical “win-win” approaches

Whether the local concern is potholes that need filling, sanitation contracts up for approval, or beaches that require more lifeguards, officials are likely to ask the same two questions: “How urgent is it?” and “How much will it cost?” By emphasizing the following points, communicators can highlight adaptation’s benefits for busy, cost-conscious officials:

  • Adaptation strategies are going to take time to identify and enact. Planning may start today but does not have to be in place tomorrow.

  • Many adaptation approaches can be integrated within existing plans and regulations, thereby making efficient use of community resources.

  • One well-designed adaptation strategy has the potential to safeguard numerous “quality of life” factors at a reasonable cost. For instance, a strategy to buy up available low-lying lands that can absorb excess floodwaters might be nearly as effective as building new stormwater infrastructure—and at a fraction of the cost. Such a low-tech alternative might also go a long way toward preserving key wetlands and animal habitat, bolstering the vitality of the local fishing industry, and lessening flood-insurance costs and infrastructure damage.

In Chatham County, Georgia, officials and residents at a pilot workshop of Road Map for Adapting to Coastal Risks were surprised to realize how many of their existing plans and regulations could address local concerns like shallow coastal flooding and sea level rise. Capitalizing on those insights, state and local planners are now identifying projects to support buffer protections for wetlands, better community outreach, and the development of local scenarios for sea level rise.

“When you emphasize these sorts of practical benefits and win-win scenarios, it’s possible to bring people on board who were alienated by the climate change discussion,” says Eslinger. “Find the message and local issues that are important to your audience, and you’ll be able to communicate more easily with them.”

Related Resources: Climate Communication 102

Seeking more tips on engaging with your local community to address adaptation?

The following resources can help.

  • The Coastal Climate Adaptation website features hundreds of resources that include local and state climate adaptation plans, case studies, guidebooks, and tools at collaborate.csc.noaa.gov/climateadaptation.

  • Publications such as Introduction to Stakeholder Participation and Local Strategies for Addressing Climate Change, Volumes I and II feature important communication tips and are located at www.csc.noaa.gov/publications.html.

  • Detailed information on a variety of trainings such as Coastal Community Planning and Development and Introducing Green Infrastructure for Coastal Resilience can be found at www.csc.noaa.gov/training.

This news item appeared in the October/November 2010 issue of NOAA’s Coastal Connections, a bimonthly publication focused on tools for coastal resource managers.

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