Coastal communities across the country are moving forward with advance efforts addressing sea level rise. In the process, they’re┬áhoning their climate communications skills … sometimes without bringing up the ‘dreaded’ climate change term.

As glaciers melt and warming oceans expand, communities around the United States are beginning to prepare for rising sea levels, turning some local leaders and planning officials into climate communicators.

In some places, as described in The Yale Forum in February, residents are calling sea level rise a hoax, accusing planners of participation in a United Nations or “one-world” plot. Others are organizing opposition to regulations related to sea level rise, the mere talk of which they fear would curtail development.

But in interviews, local officials say it’s far more common for residents of their cities and regions to view sea level rise simply as a snooze: It’s complex, abstract, slow-moving, and seemingly less important than finding and keeping a job in today’s economy.

“It just doesn’t seem real enough,” said Jennifer Jurado, director of the Broward County, Fla., natural resources planning and management division. “It just doesn’t seem to demand the same individual attention as many other things.”

In interviews with The Yale Forum, local leaders around the country described strategies they are developing for communicating about the issue with the public. In south Florida, photographs of present-day high tides are helping the public to understand the issue. In Delaware, 200 residents attended public engagement sessions last November to learn how the encroaching ocean could affect the state. And in the Bay area of Northern California, commissioners passed a new policy for shoreline development in October — after holding dozens of public hearings.

Knowing The Audience — Sea Level Talk Alone a ‘No-Go’

To develop a communication strategy for sea level rise in her state, Susan Love, a planner for Delaware Coastal Programs, started with a survey.

The 2009 survey of 1,500 state residents found that Delawareans rank sea level rise and climate change last on a list of environmental concerns. But higher-ranking environmental problems, such as water pollution, loss of wetlands, and flooding, could be worsened by sea level rise, Love said.

“This tells us that talking about sea level rise, in and of itself, is a no-go,” she said. “But when you can link it to increased contamination, drinking water quality, and wildlife habitat, it can resonate.”

The survey also showed that most Delaware residents favor taking action to prepare for sea level rise well before problems begin.

With this knowledge in mind, Love and her colleagues last November hosted a series of five public engagement sessions around the state. In the sessions — attended by a total of 200 people and covered in local media — planners provided background information on sea level rise and effects it could have on Delaware.

When she speaks to members of the public, Love said, she avoids talk of disaster. Instead, she frames sea level rise as a problem with a solution.

“Our message has primarily been that sea level rise is happening now, it will likely increase in the future, and that it will have impacts to all of Delaware, and there are proactive ways we can address it now,” she said.

Using Tangible Examples of Today

At one public session in Delaware, a farmer described a personal experience with flooding.

“We used to see saltwater intrusion onto our land once every five to six years. Now it happens three to five times a year,” the individual wrote on a feedback form. “We have lost about 30 acres that are no longer tillable because the soil is too salty.”

Making connections between such present-day flooding and future sea level rise is critical, Love said. When speaking to the public, Love makes the point that by planning for sea level rise, the state can also reduce effects of today’s coastal storms.

“That message has resonated fairly strongly,” she said.

In Galveston, Texas, past hurricanes provide a tangible example of how flooding can affect a community. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, water six feet deep flooded the Galveston County Courthouse. Three-quarters of the city’s homes were damaged or destroyed.

Sea level rise occurs so incrementally that it’s difficult for people to relate to it, said Lori Feild Schwarz, assistant director of planning and special projects for the city. But they do understand that flooding during storms could grow worse than in the past.

Painful Memories Fade Once High-Tides Recede

Before and during an unusually high tide in October 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Planners use photos such as these to illustrate how sea level rise could affect neighborhoods in South Florida. Credit: Paul Krashefski, Broward County EPGMD.

In Florida, local leaders point to extreme high tides to help the public visualize the issue.

The state typically experiences higher tides in the fall months, especially when the moon reaches perigee, the point closest to Earth in its orbit.

James Murley, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, said that during the tides, water backs up in stormwater systems, flooding streets and yards — even in the absence of a rain storm.

“We can say to the elected officials and the citizens, ‘This is similar to what we’re talking about if some of the scenarios were to play themselves out 20 or 30 years from now,'” Murley said.

The trouble, he said, is that when tides recede, the example evaporates, and memories fade.

Avoiding Talk Of ‘Climate Change’: Ignoring the Science?

In October 2011, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in California approved a policy requiring that shoreline communities plan for sea level rise before building in vulnerable areas.

There, officials also drew links between near-term and future flooding, sometimes side-stepping the politically charged questions surrounding climate change.

“We found that it was more understandable to folks when we didn’t just try to argue solely from a climate change perspective,” said Steve Goldbeck, the commission’s acting executive director. “That really helps, because then it isn’t just ‘I believe,’ or ‘I don’t believe.’ On the other hand, it’s a mistake to not talk about climate change, because then you’re ignoring the science.”

In Fort Lauderdale, Assistant City Manager Susanne Torriente said that she, too, avoids debating climate change. Instead, she points to tidal gauge data: “The fact is, it’s rising,” she said.

Mapping The Future … and Making Things Local and Tangible

Across the country, local leaders are using maps to show the public how sea level rise could rewrite their shorelines. For Chincoteague, Va., an online tool called SlammView2 displays how sea level rise could affect the community under three different scenarios — increases of 0.65 meter, one meter or 1.5 meters of sea level rise.

By typing in their addresses, residents can see how their own homes could be affected, said Louis Hinds, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

“Making it local and tangible makes a big impact,” said Love, who has also used a mapping tool to show how Delaware neighborhoods could be affected. “Audiences get it when they can see it.”

Campaigns to Conserve Water and Energy

In south Florida, planners worry about the effects of sea level rise on fresh water supplies. The region relies on groundwater for toilets, showers and drinking water, but as the ocean’s tendrils reach inland, some of that water is turning salty.

To address the problem, Broward County recently launched a public education campaign aimed at water conservation, said Jennifer Jurado, director of the county natural resources planning and management division. Last fall, the county began offering rebates to consumers for purchasing high-efficiency toilets, urging the public to reduce water consumption.

The conservation messages, which appear in places such as billboards, buses, in social media and on the radio, don’t address sea level rise directly. Instead, they appeal more generally to preserving the environment. The messages stress the cost savings available through water conservation. “Save water, save money,” reads a bus ad for toilet rebates.

Broward County is one of four southeast Florida counties working together to get ready for effects of global warming. Broward launched its rebate program the same day as a similar program in Miami-Dade County, Jurado said, enabling the two counties to coordinate their messages.

Preparing For The Long Haul

Planners say they are prepared to spend a long time helping the public understand sea level rise.

“Most folks have so little information on this topic that you need to do a whole lot of just basic education,” said Goldbeck of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

In 2009, many Bay area residents believed scientists were still debating whether climate change is occurring, or thought that it would only affect polar bears or people in the far-distant future, Goldbeck said. The commission held 35 public hearings during a two-year period before approving a policy to require shoreline communities to plan for sea level rise before building in flood-prone areas.

Love, the Delaware planner, says she has made hundreds of presentations to Rotary clubs and other civic groups.

Planners, she said, should not “expect to communicate a message and have it become a part of the public consciousness within six months.” Like so much else, progress takes time and patience … and a good dose of persistence too.

Topics: Climate Science