Lessons from the Field: Best Practices for Leveraging Extreme Weather

Lessons from the Field: Best Practices for Leveraging Extreme Weather

Last week we asked Climate Access members for their tips on how best to leverage extreme weather to get the public engaged on climate, and here is what they have to say about that, as well as whether the recent fires, heat and storms should be leveraged at all:

Kathy Kuntz, 
executive director, 
Cool Choices (Wisconsin):

I’m in Madison, which is a relatively wet city historically. A typical
 Madison June yields 4.5″ of rain – which means we have lush flowers, green
 grass, etc.  This year, though, our rainfall in June was just 0.31″, less 
than 10% the normal figure. And we’ve had more than a week of record highs
 now – days over 100 degrees in a place where those temperatures are rare and, when 
they do occur, come mostly in August. And all of this follows a March
 where we had record-breaking highs as well, which led to early buds on the
 apple and cherry trees, many of which froze in April.  Word is that our 
cherry crop will be 10-20% the size of a typical year. Wineries are
 affected, apples will be more expensive in the fall.

 All of this creates fodder for conversation. 

Unfortunately, we get lots of
 extreme weather in Wisconsin – cold and then hot – so people mostly roll with the
 punches. The local meteorologists are constantly talking about the heat but 
they are not tying it to climate change – it’s just the latest interesting
 Wisconsin weather.

 My strategy is to tie these weather patterns to climate change in every 
single conversation I have with regular people. I use the clothing analogy
 to talk about weather vs climate and then note that the weather patterns we
 are experiencing are consistent with climate change models.  And then I
 note that this means these are not anomalies – that we can expect more of 
this going forward. I try to do this in a way that’s factual and empathetic 
- the heat is awful and it’s too bad we’ll see this more often in coming
 years. Our climate is changing, which means the contents of our closets
 will have to change too. That approach invites further conversation.
 Which lets us talk about how we could reduce emissions to mitigate these 
impacts but that some adaptation is likely required…

Of course this is all really hard. People want a magical solution. They
 want government and industry to ‘fix’ this without raising taxes or
 affecting their quality of life. Or they are sure it’s someone else’s 
fault – the Chinese, the people down the street with 2 SUVs…someone else 
is the problem. 

I tell them that the good news is being part of the solution has its own
 benefits. We’ve done several pilots here at Cool Choices where individuals 
made efforts to be more sustainable and then reported back to us that they 
really liked the lifestyle changes. People who tried eco-driving said they
 were less cranky at their kids when they got home at night; families who
t urned off the TV enjoyed talking to each other, going for bike rides, etc.
 Suddenly the people who are making sustainable choices are better parents, 
better partners, etc. Instead of being about austerity, this is about
 quality of life. Rather than asking you to make a sacrifice, I’m giving you
 an opportunity to live a more fulfilling life. 

This is, of course, the
 co-benefits argument – that reducing your emissions will have other benefits 
beyond climate change. 

Ultimately I think the co-benefits argument is what closes the deal.  I just 
don’t see evidence in the behavioral literature that we’re capable of the
 change required unless we can see immediate benefits.  At this point, the
 pending jeopardy is still not scary enough to force action. And by the time 
it is scary enough it’ll be too damn late. 

Ashley BrosiusORISE Fellow for the Global Methane Initiative in the Climate Change Division of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (South Carolina/DC)

I recently attended a workshop in Jacksonville, FL that was hosted by the Southeast and Caribbean Climate Community of Practice entitled “Considering Climate in Decision Support for Resilient Coastal Communities”.  The workshop concluded with a brainstorming session where we discussed where the Community of Practice should proceed and what were our needs in the region. Ironically, despite the meeting focusing on hazards planning and mitigation, the attendees emphasized time and again the need for better communication strategies and framing techniques. The Southeast and Caribbean has a very unique climate communication barrier, in that it is even more difficult than usual to communicate the uncertainty that surrounds climate science due to the region’s varying and competing climate systems. Not only does that make it difficult to make future projections of extreme weather concerns such as precipitation, drought, and tropical storms/hurricanes, but it also makes it especially difficult to translate the climate science to the lay public. As we all know, explaining the science of one climate system is difficult enough as it is, much less adding in the Bermuda High and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and so on.

One of the tactics an attendee employs is simply equating sea level rise with something easier to understand, like storm surge, albeit more exponentially rising and over a much shorter time scale. She seemed to have gained some traction with the locals, and I certainly commend her for her efforts and charisma. Yet, this tactic concerns me. Not only is it incorrect from a scientific standpoint, but it is also reinforcing this idea that weather is equal to climate. Utilizing South Carolina’s recent heat wave or tropical storm/depression Debby, who dumped quite a bit of water over Florida, as ways to engage people in talking about climate when they are really talking about weather is a mistake in my opinion. Just as we will point to hotter weather as proof of climate change, our opponents will use freak winter storms to prove otherwise. As climate science indicates that both extreme hot and extreme cold events are expected with global “warming”, it’s a confusing message to highlight extreme heat events as proof of climate change.

I have been interested in successful climate change communication strategies for many years now, and my experiences in South and North Carolina have confirmed my belief that the best way to gain traction on climate change is to not talk about climate change. The issue, unfortunately, has become polarized, both politically and ideologically. There are many groups working against increasing salience in the Carolinas, like NC20 in North Carolina. The problem with these groups is that they will not likely change their minds, and there is no use in arguing with them. Instead, we have to talk about the climate impacts, like drought and salinity intrusion events and let the climate science speak for itself. Utilizing the word “climate change” or even “climate” in South and North Carolina can automatically activate discordant frames and lose your audience from the outset.

Along these lines, my dad, who owns a small office relocation company in Columbia, SC and is a climate change denier, and I had a conversation one day regarding my work and its difficulties and his clients. He always likes to draw parallels between what it is I am doing or going through (regardless of obvious relevancy). I think it’s the “dad” in him. We were talking about the difficulty of beginning a business relationship with people, and he said something to me that has stuck with me. He pointed out that trust is a main component in why people do business with one another and that trust is built through establishing personal commonalities and values. In other words, you have to small talk people if you want them to trust you. So, in a way, I suppose we could use these extreme weather events to get people talking about how they were impacted and what happened to their homes and communities or their neighbors’ homes. But I would be cautious to make that direct connection between personal pain and/or loss to the phrase “climate change”. It would be better to connect those experiences to impacts and build from there. 

Missy Stults, science research fellow, University of Michigan

We need to approach extreme weather from a preparedness angle. We need to talk to individuals about how weather is literally changing by using local examples where we can. We are seeing increases in frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events in many parts of the country (not to mention changes in averages), and this is projected to continue. But in order to get stakeholders to meaningfully engage, my experience has shown that we have to make it local – talk about specific events that have occurred in their area. Talk about local impacts and what they could have done to prepare – or what they already did. Celebrate successes and begin discussing how stakeholders should or could start preparing if there are more extreme occurrences of these hazards with greater return frequencies. Preparedness is something a large percentage of stakeholders understand.

The caution here, we need to balance doom-and-gloom climate projections with a realistic look at what society and individual stakeholders are doing (clearly we are not acting fast enough). 

I firmly believe that preparing for climate change (short- and long-term) is a backdoor conversation to mitigation. At some point, stakeholders may realize that they can’t adapt to projected impacts and that they need to do whatever they can to avoid those impacts for manifesting. When these revelations happen, then we can begin to discuss what I think is really the more important message of all – we need to manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable (i.e., we need to adapt and mitigate at the same time). Without meaningfully discussing both adaptation and mitigation, we are preparing ourselves and future generations for something that might be fully unmanageable. 

Melissa Meehan Baldwin, Florida climate director, Florida Conservation Alliance

This is a touchy subject – Honestly, I’ve almost given up talking about climate change.  I’m embarrassed to even bring it up right now in Florida because the state has taken such a hard turn to the right. This is coming from the girl who quit her corporate job as a PR executive to dedicate her life to fighting global warming.  

Focus on positive – I have the most luck talking about sustainability and the need to move away from oil to alternative energy, and the need to conserve water. I was speaking to a woman at a cocktail party the other night and she told me she was an environmental engineer. She believed in conserving water and renewable energy but she said that the “science on climate change didn’t pan out.”   This was very frustrating to me to see a professional in the field would have that perception. 

Publicize attribution & detection science – I feel strongly that the scientists have been missing from the conversation, and I am frustrated by their refusal to connect current events to climate change.  I understand the nuance of never saying that a single weather event was “caused” by global warming, but I feel strongly that by not saying anything we are missing opportunities.  Furthermore, I understand there is now a new field of Detection and Attribution – this research needs to be publicized more. 

Monday’s Diane Rehm show discusses this field of Attribution – you can see the transcript here.

I have tried (in vain) to organize climate scientists here in Florida and to encourage them to speak out. I even created the Florida Climate Science Rapid Response Team and scheduled editorial board meetings with Florida newspaper editors to discuss the science and to address skeptic arguments and refute them directly. The scientists I worked with here – some were more willing to speak out than others. They are guarded (especially those who are seeking tenure).  It was a work in progress and I’m sad that I lost funding for the project.   

Build relationships with Meteorologists – There should be a concerted effort to build relationships with meteorologists, and to encourage them to make the statement, “This weather is consistent with what climate scientists have predicted for global warming.” 

Drum beat – The only other comment I’ve made – whenever there is a wild or wacky storm, I say, “Wow, that’s very extreme and unusual weather, isn’t it?” I try to say it as often as possible so that the message is drilled in. 

SueEllen Campbell, co-director of Changing Climates at Colorado State University

This topic has been at the front of our lives for the last month, as we live a very short distance from where the 87,000 acre High Park fire stopped, and we’ve got lots of ideas. Here’s one.

One thing we’re doing in this year of drought, heat waves, wildfires, and (most recently) heavy rain and flash flooding is letting ourselves be personal when we talk about the links between these events and rising levels of CO2 in our air. We especially like the phrase we’re seeing a lot: this is what climate change looks like. When we talk to neighbors who, like us, were evacuated from the wildfire, we talk about climate change. And when we talk about climate change, we talk about our own—and our neighbors’—experiences as temporary climate “refugees,” experiences we’ve all found surprisingly unsettling. My colleague (and spouse) John Calderazzo wrote about that experience for Writers on the Range (a column syndication tied to High Country News) and is getting good responses: his piece (June 28, 2012) is called “Notes from a Wildfire Refugee.”


Ronald Brunner, professor of political science, University of Colorado:

While last week’s Flagstaff fire is still fresh in mind in Boulder County, I would recommend local media coverage of the aftermath of the Four-Mile Fire in 2010. For example, who rebuilt in the burned area and who didn’t, and what factors influenced their decisions?  The factors should be considered comprehensively, including personal reasons but also local market considerations (e.g., changes in insurance and property values in burned areas) and relevant public policy considerations (e.g., distribution of the costs of firefighting).  Case studies of comparable experiences elsewhere are also relevant. Ruidoso, NM, for example, is generally considered to be the leader in reducing local vulnerability to wildfires.

 The point is not primarily to engage the public on climate – many people in this county are already engaged, including hundreds of climate scientists who are professionally engaged. For various reasons most of the rest probably cannot be engaged to do much until the personal impacts of another disaster force them to act.  

The important point is to inform on a concrete, empirical basis the decisions of people who live in wildland-urban interface areas in the foothills and mountains west of Boulder, others who may be considering moving there, and local officials whose public authorities and responsibilities are related to wildfires.

 Unfortunately, few comprehensive and detailed case studies are available. The best I have found are in disaster mitigation, not adaptation to climate change per se, and are written by retired practitioners who were leaders in the events examined.  As progress in adapting to climate change moves beyond planning and into implementation, practitioners need incentives and means (before they retire) to document the actual reductions in vulnerability they have achieved and how they achieved them. To inform their decisions, practitioners in general also need access to a flow of case studies documenting progress in other local communities that are similar to their own.   

Skip Stiles, executive director, Wetlands Watch (Virginia)

I have trouble using weather on climate issues – mostly because I slammed the Republicans in Virginia a few years ago for using the large snow events to dispute global warming. I argued that you cannot use a single event, or even a series of short-term events to claim a trend. For most of this stuff, it takes 10 – 20 years (though one could argue that going back over the last two decades we have that record.)

We use extreme weather events as an educational opening to our existing message – mostly tidal storm surges create a “teachable” moment for sea level rise adaptation.  But we don’t change our message or explicitly use the storm to “prove” our point:  we downplay the event and then let the audience fill the void with their own observations of extremes happening more frequently.  Their claims of extremes is much more effective than ours.

I think a message framed around extremes – both cold and hot, rain and snow in larger “bunches”,  instability and unpredictability – needs to be effectively assembled and disseminated.  Then, events like last month can be fitted into that frame by the public without any effort on our part.

Amelia Potvin, community sustainability coordinator, Community Office for Resource Efficiency (Colorado)

Here in the West, we’ve been watching our forests be decimated by beetle outbreaks, seeing the smoke from fires in New Mexico and Arizona, and getting spring dust storms from Utah for years. Conversation among locals regularly includes how hot recent summers have been compared to 20 years ago. Casual observers are comparing this year’s record heat and drought to last spring’s record high run-off and late snowpack, and they’re noting that the polarity of these two consecutive years shows our climate becoming extremely erratic. The most useful way for us to leverage these increasingly evident and terrifying trends into climate change action is to offer an alternative future that positions us less as potential victims (especially of fire) and more as leaders.

Our Western Slope communities are made up mostly of people who moved here because they love the landscapes. The Roaring Fork Valley, which is where CORE works, has a particularly engaged and informed populace that has accomplished a lot in terms of climate-related policy and action. Last month, a group of local professionals and leaders began meeting to craft an update to the Town of Carbondale’s 2006 Climate Protection Plan that could include a plan as aggressive as net-zero by 2020. (We’re in our initial stages.)

It seems that every time I turn around, someone is talking about fire – whether it’s in the paper, on the radio, a sign on a rancher’s roadside fence warning of high danger, CDOT’s highway signs, one neighbor talking to another, a community email with evacuation readiness instructions, a seminar at the firehouse or no fireworks this July 4th. I think this pervasive attitude of staying proactive and reminding each other could easily be broadened to include long-term actions to protect the landscapes that the majority of our population moved here to enjoy. As an energy efficiency organization, we’re looking at a summer/fall marketing campaign around “Don’t start the fire”, encouraging people to break away from perpetuating disaster.

On June 24-25, a local organization, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, hosted the annual Forests at Risk symposium, at which we learned from Craig Allen, a USGS ecologist from New Mexico, that in the 2030-2045 time frame, forests of the southwest and mountain west could be all but gone or replaced by other ecosystem types or species mixes due to the combined threats of heat stress to trees, insect predation on weakened trees and mega-fires. We intend to turn up the volume on this information for the general public through outreach and education events. To keep the message productive, we’ll align the timing with the progress of updating local energy & climate plans.

Jennifer Hirsch, Urban Anthropology Director in the Division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation at The Field Museum (Illinois)

Your question is a good one because experiences with extreme weather help make climate change feel local. Our Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit focuses exactly on this, in large part in response to qualitative research we conducted on climate change in 9 Chicago communities, which overwhelmingly found that people generally believe climate is real and caused by humans, and think that something should be done about it, but don’t know what it has to do with their lives or what they can do to help. So our materials are all very Chicago- and Midwest-centric.

My tip would be to help people understand the variety of extreme weather events that climate change will bring about – including heat waves, snowstorms, and rain storms. This helps people relate to climate change but also avoids the “global warming” confusion: that climate change is only about heat, and therefore snowstorms are proof that it is not happening.

I know you asked for just one tip – but I am going to add two more, and then you can combine or choose the one you like the best. The other two are:

Start a conversation about how extreme heat and other kinds of extreme weather impact people’s lives and communities – and also how people/communities respond, to help themselves and each other. The 1995 heat wave in Chicago, in which over 700 people died, raised people’s consciousness about the importance not just of having more cooling centers, but stronger social networks in which people check in on and take care of others. What networks are in place to do that now? How can they be strengthened? How will municipal systems and infrastructure need to be strengthened (e.g., emergency response systems, systems in place to deal with flooding and power outages, etc.) to be able to deal with extreme weather events? We all live global lives these days, and especially in a diverse city like Chicago, many residents associate climate change with dramatic weather events around the country and the world. For example, during our research, we found that many Polish/Polish-American residents associate climate change with severe flooding in Poland; Mexicans/Mexican-Americans with drought in Mexico; and African-Americans with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Thinking about extreme weather on a global scale helps highlight the fact that climate change is global, and that we are all interconnected, both in terms of impact and in terms of how our actions in one place can have an effect all over the world.

The heat wave is an opportunity to talk to people about some of the nature-based climate change adaptation strategies, including tree planting and maintaining healthy natural areas, both of which provide shade. I was bike riding in the forest preserve last night and it felt at least 10 degrees cooler in there.

Also there was a recent NY Times front-page article about loss and potential loss of corn crop in Illinois and around the Midwest. We have found food to be a major inroad to talking about climate change – and this makes the issue very local. We have a whole section about climate change and food in our climate action toolkit.

Diana Woodall, Awakening the Dreamer and The Work that Reconnects, (Virginia)

I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, one of the areas hit by “hurricane force” winds on June 29. Most of us lost power–some for hours, some for days. What struck me was how neighbors were talking to each other, strangers were talking to each other, and there was a sense of caring for one another beyond the usual boundaries.  As I walked in a park surveying the damage done by the huge trees that came down, a stranger (woman) remarked: “Now I feel for the people out in Colorado who have lost their homes. We are so lucky.”  It struck me that an unintended by-product of the storm might be a sense of empathy and awareness of others who might be in a similar or worse plight.  That could be very useful, and now I only need an easy one-sentence way to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change in such situations.

Betsy Taylor, president, Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions (Maryland):

We need to help people in the DC metropolitan area connect the dots between our recent extreme weather and climate change.  I suggest doing crowd-sourced fundraising to buy time on the local weather station to play this extraordinary video as an ad.  We should also ask all the local groups, from Chesapeake Climate Action Network to Environment Maryland, to work to make this go viral among local networks.  We could ask various green networks like the DC EcoWomen to help.  We’d probably want to add some kind of new tag line at the very end.  “It doesn’t have to be this way.  There are solutions that will help us avoid extreme weather for our kids. Contact Chesapeake Climate Action Network to get involved. Connect the Dots.” 

Joan Brown, 
director, New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light:

In talking with the staff of one of our legislators who travels around the state, she notes that almost every municipality or county is over budget from unexpected weather events, drought, fires, heat waves. They are not calling it climate change, but they are realizing that they need to budget differently because they are running short in the as usual budgeting scheme.

On one level we are into mitigation at this point. Several faith communities are working with municipalities in the Earth Care Committees with fire plans and fire protection plans for communities.

 We invite people to face loss and grief in reflecting on God’s creation, our forests in particular as becoming a different biosystem. With the fires and less water and longer periods of warm temperatures the areas that have experienced fires may never again be large pine forests, but may become more shrubby forests and grasslands. This is very sad for the people here as they think about and face this reality.

We have had infestations of insects and so many millers, cabbage moths and other butterflies. The winter was so warm that our over abundance of millers and cabbage moths have caught everyone’s attention and they relate this to the warmer winter. This is a first step in making the connection with human induced climate change. I think it takes us making the connections of the patterns each year that are occurring.

We have one science writer who believes in climate change and keeps trying to push the envelope in our largest newspaper, which is conservative, but so far, with all of the fires, consistent drought, he has only been able to get scientists to say that the probability of influence from human caused climate change is 50/50.  Having said this, people more and more with each fire and each day of drought and each day of 100 plus temps are alluding to climate change with these weather events that now are taking place on a yearly basis.

Our summer weather reports have changed to highlight Fire Alerts and Flash Flood Alerts with phone numbers to call. This is a shift to note.


Photo via (cc) Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video