Lessons from the Field: Making the Climate Connection with Sandy

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Climate Access members have been doing everything from rallying parent groups to envisioning a carbon-neutral New York City to demonstrating how Sandy fits into the larger trend.  We asked them to share their climate communication efforts around Sandy and the lessons they've learned along the way, which include the importance of using non-environmentalist messengers, building lasting relationships, and making sure the public connects the dots to policy decisions. Here is what they had to say:

Harriet Shugarman, ClimateMama:
 
Personally and through ClimateMama I am using Superstorm Sandy to rally parents and parent groups to find their voice on current legislative policy on the table in NY and NJ. I will be speaking at several rallies at the New Jersey state legislature offices in the coming weeks to voice concern for and to demand that legislators stand up to Governor Christie's veto of the fracking waste bill, and to institute a fracking ban in the state. Helping these legislators see the connections between climate disruption (severe flooding in their districts, impacts of Sandy) and energy policy in the state, i.e., supporting pipelines, perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels as well as the need to build and advance the state renewable portfolio standard is really key, in my opinion. I am also taking part in a discussion later this month to bring various involved groups in the NJ/NY/PA region together to discuss pipeline proliferation; we will be working to help define ways to better message on connecting the dots: climate disruption trends = pipelines + negative impacts on human health and welfare. From my vantage point, I see that Hurricane Sandy has helped many families see and feel the connections between extreme weather events and climate change…getting parents at the table with legislators and helping them identify as parents, and as constituents, demanding the need for a livable future for their children...through policy is very important. I am doing this as well at the municipal level, and in my role as a professor.
 
Through ClimateMama, I had the opportunity to be a "trusted messenger - parent representative" on Climate Reality's 24 Hours of Reality event. In our panel discussion in Hour 15, I used the opportunity, among other things to tell the audience three things that they need to do when talking to their children about climate change: Tell the Truth (don't allow climate denialism to go unchallenged); Actions Speak Louder then Words (show your children in little things you do each day, that finding solutions and ways to adapt and mitigate the worst of climate change matter to you); and Don't be Afraid (Superstorm Sandy is scary, but we need to demand that all of our leaders, political, spiritual, business etc, take these extreme weather threats seriously, and begin working no on adaptation and mitigation, so we can tell our children we are doing EVERYTHING we can to make the future less scary).  We also used this event to bring NYC metro area parent bloggers together--some in the environment/climate space, some not--to begin a discussion on how to amplify the voice around climate change education and action--Superstorm Sandy was an important backdrop as the meeting was in mid-town Manhattan and elevated the urgency and necessity of working together on messaging etc,, particularly in trying to reach people outside the climate movement.
 
Chief lesson: Helping people connect the dots between climate disruption, extreme weather and the need for policy decisions: at work, municipal, state and national levels is key. Getting people to make the intergenerational connections to climate disruption and extreme weather seems to wake people up to the direct impact of climate disruption in their lives, and helps people connect the dots to their actions (personal and as a group) and the opportunity to help create and move towards a livable future and away from the cliff we are approaching (not the "fiscal one!!")
 
Through the above actions and from direct interactions, i.e., interviews and meetings with people impacted by Sandy, being prepared for the next event seemed to rise above as an immediate need and as a key lesson for many...Again, I think in this regard connecting the dots as to how we are causing climate change to occur--through education--remains a key step in getting people to follow through with being personally prepared and taking action to get our legislators on board to create appropriate policies. Our job will be to help identify and message what those needed policies will be, at various levels, political, business, personal etc.
 
Skip Stiles, Wetlands Watch:
 
We let others speak for us - putting together an annotated compilation of stories.  Gov. Christie and Mayor Bloomberg making the link to climate change is much more effective than any enviro voice could have been. 
 
Us saying climate change is a problem is a real "dog bites man" story =  what's new and unexpected about environmentalists saying there's an environmental problem?  Them saying it is a "man bites dog" story and gets more attention.
 
Delta Willis, National Audubon Society:
 
At Audubon we managed media placement as follows:
11/6/12  Reuters Audubon CEO on superstorm Sandy and real leadership
11/12/12 The New York Times Audubon Chief Scientist Dr. Gary Langham talks to Natalie Angier about birds and superstorm Sandy 
Our Audubon magazine blog The Perch did reporting from the field
 
 
The most popular blog was from 2011: How Do Hurricanes Affect Birds?
 
Despite our offices being closed a full week after the storm hit, we also devised special web page content at Audubon.org within 24 hours.
 
What did we learn? It was important to emphasize how much harm can be done if we rebuild the wrong way, and do further harm to wildlife during the beach cleanups, as happened during the Gulf Oil Spill.  It felt like we’d been here before, and we drew from that experience.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Audubon devised a master plan for restoration of the Mississippi Delta and barrier islands around New Orleans. This plan gained another dimension after the Gulf Oil Spill, evolving into the RESTORE Act.
 
So amid the scramble to get talking points and content right quickly (with many people lacking cell power or laptops) we were able to keep the big picture in focus.  We already had data on birds & climate change that covered four decades of observations, and we found reporters were keen to listen.  Finally, this occurred a few days before the election; Audubon coincidentally had in place a “Conservation Has No Party” campaign which emphasized the bipartisan need for coming together on environmental issues.
 
Mirele Goldsmith, Jewish Greening Fellowship, Isabella Freedman Retreat Center:
 
I have found it challenging to figure out the right balance between responding to the immediate crisis and educating about the context and implications.  Many of the community organizations I work with were directly impacted and/or are heavily involved in relief efforts, so I'm not sure how ready they are to hear about climate change.
 
One thing I found challenging was to figure out when and what to communicate in the immediate aftermath. I didn't have a plan or even a messaging document.
 
I did send out a letter with some links about the connection to climate change. Then I prepared some readings for "healing and reflection" which included some prayers that were circulating on the Internet. And I included some texts from traditional Jewish sources and suggested questions for discussion that linked Hurricane Sandy with climate change.
 
Finally, I have a monthly online newsletter that I sent out. I used the messaging points from Anna Fahey's post on “What's in a Name” and tried to focus on the positive.  I also started reading “A Paradise in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit which is influencing my message too.
 
Of course, I was also calling people. And that was even harder. I just wanted to be sympathetic, not come across as insensitive, a fanatic or a scold by bringing up climate change.
 
....The media is highlighting technological solutions which seem like a distraction.  On the other hand I want to urge people to get involved in the discussion about whether we should be adopting these.  Also, I want to get across a message about building resilience, but have it not be just about emergency preparation.  How do we integrate education about climate change and a charge to get involved in advocacy into the message about adaptation and resiliency?
 
Catherine LeAnne Harvey, Human Impacts Institute:
 
Here at the Human Impacts Institute, we have used Sandy as a motivation for New Yorkers to join our project, the NYC Climate Coalition. We discussed the vulnerability New Yorkers have found themselves in and that we can't allow things to get worse. We held a press conference with local officials discussing climate change and invited all New Yorkers to take action by joining the NYC Climate Coalition. The coalition met right after the press event to discuss goals and vision for a carbon neutral NYC and we gave instruction on how to address small businesses to reduce their energy consumption. 
 
The chief lesson I personally have learned is that people get very excited in the wake of a devastation or accident but their motivation to take time out of their day tends to wane as life returns to normal. People like feeling the solidarity of the moment and want to help out but it just doesn't last. The best way to get people to stay active and involved in your organization is to build strong relationships. 
 
Vanessa Warheit, Climate Reality Project:
 
I have given two Climate Reality presentations since Sandy hit (and will be giving one more in a couple of weeks), and I chose to start the presentation with Sandy (after briefly introducing myself, and my reasons for giving the talk). I start with a three-minute film called 'Rockaway Needs Us', that gives a really powerful message about surviving a massive storm - then show a half-dozen slides showing how Sandy didn't just affect NY & NJ but also a looooong list of other places (as far away as Illinois and Ohio). And THEN I show how Sandy fits into the larger trend, by showing slides from the Climate Reality deck of floods all over the world that have happened in the last two years. It's very powerful, and really seems to get people's attention. I also mention Sandy again when I get to the slides about Hurricane Irene, to put it in context (i.e. 'with Sandy in recent memory, Irene seems pale by comparison - but it caused $15B in damages, and here's what the governor of Vermont had to say...').
 
Nancy Schneider, sustainability consultant:
 
I would like to share an article I wrote for local leaders in communities affected by Sandy: Rebuilding Resiliency After Sandy.
 
New Jersey communities are living the reality of the aftermath of Frankenstorm Sandy.  For those of us that grew up at the Shore, vacation(ed) or summer(ed) there, or actually live there, there is life before Sandy and life after Sandy, similar to 9/11 with life before and after.  It is no longer the same and will never be the same.  The Jersey Shore is more than a place; it is an icon, a culture, a place of mind and a place of memories; it’s a destination for generations.
 
Local government leaders on the Jersey Shore can expect pushback from a variety of stakeholders to rebuild it all – boardwalks, piers, businesses, homes - exactly the same.  Residents and visitors want to keep their memories live before their eyes, not replaced by necessary infrastructure or lack of it.  However as Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We cannot afford to do it over and over again.  Now is an opportunity to reduce risks and build resilience.
 
Local leaders are now faced with new challenge, even a new language of Climate Change. Two of the most important terms and actions of an effective Climate Action Plan are adaptation and mitigation.  Working toward adaptation and mitigation solutions are best taken at different governance levels, local leadership at NGOs and with inter-relationships of public/private partnerships.  For instance, Architecture for Humanity has created a special “Restore the Shore” fund to collect money toward the rebuilding of the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
 
Adaptation refers to efforts to prepare for or adjust to future climate change, and climate mitigation is any action taken to permanently eliminate or reduce the long-term risk and hazards of climate change.
 
Improving communications is a top priority.  Use of social media, such as Google’s Crisis Map, would have shown storm victims the location of shelters, gas stations and even road conditions.  Volunteers can see where they can go to help.
 
Regional cooperation is imperative for building a resilient coast. A regional liaison when appointed would improve communications, build collaboration, identify regional gaps, and develop strategies.  In Southeast Florida, The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact is a regional “Best Practice”.  The Compact was executed by four Counties in 2010 to coordinate mitigation and adaptation activities across county lines and allows local governments to set the agenda for adaptation while providing an efficient means for state and federal agencies to engage with technical assistance and support. At a recent regional meeting in Florida, it was mentioned, “we have laid the plan, but New Jersey is living the nightmare.”
 
An expert in hurricanes, and sea level rise, the Miami Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force, also based in Florida, recommended to the County steps to identify areas vulnerable to the effects of storms and as well as other vital steps.
 
The Florida Resilience Coasts Report, A State Policy Framework for Adaptation to Climate Change  has a comprehensive framework that is applicable to coastal communities in the northeast including land use planning, growth management, transportation, buildings and infrastructure. Florida also has hurricane resistant building codes: State of Florida Building Codes.
 
Non-profit ICLEI, is the primary organization that offers a comprehensive approach to help local government achieve sustainability, climate protection, and clean energy goals. 
 
The Victoria Transportation Policy Institute in Vancouver, Canada has created several reports on reducing emissions, smarter land use, reducing pavement (and why this is important) and improving emergency evacuations.
 
It would be well served if each community organizes a Sustainability Committee, Board or Task Force.  This group should be made up of local residents and business owners, as well as a city-employed liaison.  There is a wealth of experience in knowledge hidden in local communities, which the city can tap into, at no cost, for building resiliency. A Sustainability Primer for Local Governments can be found here: Florida Green Building Coalition Magazine.
 
Public Health is often overlooked or given a lower priority when localities must deal with the structural effects, but they are tied together.  Stress from financial impacts of the storm for residents and business owners have yet to be seen.  In New Orleans, the majority of residents were significantly worse off after hurricane Katrina.  Communities should plan for the second level impacts of this.
 
Winston Churchill once said of Americans: "I always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option." Let’s not exhaust all options, and as Governor Christie says, let’s not be stupid. Let’s build for the new normal.  Instead of the aftermath of Sandy as a time of mourning and loss, it can be an opportunity to build the Best Shore – Jersey!
 
Kevin Cawley, Edmund Rice International:
 
(Kevin shared a link to his monthly Carbon Rangers newsletter which featured Hurricane Sandy as the headliner.)