Leaning into the Fire: Rethinking the Language of Climate Change

Posted by on Nov 15, 2012 in Crisis & Risk Communication, Hurricane Sandy | 5 comments

Leaning into the Fire: Rethinking the Language of Climate Change

Yesterday I unintentionally lit a fire on Facebook. I ruminated about the need to identify and use new language for climate change. While I am no climate change expert by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve spent two decades steeped in disaster communications, risk reduction and community resilience. I had some thoughts to share, and my online community did as well. Lesson learned: open pandora’s virtual box in an informal forum and everyone gets a say—and a chance to learn something new.

What triggered my early morning writing was an article on the Homeland Security News Wire. The November 14 online article described a new book being published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that addresses how the engineering community is leaning forward to protect New York City from storm surges. According to the article, the book Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City: Against the Deluge explores many key topics of interest. The book, which I look forward to reading when released in early December, addresses long standing “acceptable” topics such as mitigation approaches for hurricanes, barrier concepts and designs, and modeling simulation. It also tackles more controversial topics such as sea level rise and ecological issues. All of which I believe to be relevant to protecting urban infrastructure, the environment, housing, people’s lives, and generally speaking, the underpinnings of community sustainability and resilience.

NY taxis in Hurricane Sandy flooded streets

Flooded streets in Queens, NY in 2012 Hurricane Sandy. Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

In my post I wondered if we were too late in starting this process of using new language and moving to action, noting that those in New Jersey and New York may have their own thoughts on this subject as they struggle with the devastation from Hurricane Sandy.  My conclusion: no—no matter what has happened (or what each of us believe), as a nation we need to proactively discuss, plan for and financially invest in ways to reduce the impact and deal with the consequences of a changing world. We are a nation of mixed societies, integrated cultures and a global community that is physically and socially experiencing major shifts in weather patterns, urban development, agricultural land use, health of coral reefs, and overall risk exposure. Now is the time to assertively move forward. Before we lose more—more quality of life, more environmental and economic resources, more time.

Talking about this “stuff” is difficult. While language empowers, it can also powerfully separate intelligent people into hardened, opposing camps. Words can create misunderstanding and distrust, and lead to inaction. As a nation, do we have the ability and political fortitude to identify and utilize a language that tackles these challenges with words that are acceptable across bipartisan lines? That is inclusive, not exclusive? That accepts and reflects that yesterday’s world is not today’s? 

2011 Tuscaloosa, Alabama tornado destruction

April 2011 tornado destruction in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

I have a twelve-year old. I look at her and wonder if she understands any of this. I ask myself how can I help her understand the meaning of such things as cap and trade, carbon emissions, sea level rise, green technology? What she does understand is that the coral reef in her favorite swimming hole is dying. During our 2011 visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama (where I went to undergraduate school) she learned about monster tornadoes and houses covered in “blue FEMA tarps,” and experienced the searing looks of suspicion shot at her by a child, about her age, listlessly sitting on the steps of a lot brimming with rubble. Now it’s up to me and those who teach my daughter and lead the nation to connect the dots on what it means to be a good citizen, to be resourceful, to problem solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.

I’ll read the book when it comes out. I’ll continue to support local conservation and teach and consult on social media for disaster response and recovery. But I’ll still be struggling with the language and looking for words to tell the whole story. And I’ll still be reaching out to my spirited online community to share with and learn from.


New Book Discusses Storm Surge Protection for New York City | Homeland Security News Wire
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) | ASCE.org
Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City: Against the Deluge | ASCE.org




  1. Suzanne, Your post was, as always, thoughtful and caring. Those of us who are less tactful would simply say that Climate Change is happening and it is not up for discussion. Language can be quite simple and clear. For example, telling people that they cannot rebuild homes where they will be destroyed in next super storm is about a simple as you can get. When 100 year flood zones become 10 year flood zones, taxpayers cannot be expected to save homes knowingly located in those areas. It is time for people along ocean coasts to move away from those areas. Parts of NYC may have to be considered uninhabitable forever. It is sad, but whatever language is used these are the facts.

  2. Although, I mainly agree with the original post/article, I have a serious problem with this topic. Climate is dynamic and always changing, not static. Unfortunately, the entire concept of climate change has been hijacked by the global warming proponents to advance their failed hypothesis. The discussion is far from rational, I have seen a university chancellor publicly attack students for having the temerity to ask questions instead of blindly accepting the tenets of this new religion. That said, the need to plan to protect urban areas and mitigate potential damages is a “no brainer”, regardless of causes or threats. I would suggest that, as professionals, we must address reasonable risks that can be predicted not the “sky is falling” nonsense that some would have us all sign onto.

  3. Suzanne, thanks, this is a great post. One common language that global warming “proponents” and “skeptics” alike have is money. Your kindred spirits in the FEMA Mitigation world know all about benefit-cost analysis and “future damages avoided”. What are the odds that a Sandy-like storm would hit the New York, DC, or Boston? Probably a billion dollar risk with an uncomfortably frequent recurrence interval. Are the benefits of mitigation greater than the potential future damages avoided? Overwhelmingly so. Refining this argument to dollars and cents can get around some of the red herrings in the debate.

  4. Nicely written Suzanne, though I am not steeped in the terminology of disaster management. Your article is readable to non-FEMA types. Nick’s comment seems very thoughtful – find the common ground of dollars and sense. As a layperson, I am surprised that experts in your field disagree that climate change is happening, but maybe they would accept the idea that we are experiencing some climate intensities – uh oh, thought of a bad pun – and the current trend is for more frequent storms/disasters regardless of whether they agree with the causes. We don’t always have to understand why bad things happen to limit the effects, fix the damage, and have a plan in place. If the experts don’t agree on “why,” maybe they can agree on “what” to do.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ll add a couple of thoughts. While we know of the solidly-documented benefits of mitigation, the “sale” is still a hard one for cash-strapped communities and scrutinized agencies. Perhaps funding is particularly difficult when addressing the impacts from weather-related events that are not clearly understood or foreseen by those holding the grant pursestrings.

    Improving the link between climate science and community understanding is our continuing joint challenge. The discussions might not always be rational, or easy, but I believe they are essential. And we need to stay consistent in finding new ways to language them, position them and encourage others to join the conversation-such as we are here.

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