Tony Allender believes in climate change, but his Texan bosses are more skeptical. That disconnection might have made his job to help prepare a coastal city for rising seas and more flooding a losing effort.
So the city planner adopted a motto being used increasingly in conservative places where global warming and its orbiting impacts, such as more powerful storms, are hitched to zany liberal politics: Don't mention it.
"The minute I do, the conversation is over," said Allender, who arrived four years ago in League City, Texas, a community of 83,000 near the serrated Gulf Coast and encircled by assets of the nation's energy industry.
His quiet approach was rewarded. About two months ago, elected city leaders approved a comprehensive plan limiting new development near wetlands and in flood plains that might be threatened in the future by rising seas, heavier downpours and surging waves driven farther onshore by hurricanes.
Those are steps toward climate adaptation -- just don't tell city officials that.
"Nowhere in our documents would you see the words climate change -- because I wanted it to pass," Allender said. "It's still a topic that tends to generate more anxiety and discussion. If I can accomplish the exact same things without necessarily using the words climate change, then we'll claim that victory."
Rather than pursuing "setbacks" to forbid new building in areas vulnerable to potential sea level rise, the plan establishes conservation easements to preserve the city's natural areas. It restricts development in places likely to flood, but for different reasons. The provision was packaged as a way to attract higher-valued homes, and more tax revenue.
Here's what you don't call it: a responsive policy aimed at a menacing environmental threat.
"Let's say a coastal community has a resilience campaign. Resilience is the antidote to vulnerability. So you're admitting vulnerability. So it's kind of a deterrent for a tax base," Hank Hodde, who is working on environmental management policies in the area as a graduate student, said of some local officials' outlook.
Climate change an 'insufficient motivation'
With climate change now carrying the stigma of being a Democratic keyword, local planning officials and outreach scientists in Republican areas are increasingly seeking ways to promote adaptation policies without igniting political opposition.
From Texas to New Jersey, local officials and scientists say they can't mention climate change, or even observed impacts already under way, without fear of disrupting meetings with local engineers, flood-plain managers and politicians.
"We have a lot of decisionmakers that are really very skeptical of climate change. It is a politically charged, hot-button issue. We can't even use that word," April Turner, a coastal communities specialist with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, said at a conference for coastal professionals in Chicago last week.
"The common perception is it's not a problem at all, or if it is a problem it is beyond our control because it's occurring naturally," she added. "This presents quite a challenge for us. Climate change is really an insufficient motivation for adaptation planning."
Sea level rise also is sometimes a diminished justification to act as it gets increasingly aligned with climate partisanship. New strategies by advocates and educators include focusing on stormwater management to prevent flooding. Hazard planning, like establishing evacuation routes, is another area that might satisfy local politicians' aspirations to address immediate dangers, rather than futuristic scenarios.
The South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, which receives funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is helping the city of Charleston grapple with rising ocean waters, which already inundate some downtown city streets several times a year at extreme high tide.
The city, which is barely above sea level and is sinking, is also frequently flooded during storms. Drainage tunnels fill with seawater at high tide, leaving little or no room for rainwater. Some streets become impassable as a result.
God more involved in sea level than Charleston
If sea levels increase by a half-meter by 2100, which scientists say is a conservative estimate, extreme high tides that flood parts of the city several times annually now could become routine. And infrequent high tides would cover larger parts of downtown, where hospitals and other "critical assets" are located.
"There are some critics who are skeptical about sea level rise because of the connection to climate change. But there are a lot of others who see the shoreline changing," said Jessica Whitehead, a Sea Grant specialist who talks about coastal impacts with local officials in North and South Carolina.
She chooses her words -- and her speaking style -- carefully to avoid overloading, or alienating, listeners. Pointing out changes that have already happened, like rising ocean gauges or increased rainfall, seems to work in the communities she visits. Future impacts are riskier topics.
And if things get political, she backs off. Her expertise is on the science, not politics, Whitehead tells her audiences.
But those are the easy cities. She and other coastal experts admit that they only connect with communities that ask for help. That means other cities facing perhaps more severe hazards fail to receive adaptation attention -- either because they don't believe in climate change or they don't know how to respond to it.
Progress in Charleston is going slowly, Turner said. Sea Grant is part of a focus group with city officials that has studied new aerial maps that show the specific areas of town -- down to exact buildings -- that would be flooded at different stages of sea level rise.
But the impact of the educational effort is unclear. One city official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record about the process said this when asked about the city's involvement in studying the issue: "I think God is involved in sea level rise."
'Political tap dance' in N.J.
The hesitancy of mentioning climate change is also happening along the Great Lakes, where the Ohio branch of Sea Grant is trying to find ways to talk about the likelihood of lower lake levels and their impacts on 1,000-foot cargo vessels, or the effects on drinking water.
"We are one of the states where there is a huge amount of skepticism, or folks who are unconvinced by the science of climate change," Frank Lichtkoppler of Ohio Sea Grant said at the Chicago conference. "Sometimes, when you say 'climate change,' you turn a whole group of people off. So we're looking at other ways to address the issue of sustainability."
In New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie recently ended his state's involvement in the nation's first regional carbon cap-and-trade program, there has been some success in raising awareness about sea level rise and ways to adapt to it.
Three communities in the state participated in a detailed effort to learn about emerging dangers related to flooding. The New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium reviewed their plans to deal with rising seas and offered recommendations to reduce risks in a 72-page report that was finished in December.
Climate change was still a taboo term to discuss, according to one participant on the project. The reason this time was less about the push back from local officials, but more that the researchers felt constrained by a lack of support from state leaders.
"It's just that we would all like to keep our jobs. I mean that's what it really comes down to," this person said. "If the governor doesn't support climate change and we start talking about climate change and climate adaptation, it immediately kind of puts this connotation [out there] that action has to occur."
"It's a political tap dance."
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