Building support for coastal resilience: Top 5 tips

September 3, 2015

From San Diego to the San Juan Islands, communities up and down the West Coast are preparing for sea level rise. Seasonal high tides and storm surges are giving residents a taste of the future—experts predict sea levels may rise up to 66 inches by the year 2100, putting roads, homes, and aquifers at risk of flooding.

These communities have choices to make. Should they build seawalls and other hard structures to deflect waves? Should they relocate buildings in the flood zone and pass laws that limit future development? Should they invest in the restoration of wetlands and dunes that can soften storm surges, like Richmond’s Breuner March, pictured left?

Building more resilient coastal communities starts with educating and engaging coastal residents. To do that, eNGOs and government officials need to talk about sea level rise in a way that communicates urgency and possibilities.

Here are our top five tips for facilitating constructive conversations about sea level rise:

  1. Steer clear of the climate connection
    We know from polling that beliefs about climate change still break along party lines and most people regard it as a far off problem.
  2. Frame this global problem in local terms
    While the World Bank’s projection that sea level rise-induced flooding could cost $1 trillion per year may sound impressive, this kind of global figure does little to help people connect the problem to their lives. Sixty-six inches of sea level rise is similarly abstract. Instead of relying on this kind of big picture statistic, zoom in to the local level. Name specific roads, neighborhoods and buildings at risk.
  3. Emphasize the risk to homes, health and drinking water
    Everyone wants a safe home and a healthy family (a 2011 Yale study found that drinking water and public health top the list of American environmental concerns.) By framing the problem in context with these commonly held values, we can build support for solutions.
  4. Emphasize the upsides of preparing for tomorrow today
    Surging seas are scary. That’s why so many low-lying communities have secured emergency seawall permits. By preparing now, we have the luxury of choosing cost-effective solutions that offer multiple benefits: protection against flooding, as well as beautiful natural areas for people and animals.
  5. Help your audience picture the future
    Take advantage of photos from high tide events and storms (like those available through the King Tides project) to show what a foot of sea level rise looks like in your community. Take advantage of the maps and visualizations on NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer. We know from brain science that seeing is believing.

And one bonus tip: while terms like managed retreat, beach nourishment, and accommodation space may make perfect sense to your colleagues, to lay audiences, they may bring to mind armies turning tail, vitamins, and hotel rooms. Choose simple and descriptive language over jargon.

For more guidance on sea level rise communications, check out our new message guide.

Nicole Lampe