Michael Bloomberg

How should leaders talk about climate change?

November 28, 2012: 10:20 AM ET

For starters, business and political leaders may want to take the term "climate change" out of the conversation.

FORTUNE -- In New York, it is not political suicide to talk about climate change. "In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods -- something our city government had never done before," wrote New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an op-ed published in Bloomberg News' "view" section. "Our climate is changing," he concluded in the piece, which appeared on November 1, after Superstorm Sandy flooded the city's subways and wrecked homes in the surrounding area.

The statement was on course for Bloomberg, whose administration launched PlaNYC back in 2007 to lower New York City's greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the possible effects of climate change.

But New York stands out in a country where climate change can come across like a four-letter word. Several U.S. cities face climate-related challenges: Miami, New York, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach all rank in the OECD's global list of cities with the most expensive assets exposed to the expected increase in coastal flooding by 2070. Stronger storms are coming, and cities need to prepare for them. The question is how to communicate that need without getting mired in controversy.

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Leaders might want to look at other examples of eco-friendly marketing. For example, low-flow showerheads were terrible about 15 years ago, says Laura Tam, the policy director of sustainable development for the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR). "No one wanted them, not even people who consider themselves environmentalists like myself," she says.

But technology improved, and today you can take a shower that is both satisfying and earth conscious. The problem is, for many people, "green" still connotes lower quality products or political ideals they find off-putting. So some companies and leaders have begun to promote green measures without marketing them as such. The same tactic might work for climate change. In other words, build a city that is able to cope with stronger storms and frequent flooding; just don't call the threat "climate change."

Facing financial and political heat

The term can spark controversy. Just look at North Carolina: The state's Coastal Resources Commission predicted in a 2010 report that much of its developer-friendly real estate would be under water by 2100. The commission recommended that land use standards take into account the rapid rise of sea levels. People flipped.

In response to the report, Republican state senator David Rouzer introduced house bill 819 to the North Carolina Senate earlier this year, which would require land use planners to use historical sea level estimates, not predictions that factor in climate change. Using historical data would leave more of the coastline ripe for development. The bill passed in June. North Carolina's Democratic Governor Bev Perdue didn't sign it, but didn't veto it either. It became law without her signature. More

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