Op-Ed: Expanding on the Moral Logic of Climate Communication

Also: Will Frankenstorm Sandy slow the boom of development in at-risk coastal areas?

Streets and homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy are seen in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, in this November 10, 2012 photograph. (Photo: Handout / Reuters)
Amy Luers, Director of Climate Change at Skoll Global Threats Fund.

David Roberts’ Grist post this week raised a critical point on the morality of climate communication. It is worth a read. I liked it, but it is incomplete. 

Roberts’ article argues that those communicating about climate change have two obligations: “first, to convey the facts about climate change accurately, and second, to insure that their audiences understand and care about those facts.” Based on these, Roberts concludes that scientists, journalists and pundits have a moral obligation to convey the gravity of climate change when speaking about extreme weather events such as Sandy.

I agree. However, I would add a third obligation to Robert’s list: To clearly and honestly convey to the public what is needed to avoid reliving the devastation brought by Sandy when the next storm hits NYC, New Orleans, or anywhere else.

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As I explain in my recent op-ed in the Daily Climate, the single most important thing that we can do to reduce our vulnerability to extreme weather is invest wisely in infrastructure, planning, and institution-building to make our communities more resilient.

So, yes, we need to be clear that the climate is changing and we are living with a “new normal,” which continues to shift every day that we emit more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. The challenge is daunting and the response is clear. To solve climate change we need to transition to a low-carbon economy.

However, we need to clearly convey that to avoid future Sandy-esque devastation we must stop allowing heavy development in at-risk coastal areas. This was at the heart of this recent weather calamity, as documented in a recent Huffington Post investigative piece, which states: "Authorities in New York and New Jersey simply allowed heavy development of at-risk coastal areas to continue largely unabated in recent decades, even as the potential for a massive storm surge in the region became increasingly clear."

Andy Revkin on his Dot Earth blog has a good overview on this issue this week. The sad thing is that the Sandy tragedy is not unique. We knew for years about the vulnerability of New Orleans to hurricanes like Katrina—yet, did not respond. And there are others catastrophes in the waiting, such as in Sacramento, California, which may be the nation's most vulnerable urban area to disastrous flooding.

We have a moral obligation to convey to the public the irresponsibility of our leaders who are ignoring the risks that scientists’ have characterized so clearly for the world—the risks that we face today as a result of poor urban development patterns and the risks our children will face in the future if we continue emitting global warming pollution.

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