I was in Salt Lake City some time ago and was advised sotto voce that it would be unwise to voice a certain term. In Kansas it’s just not done either, a local explained. Bruce Katz, who heads the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute no less, suggested less offensive words.
These unutterable words? Climate change.
In large swaths of the country, bullying by climate-change skeptics has made these words unsuitable for use in civil discourse. “They just start arguments,” people have told me. “People can’t get past those terms. You’ll never reach them,” say most others.
I am chagrined. This makes my new book toast in certain parts of the country: The Agile City: Building Well Being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change (more here). Mothers, shield your children’s ears!
The term has problems. After all, climate change happens to be highly inconvenient amid an economic meltdown while American fighting forces are busy in three countries. More important, getting beyond the term is essential to help people connect with solutions and see benefits. “We don’t talk about climate change, we talk about the benefits of energy conservation,” explained Jeff Risley, at the “Speak Green”conference in June where I moderated a panel. He’s the executive director of the Climate and Energy Project in Lawrence, Kans. He said he succeeds with pragmatic solutions that solve real problems like gyrating weather and spiraling energy costs.
Energy conservation and climate change effects aren’t ignored in the curriculum of the University of Utah’s architecture school where I spoke last winter. And yet Stephen Goldsmith, of the school’s Department of City and Metropolitan Planning said that the term is frowned upon in a state where climate-change skepticism is widespread.
Yet light rail is rapidly growing along the Wasatch Mountain front that ties together the most populous cities in the state. The development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints is rebuilding two downtown city blocks into a transit-focused, high-density mixed-use project called City Creek that conserves both energy and water. It may be the largest commercial real estate project underway in America right now, and reflects an assessment by church officials that Salt Lake City’s downtown was worth shoring up, and that light rail would bring many of the center’s patrons who have tired of cookie-cutter malls wrapped in parking lots.
I’ve found all over the country that professed skeptics aren’t so skeptical when you talk to them one on one. But taboo bullying by interests that benefit from the status quo has silenced reasoned discussion. These interests have so successfully stigmatized climate change that now the environmental community searches for words that are less politically loaded. That’s why we’re hearing about urban and environmental “resilience.” Bruce Katz, who heads the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program spoke recently at the Ford Foundation of a “clean” economy and “clean” jobs saying to me that he thought “green” is now too tarnished a term. I can’t blame him; the fundamental need is to communicate, not refight the battle over whose science is right.
The problem is if you can’t talk about climate change, how can you ever get to the discussion of solutions that are big enough and integrated enough to make a difference? You can’t. I welcome the effort to take the big abstraction that is climate change and make it real for people by any means necessary. (I certainly try to do that in my book) but after wev’e talked up the benefits of change and the risks in doing nothing we have to bring people back to the big why. We have to speak those two words — loudly.