Climate change by any other name ...


In towns from Pocatello, Idaho, to Las Cruces, N.M.,  local governments are responding to the West's changing climate. They're cutting energy consumption, insulating homes, reducing water usage, and more -- but often without ever mentioning "global warming" or "climate change", loaded terms that can trigger heated debates.

Instead, they're promoting their policies under the auspices of "sustainability" or "economic efficiency." In some cases officials are deliberately trying to avoid provoking negative reactions from residents, and in other cases they're simply addressing what they see as more pressing problems (sprawl, transportation). Either way, their actions help to mitigate climate change.

A new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy-Sonoran Institute describes this trend:


Calling climate change politically controversial, western planners and officials reported that significant portions of their populations are unconvinced that climate change is a real problem or human-caused. They said that local skepticism and lack of urgency may be due to few visible impacts in their communities that residents agree are attributable to climate change. Instead, residents perceive the issue as global and remote, characterized by melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. In addition, Westerners may think their own cities and towns cannot make a difference in reducing climate change given the enormity of the problem, the report states.

"I use terms like conservation, energy efficiency, savings," one western official explained. "I think those are terms you can use to do these things without getting into the debate of climate change, whether it's happening and who is causing it."

The report, which covers Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, concludes with several recommendations, including these:

Communications and reference materials provided to local government officials in the Intermountain West should avoid dwelling on either the potential problems caused by climate change or the past behaviors and policies seen as contributing to the problem. Participants emphasized that materials discussing the potential adverse impacts of climate change were unlikely to be received warmly in communities with mixed opinions on the topic.

Communications should highlight the “co-benefits” of taking action completely independent of climate change. Participants nearly universally emphasized that policy proposals must be discussed in terms of their “co-benefits” for local residents and businesses – benefits that go beyond the simple reduction of greenhouse gases or the mitigation of potential future damage from climate change. These could include less air pollution, lower energy and water use, more preserved open spaces, more housing and transportation choices, and – most importantly – cost savings.

See our story "Save Our Snow" for an example of one Western community that's acknowledged the reality of climate change -- and is working to slow it down.

High Country News Classifieds