John Flesher for the Associated Press:
GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (AP) — With climate change still a political minefield across the nation despite the strong scientific consensus that it's happening, some community leaders have hit upon a way of preparing for the potentially severe local consequences without triggering explosions of partisan warfare: Just change the subject.
Big cities and small towns are shoring up dams and dikes, using roof gardens to absorb rainwater or upgrading sewage treatment plans to prevent overflows. Others are planting urban forests, providing more shady relief from extreme heat. Extension agents are helping farmers deal with an onslaught of newly arrived crop pests.
But in many places, especially strongholds of conservative politics, they're planning for the volatile weather linked to rising temperatures by speaking of "sustainability" or "resilience," while avoiding no-win arguments with skeptics over whether the planet is warming or that human activity is responsible.
The pattern illustrates a growing disconnect between the debate still raging in politics and the reality on the ground. In many city planning departments, it has become like Voldemort, the arch-villain of the Harry Potter stories: It's the issue that cannot be named.
"The messaging needs to be more on being prepared and knowing we're tending to have more extreme events," said Graham Brannin, planning director in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Sen. James Inhofe — a global warming denier and author of a book labeling it "The Greatest Hoax" — once served as mayor. "The reasoning behind it doesn't matter; let's just get ready."
To be sure, flood control projects and other so-called resiliency measures were taking place long before anyone spoke of planetary warming. But the climate threat has added urgency and spurred creative new proposals, including ones to help people escape searing temperatures or to protect coastlines from surging tides, like artificial reefs. It's also generated new sources of government funding.
In Tulsa, the city has been buying out homeowners and limiting development near the Arkansas River to help prevent flooding from severe storms. Although two lakes provide ample drinking water, Brannin is beginning to push for conservation with future droughts in mind. A nonprofit, Tulsa Partners Inc., is advocating "green infrastructure" such as permeable pavement to soak up storm runoff.
They emphasize disaster preparedness, saying little or nothing about climate change.
Leaders in Grand Haven, a town of 10,600 in predominantly Republican western Michigan, will meet this fall with design consultants to explore such possibilities as "cooling stations" for low-income people during future heat waves, or development restrictions to prevent storm erosion of the Lake Michigan waterfront.
City Manager Pat McGinnis isn't calling it a climate change initiative.
"I wouldn't use those words,'" McGinnis said he told the consultants. "Those are a potential flash point."
Grand Haven's mayor, Geri McCaleb, is among the skeptics who consider warming merely part of nature's historical cycle. Yet she's on board with ideas for dealing with storms.
"History will bear out who has the right answers" about climate change, McCaleb said.
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Photo: Yann Monel