Building on the Emotional in Climate Change Conversations

Interpretation of what San Francisco’s Market Street may look like in 2020 after sea level rises.

Interpretation of what San Francisco’s Market Street may look like in 2020 after sea level rises.

For many of us, watching the presidential debates has become a source of both fascination and fear. That the 2016 presidential candidate of one of our two major parties regularly presents falsehoods as fact, uses racist language in reference to everyone from Mexican immigrants to Muslim families, and makes sexist remarks as if he wished the 1950s never ended, is frightening. Yet just as alarming is the fact that climate change has played no real part in this election cycle. In all three presidential debates, it’s received just a few scant minutes of attention.

This oversight is proof that spreading awareness about climate change remains one of our greatest collective challenges. While identifying potential solutions and adaptation measures is critical, developing widespread support from communities that either don’t believe climate change is happening or don’t feel that it’s necessary to take action is a goal we can’t ignore. And it’s not as if we haven’t been trying – conversations about the importance of climate change have been going on for decades, in academic and popular media outlets alike.

Even as scientists and policymakers increasingly agree that human-induced climate change is real, its effects remain largely invisible to the wider public. Because the consequences of climate change differ depending on geographical location – manifesting in everything from increased drought to more intense storms to raging forest fires — most can’t see its wider scope. The potential consequences of inaction are more virtual than real. As researchers have noted, that lack of physical connection to the issue encourages many people to respond to conversations about climate change from a point of pre-existing beliefs, cultural mores and prejudices. In this way, climate change has become as much a cultural issue as it is a scientific one.

In light of this, the time has come to go beyond our more traditional forms of communication and outreach. It’s not enough to share more data about rates of sea level rise and projected annual decreases in rainfall. In order to cultivate more inclusive dialogues about climate change, we have to start from a place of respect for people’s diverse perspectives and outlooks. We have to try and understand the emotional roots that frame all of our feelings about climate change. Doing so allows us to find the common ground from which we can begin to grow together.

In order to reach people on this more emotional level and create more inclusive public dialogues, we have to broaden the tools we use to talk about change. At present, artists are doing much of the work to push these boundaries. Xavier Cortada’s 2015 project, which ran concurrent to the Paris climate talks, incorporated a series of performances with interactive talks about sea level rise on the Florida coast. This year, the Glacier National Park Conservancy and Glacier National Park commissioned interactive dance pieces to engage audience members’ ideas and emotions about climate change. Maya Lin’s “What is Missing” project invites the public to explore biodiversity loss through sequences of video, audio and images, with viewers encouraged to submit their own sequences for potential incorporation into the project.

But what about the role of planners, designers and science communicators? How can we go beyond the worlds of educational presentations and well-designed pamphlets to engage more diverse groups in the climate change conversation?

San Francisco’s Market Street 2012

San Francisco’s Market Street 2012

Recently, the Urban Fabrick Collaborative supported more exploration of these questions with “Sea Level Stories,” a project for this year’s Market Street Prototyping Festival in San Francisco. Developed by Urban Fabrick’s Resilient Design Associate, Johanna Hoffman, the project works to contextualize sea level rise as an ongoing fact of life along the water. Visuals showing the process of rising tides at a range of scales and time frames are shared in an interactive installation set 200 years in the future, when sea levels have risen roughly 25 ft and the world is a much warmer place. Visitors land in the living room of a young urban designer named Jara Aniton, who decorates her apartment with images and books of the region as it has shifted through the millennia. Objects useful for navigating the city’s more-watery future, like canoe paddles and inflatable clothing, are left for guests to use during their stay. Audio of interviews with experts on San Francisco history plays on the apartment speakers. Before leaving, visitors are asked to answer a series of questions regarding the words they use to describe the impacts of sea level rise and shifting climates on their lives. They can leave their answers written on post-it notes – where they can also read the answers of other visitors — or record their thoughts on voice recordings throughout the room.

In doing so, the project presents an opportunity to cultivate a different kind of dialogue about climate change, one that’s more about embracing change than fearing the unknown. Presenting the process of rising tides at a range of scales becomes a way to help people relate to these large phenomena on a more personal level. Allowing people to share their impressions after engaging with the future scenario provides a place for meditation and conversation on the issue and generates a valuable wealth of data on public perceptions of sea level rise. Both are important.

In order to broaden support for climate change issues, it’s time for our planning, design and communication teams to incorporate more out-of-the box methods. Those ways of reaching people that once seemed relegated to independent artists are viable tools that can help invite more diverse communities into the conversation. While talking through how our cities might change in the coming decades is hard to do, not doing it poses even greater danger. To create the more inclusive dialogues we need to be having, we have to use all the tools at our disposal.


Urban Fabrick assists project teams to meet, understand and design to new green building code requirements including CALGreen and the New York State Energy Code and a variety of local green building ordinances. We facilitate complex and high level green building certifications, onsite water reuse, net-zero energy design, sustainability master planning and climate positive development.

Urban Fabrick can help you to connect the dots and bridge many of the professional knowledge gaps that currently exist between today’s (business as usual) design practices and those required to successfully meet or exceed high performance (green) building code requirements, achieve green building ratings and make more informed, cost-effective and sustainable decisions. With over fifteen years of green building policy, practice and design expertise, Urban Fabrick adds value.