FORTUNE — In New York, it is not political suicide to talk about climate change. “In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods — something our city government had never done before,” wrote New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an op-ed published in Bloomberg News’ “view” section. “Our climate is changing,” he concluded in the piece, which appeared on November 1, after Superstorm Sandy flooded the city’s subways and wrecked homes in the surrounding area.
The statement was on course for Bloomberg, whose administration launched PlaNYC back in 2007 to lower New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the possible effects of climate change.
But New York stands out in a country where climate change can come across like a four-letter word. Several U.S. cities face climate-related challenges: Miami, New York, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach all rank in the OECD’s global list of cities with the most expensive assets exposed to the expected increase in coastal flooding by 2070. Stronger storms are coming, and cities need to prepare for them. The question is how to communicate that need without getting mired in controversy.
Leaders might want to look at other examples of eco-friendly marketing. For example, low-flow showerheads were terrible about 15 years ago, says Laura Tam, the policy director of sustainable development for the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR). “No one wanted them, not even people who consider themselves environmentalists like myself,” she says.
But technology improved, and today you can take a shower that is both satisfying and earth conscious. The problem is, for many people, “green” still connotes lower quality products or political ideals they find off-putting. So some companies and leaders have begun to promote green measures without marketing them as such. The same tactic might work for climate change. In other words, build a city that is able to cope with stronger storms and frequent flooding; just don’t call the threat “climate change.”
Facing financial and political heat
The term can spark controversy. Just look at North Carolina: The state’s Coastal Resources Commission predicted in a 2010 report that much of its developer-friendly real estate would be under water by 2100. The commission recommended that land use standards take into account the rapid rise of sea levels. People flipped.
In response to the report, Republican state senator David Rouzer introduced house bill 819 to the North Carolina Senate earlier this year, which would require land use planners to use historical sea level estimates, not predictions that factor in climate change. Using historical data would leave more of the coastline ripe for development. The bill passed in June. North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Bev Perdue didn’t sign it, but didn’t veto it either. It became law without her signature.
To be fair, it’s difficult in any state for politicians to see the reward of supporting action against climate change that hurts financially — in this case, missing out on development money — to prepare for events that might occur after they leave office. Leaders may be especially wary if they consider climate change a hazy phenomenon. After all, you can’t actually connect any one storm to the effects of climate change, says Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia University and lead climate scientist on the NYC Panel on Climate Change. Instead, Horton offers the analogy of a basketball court. Say the floor of the court is the sea level — if you raise the floor, you’re going to get more slam-dunks, or severe storms.
Sea level changes are actually a good place to start a conversation about city planning because there is little doubt that the waters are, indeed, rising. “What we can say with certainty is that sea levels have risen by about a foot, and it will at least double by the end of the century,” Horton says. “Just by virtue of that conservative estimate, we expect coastal flooding to happen three times as often — the one-in-ten-year coastal flood event becomes a one-in-three-year coastal flood event.”
Making the case for action
Cities feel the pain from those expensive coastal events. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has requested $41 billion in federal aid to pick up the pieces. “We cannot bear the cost of these disasters and there are going to be more, and they’re going to get worse,” says SPUR’s Tam, who adds that preparing for flooding events are much cheaper than cleaning up after them. “When things like this become more frequent and more destructive, at some point, people will say, ‘enough.’”
Cities do tend to prepare better for crises when they have recently experienced one. North Carolina hasn’t had to recover from a massive storm since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd destroyed over 7,000 homes in the state, causing over $3 billion worth of damage.
The case for adaptation is easier in New Orleans. In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, Congress authorized the construction of the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, a nearly two-mile-long barricade designed to protect the city should another storm hit Gulf waters. Though incomplete, it already helped minimize the potential damage from Hurricane Isaac in 2012. But selling a major project such as a barrier is much more difficult when a city has not suffered something like Katrina.
Politicians in San Francisco can drum up support for earthquake preparation measures even if the payoff doesn’t kick in until they are out of office, says Sarah Karlinsky, deputy director of SPUR. People understand the threat of living on a fault line.
But SPUR manages climate change preparation a little bit differently, Tam adds, despite being in a state that mostly accepts this issue. “The smartest adaptation strategies of the future will be … less intrusive and fit into the city context,” she says. Climate change efforts should improve residents’ quality of life anyway. “You’re not going to message some of those retrofits with climate change adaptation, you’re just framing it as the right thing to do.”
One example is Ocean Beach, a national park that flanks San Francisco’s western side. The city helped build a series of cobblestone berms, or walls, and walking trails to make the beach more accessible. The berms also help reduce the intensity of the waves, potentially protecting infrastructure near the coast. They weren’t controversial, Tam suggests, because they were considered useful and pretty.
This kind of climate change messaging, or lack thereof, could work all over, as cities will have to cope with booming population growth, says Raj Sapru, a sustainability strategy expert with BSR, a non-profit that works with businesses to boost corporate social responsibility. “If you look at what needs to be done just to deal with the expanding population — things like upgrading inadequate infrastructure and dealing with poverty and informal settlements, or slums — those happen to be all of the things that build in climate resilience as well.”