NEW YORK—A trio of senior environmental officials from local and federal government yesterday offered its views on how the average American might need to get a better grasp of the risks posed by climate change.

Speaking here during a conference on rising seas, the officials were pressed by a moderator from the Association of Climate Change Officers to discuss how they tend to approach widespread ambivalence or downright ignorance about global warming.

Explaining the executive federal view was Alice Hill, senior adviser for preparedness and resilience to President Obama on the national security staff. Hill said there is a recognition at the White House that climate is an issue of national security significance. She stressed that the president takes the matter seriously, but she also worries that Americans tend not to follow in his footsteps or view the issue with much urgency.

"It is not a priority for the American public," she said. "I don't pick up the sense of urgency that matches what we're hearing" from climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Hill said she sees the need for better education at the local level as well as development of national standards that might trickle down. She identified development of national flood building and disaster resiliency standards as two examples that could "drive locals to make better decisions," and noted the president just announced that all international development programs will have to undertake a climate risk assessment going forward to qualify for federal funds.

"The challenge is, how do we convey how urgent the scientists are telling us this is?" she said, adding that, in her view, part of the problem is those charged with tackling the problem at the local, corporate or federal level often have no formal education on climate change.

"When you're starting to talk about policy, you're not playing on a level playing field," said Hill, herself a former Los Angeles-area judge who came to the Obama administration with little experience on climate. "That really hampers meaningful discussion at times."

Lessons of Sandy didn't reach Boston
Echoing that perspective was Nancy Girard, a commissioner in Boston's Department of Environment. Girard said she often has to take time out of her schedule to literally sit down with, say, a building developer to educate that person on the perils of trying to construct a new project in a flood zone.

Offering that "it's very hard to do a systematic change," Girard cited her work as the chairwoman of Boston's interagency green building committee, in which every major construction project has to pass a checklist produced by the agency to comply with new adaptation codes.

What Girard has found is that "it's almost better to sit down and talk face to face with certain people," to discuss broad topics like sea-level rise or the threat of storms like Superstorm Sandy at the local level, project by project rather than systematically.

"I have to do this one on one with people; I want them to change their linear mindset," she said. "I will talk to them about how [the Federal Emergency Management Agency's] maps are backwards-looking, so the next building they put up can float and live with water."

Girard added, "Slowly, we're going to get that message out."

Girard, formerly at the Conservation Law Foundation before coming to government, also discussed the state of education from the ground up. She believes the way to reach a community that might not care about climate historically is to connect with the children, through sustainability ambassadors at schools, teachers and the kids directly.

"My secret weapon is children in schools; they bring home a lot of papers to their parents," she said. "They have this wonderful mindset that will go home and teach their parents."

Girard added that the stakes couldn't be more important for Boston, which she described as the fourth-most-imperiled city in the United States and eighth-most-vulnerable worldwide in terms of potential for economic impact.

"We have had to translate what happened in New York" during Sandy, she said. "But for five hours and a high tide, that could have been Boston."

What happens in a submerged sewage plant?
Also taking part on the panel was Judith Enck, administrator for U.S. EPA Region 2. Enck expressed a bit more optimism on the subject and suggested this week's climate march in New York City of more than 300,000 participants was evidence of much progress.

"I don't know if any of you were in Manhattan this Sunday," Enck said with a smile to the audience of climate professionals. "I took a walk with 300,000 of my friends."

She added that the march "sent a strong political statement that the time to act on climate was yesterday."

In Enck's view, the emergence of terms like "resilience" and "adaptation" is a sign of progress. She said EPA has been working on wetlands resiliency for 42 years, since President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, but "we just never called it that."

Enck added that the key is to meet with community leaders as much as possible and engage at the local level. She said reaching out quickly was essential after Sandy hit to address sewage discharges from the fifth-largest sewage treatment plant in the country, in Newark, N.J., or when the highly toxic Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site, overflowed into Brooklyn basements.

"There's certainly a new emphasis on it, a new name on it," she said of resiliency. "We're really happy to have a greater focus on hopefully more resources for communities."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500