What's in a name?
If it's climate change, it's a lot. That's why environmental groups and congressional Democrats are increasingly talking about "climate adaptation."
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans cause climate change largely by burning greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. But on Capitol Hill, the debate is polarizing, as many Republicans deny or are skeptical of that conclusion.
Noting that, the conversation is shifting toward "adaptation." It doesn't mean abandonment of talk of reducing emissions — that is very much still the focal point. But by discussing adaptation more often, Democrats and environmental groups say they can skirt the science issue that has dogged climate change policy to build a bigger political tent that includes Republicans.
"That's not something we have to talk about. We're talking about extreme weather events. We know they're happening, so why do we need to say that?" Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., who is introducing a climate bill that doesn't even mention "climate change," told the Washington Examiner.
"I work in a place called the House of Representatives. And it's run by people called Republicans, and they like to fight about stuff like that. If I want to get their support, I'm a little smarter not to pick fights," said Cartwright, who is a member of the all-Democratic House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.
Rather than focus on policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation centers on responses to a changing climate that brings higher sea levels, more intense storms and increasingly volatile precipitation patterns.
Democrats and some environmental groups say the focus on adaptation could prove a winner among Republicans, though they note any real solution to climate change will come from curbing emissions.
On adaptation, they point to the unanticipated $60 billion relief package Congress passed last year in response to Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in October 2012. Spending money on projects to prevent damage like Sandy wrought, they say, could prove fiscally prudent.
"I think that can resonate well with conservative thinking. As you invest in these items, the projected costs that are avoided can be very instructive," Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said. "We're not looking at some sort of modest price here. We're looking at an overwhelming tax bill that came forward."
To that point, several conservative groups joined with environmental organizations to oppose a rollback of a flood insurance law that would have made federal rates more actuarially sound, thereby slowing development in flood-prone regions that had pushed the program into insolvency. Congress, however, passed the bill last month.
"The best adaptation strategies are very good policy in any case," said Eli Lehrer, president of the conservative R Street Institute. "And whether intentionally or not, a lot of Republicans are already taking the lead on things that are climate adaptation strategies."
One of those Republicans is Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who is co-sponsoring legislation that would promote federal, state and local planning to reduce the effects of extreme weather in various economic sectors.
Wicker said he thought moving toward a discussion of adaptation could prompt more Republicans to work on climate change solutions.
"I do believe it is a way for us to do something sensible that is also a little more realistic than trying to change the sea level," said Wicker, whose bill is a companion to a House measure co-sponsored by Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y.
But some Republicans are skeptical that a name change can do much to woo lawmakers.
"Adaptation, mitigation, climate change, weather patterns -- they're all so loaded. That's the problem," said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Added another GOP Senate aide: "If they are wording it this way as a way to genuinely make this more palatable, I think that's a good thing. If they're doing this as a way to sort of sneak attack on climate change, they're forgetting the fact that the climate change debate is still a stalemate."
There's no time to wait for the debate to sort itself out, so adaptation measures must be undertaken now, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argued in a report released late last month. Even if nations were close to achieving enough emissions cuts to prevent a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise by 2100 -- they're not -- there's still considerable lag time between those actions and calming the effects of climate change, the report said.
The Obama administration is doing that in some ways. It has called on federal agencies to develop plans to prepare for climate-related events and challenges. President Obama also called for boosting infrastructure resiliency, especially along the coasts, and has called on local governments to seek solutions on everything from managing water supplies to using wetlands as storm buffers.
While the White House's climate strategy largely relies on executive action, it does have some requests of Congress. Such is the case with the $1 billion "Climate Resilience Fund" Obama proposed in February, an endeavor that has little chance of passing the GOP-controlled House.
In a nod to the way climate nomenclature can irk Republicans, outside groups sought to depoliticize the fund — it was originally pitched as the "Community Resilience Fund," said Daniel Weiss, energy and climate director for left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress.
Senate Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee were also careful in how they worded the Water Resources Development Act bill, which covers water infrastructure, that passed the committee unanimously last year.
The bill for the first time included an "extreme weather" section. Staff for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the committee, said they didn't mention climate change in that section out of fear of poisoning the debate.
Dillon, though, said he is unconvinced the water infrastructure bill represents a change in strategy.
He noted the bill gets passed every five years and that it supports projects that lawmakers can tout to constituents. On top of that, he said many states and local governments are already working on adaptation measures regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill.
"Senator Murkowski has gone even further to say we ought to do more to reduce the impact of climate change on our communities, but the problem is the discussion is so polarized," Dillon said. "The discussion has been you are either pro-crippling the economy or pro-climate change."
Democrats are touting adaptation while at the same time growing increasingly vocal about mitigation — reducing carbon emissions.
Last month, more than two dozen Senate Democrats held the floor overnight to talk about the effects of climate change. The goal, they said, was to prime the pump for potential legislation on carbon emissions in the next few years.
Conversations about mitigation, however, have the potential to turn off Republicans.
"We are certainly smart enough to adapt to climate change without throwing millions of people into poverty and out of work," Wicker said. "So I hope we're on to a little something — but I don't want to suggest the true believers are any less fervent."
Tonko thinks the "messaging," as he called it, should be on adaptation, which he said is designed to avoid the economy-or-climate debate.
"If that's what it takes, I'm fine with it. I don't care what we call it as long as we respond to the potential devastation and the dollar drain that is associated with the responses that we've seen from nature," he said. "I, for one, am not concerned about labels. I'm only concerned with future costs."