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How to create change one behavior at a time.

What Climate Change Advocates Can Learn From 'The Music Man'

When South Miami Mayor Philip K. Stoddard thinks about how to get his small Florida town to take action on climate change, he draws inspiration from The Music Man.

In the 1950s Broadway musical, flimflam man Harold Hill descends on River City, Iowa, with a plan to offload musical instruments and uniforms. He has a “solution” for the skeptical townspeople — they need a marching band — but first he needs to invent a problem. He finds it in the new pool table at the local billiard hall, which he warns will lure boys into vice unless the town provides a more wholesome alternative in music (although Harold himself doesn’t play a note).

Like municipal leaders across the country, Stoddard doesn’t need to invent climate-related problems. From heat events and drought to Zika and flooded streets, local officials are on the front lines of grappling with a changing climate — and most know matters will only get much, much worse with time.

 “Nobody down here is sort of pussyfooting around and talking about anything other than the fact that the water is coming up,” says Stoddard, who is also a biological sciences professor at Florida International University.

But the typical business plan looks ahead just five years, so the typical company does not factor longer term issues like sea-level rise into forecasting. And although climate change has been creeping up on the average person’s worry radar (a majority of Americans are now “very” or “somewhat” concerned about climate change, according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication), it’s still low on the urgency scale. “People have not seen it as a time-sensitive priority,” Stoddard says.

Stoddard already has solutions in mind for his Miami suburb, which sits just 10 feet above sea level and a few miles from the coast. “Elevate, which will buy you time. But ultimately you have to do things differently. Recognize at some point that you are going to have to get out of way. So do not build things in the way” of the inevitably rising seas, he says.

But since Mayor Stoddard thinks a lot like a behavior change marketer, he also knows better than to begin by trying to sell a solution people aren’t already shopping for. Instead, he uses an an approach he calls “turning up the heat.”

“The first thing is you just start talking to everybody about it. You talk to residents and you talk to business groups. You tell them what you see coming and how worried you are about it. At some point they’ll start asking, ‘What are you doing? And what can we do?’ They’ll be glad to know you are thinking about it. And some of them will say, ‘How can we help?’ ”

And then, and only then, does he float his solutions. “You’ve got to get them to see it as a problem before they can see their way to any solution that’s going to cost anything,” he says.

Stoddard’s method has helped his town become a leader in planning for resilience. It also landed him a seat on the dais at Orlando’s recent Sustainability Symposium next to Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana.

As Stoddard, a Democrat, and Brainard, a Republican, talked, laughed and finished each other’s sentences during their discussion on sustainable cities, something else became clear: if there is a happy ending possible, it’s because at the local level, leaders of all political stripes have no choice but to face the music.

Sara Isaac is Director of Strategy + Planning at Marketing for Change.

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