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Climate Leadership on the South Carolina Coast

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Frank Knapp’s passion is helping small businesses. In 2000, he co-founded the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and has been a tireless supporter of local economic development ever since. When he realized that climate change was putting South Carolina’s coastline at risk, he knew something had to be done. “Tourism is South Carolina's biggest industry,” says Knapp, “and if our tourism economy is threatened from rising seas and changing weather patterns, what is that going to do to our state's small business economy?”

President and CEO of SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce, Frank Knapp
President and CEO of SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce, Frank Knapp
In partnership with the American Sustainable Business Council and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Knapp founded the South Carolina Businesses Acting on Rising Seas (SCBARS) program in 2013. The goal was to build awareness of and gain public support for climate preparedness.

In the first phase of the program, Knapp’s team worked tirelessly to seek out and talk to small business owners one-on-one, informing them about the future danger of sea level rise, what causes it, and the potential impact it could have on the local economy. They asked the businesses to take part in a campaign to educate the public by putting up markers of blue tape on the interior and exterior of their buildings, indicating the projected high tide sea levels by the end of the century. The businesses also posted signs directing people to the SCBARS website to learn more.

Turning Conventional Wisdom on Its Head

One of the project’s objectives was to demonstrate that small businesses are receptive to a message about climate impacts. “The general thought is that small business people oppose regulations and the EPA, because that's all you hear on the news,” says Knapp. “But once you get people out of the echo chamber, they can focus and appreciate what is going on, and they don't mind participating.”

SCBARS kept the conversation very matter-of-fact and solutions-focused. The result? Businesses embraced the message because they saw the value in being proactive. “Really, the process is about optimism,” says Knapp. “There are things that we can do to prepare, to continue to have the way of life that we – these coastal communities – enjoy.”

Making Climate Impacts Tangible

The beauty of the SCBARS approach was its simplicity – just a few rolls of blue tape. But the markers got the message across in a clear and impactful way. People could see just how high the seas would get and could easily grasp how devastating the effects would be.

South Carolina Business Acting on Rising Seas (SCBARS) marks the estimated 2100 sea level on this business' window
South Carolina Business Acting on Rising Seas (SCBARS) marks the estimated 2100 sea level on this business' window
Using the most recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), SCBARS projected a six-foot sea level rise by the end of the century and pinpointed the properties along the South Carolina coast that would be inundated at least twice a day at high tide. The team then contacted those business owners, showed them the data and maps, and asked them to put up tape on their premises where the high water level would be. The goal of the campaign was to attract attention and help the public understand the potential impacts of climate change. The overall response was very positive – around 50% of the businesses contacted agreed to participate, and even many businesses that wouldn’t be inundated at the highest levels agreed to put up a sign helping to raise awareness. In total, over 100 small businesses offered their support in the first few months of the campaign.

Knapp thinks one reason people have a hard time understanding climate change is because it’s not visibly obvious. “It's so incremental,” he says. “But if we could make it much more tangible so people can see it and feel it, that would make a difference in opinion.”

The blue tape was stamped with the URL of the SCBARS website. There, visitors could access a variety of resources, including interactive maps that showed what the coast would look like with a one-foot rise, a two-foot rise, and so on. Site visitors were also encouraged to set up a similar program in their area, or to send a letter to their elected officials.

From Awareness to Preparedness

The first phase of the SCBARS initiative found that local business owners were open to learning about rising seas and supportive of actions to protect against climate impacts. In Phase Two of the project, SCBARS set up a community-based task force in the city of Beaufort made up of small business owners, conservation groups, and residents. The task force has already identified hot spots in the area and is now working with the public works department to map out preparedness solutions. Because they have the buy-in of the community, Knapp believes the city is ready to be fully transparent about their plans, get the press involved, and show how public officials are protecting the coastal economy that everyone depends on.

“We are moving the media’s attention to us,” says Knapp. “I think they have now learned that every business is not opposed to regulations and the EPA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not speak for all businesses. We’re getting to a point where we will look back and say, ‘What? There were actually people denying this?’ ”

KEYS TO SUCCESS

  • Make it personal – people are much more open and responsive if you connect with them directly and individually.
  • Keep it positive – emphasize that there are effective ways to prepare for climate impacts, and that embracing solutions is a way to take control of your future.
  • Make it tangible – use imagery, storytelling, and local examples to help make climate change more real and meaningful.
  • Back it up with data – use research findings on climate change from respected institutions to help strengthen your case for preparedness.
  • Provide tools and resources – once you have people’s attention, give them a way to learn more and to take action.
  • Use your network – reach out to local business leaders, research institutions, and community leaders to find opportunities to collaborate.