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Sustainability, climate change and livability mean little to most Americans -- but the implications impact everyone. How do you sell the story? Experts debate at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Imagine a community -- urban, suburban or rural, your pick -- that has more choices for housing.

More options to get where you need to go. Closer to jobs. Closer to stores. Closer to schools.

Insulated from the whims of oil prices in the Middle East. Clean water to drink. Crisp air to breathe.

Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they're on board with this vision. (Just five percent oppose.)

But call it 'sustainability,' 'livability' or 'smart growth'? Wave goodbye to your support.

A panel of experts gathered here at the inaugural SXSW Eco conference to debate the methods of achieving concepts most Americans support without allowing them to be mired in politics.

Their conclusion? Get the messaging right from day one.

"Part of our problem is too much focus on cities at the expense of our friends in suburban and rural areas," said Robin Rather, chief executive of market research firm Collective Strength. "We are right now facing a hellacious attack organized by [conservatives] on the notion of sustainability. Part of it is because we focus on cities, celebrate cities and are not reaching out to suburban folks."

And, in the off-chance that those people can be reached, the message delivered is muddled.

"We are suffering from too much messaging about climate and not enough messaging about economic recovery and economic reinvention," Rather said. "I think we need to push the needle."

For starters, so many Americans either don't know, don't believe in or don't care about climate change. And yet that's the issue being pushed -- oddly, in the context of small, hip enclaves like Austin, San Francisco and Portland.

But most Americans don't live in places anything like those. How will they understand or care?

"We need to focus more on the cities that are completely disintegrating like Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, and even incredibly boring cities like Tulsa," Rather said. "They're probably never going to be like San Francisco."

Worse, there has been little leadership from Washington, D.C. in framing the issue in a way that more Americans can understand.

"We should be getting from better air cover and messaging around the sustainability and climate negotiations," Rather said of the Obama administration. "You have to give them a failing grade."

According to her research, Americans say their bottom three priorities are climate change, transportation and land development patterns. But that's what affects their lives the most -- it's just not coming across, she said.

"All of these concepts I'm talking about have a powerful role to play on the future of our economy," she said.

Sitting to Rather's right -- and representing one of those hip cities -- was Melanie Nutter, director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, who took time to outline the city's successes and justify some of the focus on urban areas.

For the San Francisco, climate change hits home because of its geography as a city surrounded by water on three sides. With scientists predicting a 15-inch rise in sea levels by mid-century and a 55-inch rise by 2100, that puts 99 miles of roads, a major airport and $48 billion worth of infrastructure underwater, she said.

"When we're thinking about San Francisco, it's major," she said.

In response, San Francisco's goal is to reduce its total carbon emissions by 20 percent next year -- a massive reduction in such a short period of time. The city's emissions mix is 40 percent transport, 55 percent buildings and 5 percent waste.

"If we tackle those three areas, we will have a great opportunity to meet that ambitious goal as well as several other goals that we've set for the long-term," she said.

San Francisco also has a goal of going zero-waste by 2020 through recoiling, composting and reusing initiatives that already have it diverting 70 percent of its waste from landfills.

More progressive policies from the city:

  • Mandatory composting and recycling;
  • A construction and demolition ordinance that requires contractors to reuse or recycle 60 percent or more of site waste;
  • A ban on polystyrene foam like Styrofoam;
  • A ban on plastic grocery bags;
  • A waste system run by private firm Recology;
  • A green building ordinance approved in 1999 and amended in 2004 to require LEED Silver certification for municipal projects. (It's now LEED Gold effective January 1, 2012.)

How did the city do it? A heady mix of ambitious public goals, policy mandates, aggressive public education, technology innovation, program design and financial incentives, Nutter said.

But it often requires a crisis to snap people into action. IBM's Jeff Smith recalled how his company nearly went out of business in the 1990s for reasons not unlike those facing the climate change issue today.

"It happened because we ignored lots of clear evidence that certain things were going to happen, lost sight of our shared objectives with our customers, and failed to execute," he said.

What changed it: a real crisis and completely new leadership.

"We figured out a way to balance the requirements of ourselves as a business, those of our clients that we had to serve and of our employees," he said.

So how do you make sustainability make sense to businesses? Save them money so they can invest in enablers for sustainability themselves, Smith said.

"You have to figure out a way to save money to spend money," he said. The conversation doesn't have to be about ecological messaging. It can be economic messaging."

But it requires equally healthy doses of pragmatism and execution.

"You can't do it in an economic vacuum," he said. "We have a lot of people in this country who simply think this is a load of crap."

Execution, then, requires those in the know to make sustainability and climate change real to businesses and their customers.

"If you spend time in China, you will understand what it means to have horrible, horrible air quality," he said. "It affects everything you do. You see the real effects of that. The ability for us to foresee the potential reality of that is what it's going to take to shock people into doing something."

Nutter said an economic argument brings together "unusual allies" to exact change. That's why San Francisco welcomes in-person visits from officials from cities around the world -- so they can see change happening for themselves.

"We need to make sure we're talking about it with a context that resonates with cities around the country and all around the world," Nutter said.

But it comes back to making sure everyone is a part of the conversation. "It's political suicide not to" focus on those living in the suburbs or rural areas, Rather said -- because while the majority of economic growth comes from urban areas, elected officials come from urban and rural areas alike.

"It's not true that people in rural communities don't care about sustainability," she said. "They do, and they're arguably more impacted by it."

Consider her "redneck" cousins, working poor who proudly drive trucks with gun racks. Rather offered an anecdote of a few of them chatting at a recent family reunion: the biggest topic of discussion was which small car looked the most manly. It wasn't about activism -- for them, it was strictly an economic decision, she said.

"Everybody needs to carry their weight," she said. "We need to take care of everyone."

Illustration: 1951 Budd Company print advertisement.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure