Building Bridges: The End of the Climate Debate

A simple question about the future of our planet has sparked serious debate; we offer an explanation as to why it should be over already.

by Erika Templeton

Do you believe in climate change? A simple question, though many people have had trouble nailing down their answer. Research has shown that Americans hop the fence depending on economic and political climates—and not always toward the greener side.

But let’s pretend for a moment, that we do agree with the vast majority of scientists (approximately 96 percent) who believe global warming is occurring.

Then the questions get harder.

Do you believe we can prevent climate change?                   
In the beginning—back when the First World Climate Conference was held in 1979, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997—the answer among many researchers and scientists was “yes.”

But as the Kyoto Protocol became riddled with exemptions, the Copenhagen Accord eroded to non-binding agreements, U.S. climate legislation stalled, and political punditry drowned out the voice of reason, the “yes” fizzled down to a “maybe.”

Still, many climate change advocates at the time were only interested in mitigation strategies (despite their ineffectiveness). Adapting to a damaged world was admitting defeat, they said, and diluting the conversation on climate change mitigation altogether.

Today, those scientists, activists, and policy-makers have answered the same old question with a new answer. Can we prevent climate change? “Absolutely not.”

On March 31, Working Group II of the IPCC published “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” detailing current impacts, future risks, and opportunities for action to reduce the effects of climate change. It is the culmination of years of work by hundreds of authors from 70 countries, and over 1,700 expert and government reviewers. Together, they have confirmed “the effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents,” and we are “ill-prepared for the risks from a changing climate.” (See the sidebar on pg. 78 for the seven key risk areas identified in the report’s Summary for Policymakers.)

Scary as they sound, these claims represent a new and exciting framework for the climate conversation, because Working Group II is focused strictly on adaptation—what we do when mitigation falls short.

“By dismissing adaptation we’re kind of saying we don’t need to do a better job preparing for climate and weather, and that just doesn’t make sense,” said Ben Preston, drafting author of IPCC Working Group II’s most recent report, and deputy director of the Climate Change Science Institute at Oakridge National Laboratory. “People have started realizing, ‘Oh yeah, we do actually experience extreme weather events right now, and we can probably do a better job preparing for those.”

Thus we face a harder question still:

Can we adapt to climate change fast enough to protect our infrastructures, economies, and human lives?

There are no more “yes” and “no” answers, but an overwhelming system of variables and uncertainties to wade through. The future, as we will hear from the voices that follow, can still be bright, if we choose to work together and build smarter.

Key Risks

Working Group II of the IPCC identified the following key risks of climate in their recent report, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” published in March:

i. Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.

ii. Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.

iii. Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.

iv. Risk of mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.

v. Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.

vi. Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.

vii. Risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.

viii. Risk of loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.

The eye of the storm, a window to the future
If any doubt remained about our need to prepare for climate change, Hurricane Sandy blew it right out of the water in October and November of 2012.

“It did of course demonstrate that we’re not particularly well prepared around the coastline,” said Guy Nordenson, partner at Guy Nordenson and Associates and professor of architecture and structural engineering at Princeton University. “Over time it’s not going to take a storm the size of Sandy to cause that kind of flooding if you already have a couple feet of sea level rise to start from. But part of the problem is we’re not well prepared for even the kind of storms that we can see today.”

When Sandy reached Manhattan on the night of October 29, it hit Battery Park with a record-breaking 13.88-foot surge level. (The prior record of 10.02 feet was set in 1960 by Hurricane Donna.) Infrastructure came to a standstill. Train stations looked like aqueduct pipes, highways like riverbeds. Millions lost power. Emergency teams evacuated some 6,500 patients from hospitals and nursing homes as six of Brooklyn and Manhattan’s biggest hospitals were forced to close—drowning under water and the influx of patients until the generators ran dry. In Breezy Point, a 6-alarm electric fire took 135 homes, while FDNY trucks were caught in tragic irony along streets flooded with up to 12 feet of water.

By November 1, more than 72 hours after the hurricane’s landing, 650,000 people were still in the dark. By November 2, 67 percent of gas stations in metropolitan New York had run out of gas. When schools were set to reopen on November 8, more than 80 percent stayed closed because of severe damage.

After 12 days, some 35,000 tenants in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) projects in Lower Manhattan, Coney Island, and Far Rockaway had no heat or hot water. Of those, 13,000 were also without power, trapped inside by blacked out elevators.

Ultimately, 43 people in the city died as a result of the storm and its aftermath.

While it is difficult to find a silver lining in such circumstances, the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy were a wake-up call that sparked a renaissance in city planning.

“Getting to the table, I think, has started to happen very much because of Sandy, because we’re crisis-driven,” said Lance Jay Brown, AIANY president, and co-chair of the chapter’s Design for Risk and Reconstruction (DfRR) Committee. “I think we have to give enormous credit to the previous mayor.”

He is referring, of course, to Michael Bloomberg, whose administration was marked by a particular focus on design-based initiatives. He created programs like PlaNYC as far back as 2007, aimed at preparing the city for population increases as well as climate change. But the massive proliferation of projects and initiatives that have emerged in the year and a half since the storm is unlike anything seen before it, and represents a turning point in the way the city addresses issues of climate change and natural disaster.

In December 2012, the mayor announced the formation of the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a sub-set of PlaNYC focused specifically on “producing a plan to provide additional protection for New York’s infrastructure, buildings, and communities from the impacts of climate change.” Their subsequent report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” is a must-read for anyone interested in the big-picture agenda, and includes 257 initiatives—many of which are currently underway.

Bloomberg also created the Office of Recovery & Resiliency (ORR), with Director of Resiliency Daniel Zarrilli at the helm. Now that Bill de Blasio has taken over as mayor, Zarrilli is still in place, working alongside Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure Bill Goldstein and Director of the Housing Recovery Office Amy Peterson to oversee the city’s climate resiliency programs.

Meanwhile, on December 7, 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, and appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Shaun Donovan as chair. Here, again, task force initiatives were given the support to proliferate.

“There are a lot of different projects and initiatives that I think can be brought together, some of which could get done fairly soon,” said Nordenson, who sits on the jury of the Rebuild by Design competition, one of the many emergent programs created by HUD and the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force where post-Sandy initiatives can coalesce. “There is a lot of money coming to New York City and New York State as a result of Sandy, and good ideas on how to spend it.”

This overwhelming convergence of support and resources has made NYC a model for other municipalities around the country—but only if those insights have a means of dissemination.

“The question I have is how much of that actually gets implemented? And then how much of that gets transferred to other communities?” asked Preston, referencing the significantly smaller resource pool available in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. where a two-person sustainability office often looks to New York for guidance. “How do you share knowledge? That’s a big part of it.”

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