Author Archives: Abigail Carney

About Abigail Carney

Abigail Carney, Yale '15, is a former managing editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine and of City Atlas in New York. She's now a writer based in Los Angeles.

Marshall Herskovitz

 

In this post, we’re broadening our scope of interviews to include influential figures outside of New York. Marshall Herskovitz is a Hollywood producer, director and screenwriter who has also served as president of the Producers Guild of America (2006 – 2010). His credits include films such as “Traffic,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Blood Diamond,” and with his creative partner, Ed Zwick, he created the groundbreaking television series “thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life,” and “Once And Again.” He and Zwick recently made news for signing a first-look deal for television with Lionsgate Television.

Alongside his career in the film industry, Herskovitz has devoted years to thinking about our society’s climate change problem. He shared his thoughts on communications with Abigail Carney:


 

What got you thinking about climate change?

I first got into this more than fifteen years ago, just by reading the science and getting really terrified. There was a big dividing line before and after “An Inconvenient Truth.” Before “Inconvenient Truth” the issue really was that people were not aware of climate change. After “Inconvenient Truth,” it became more complicated because people were aware of it, but it became much more politicized.

So, before “Inconvenient Truth,” I was trying myself to put together a large communications campaign to get people aware of it, and I ended up through this weird, flukey thing, testifying in front of a committee in Congress. And basically what I was saying then is what I say now, which is that we are not even remotely on the right scale of what we need to be doing, and that we are all still in denial…and that, except for a small group of very vocal people, even among people who are really on board in terms of moving to combat climate change we aren’t really thinking about what we have to do. The only analogy for what we have to do is a World War Two-style mobilization.

What’s keeping us from doing what we need to do?

The whole denier sort of infrastructure has managed to convince people that in order to fight climate change, you have to harm the economy. I think that single piece, that sense that we have to destroy our way of life in order to save the Earth has been the most destructive thing, and is a complete lie, the total opposite of the truth.  

And, just like in World War Two – World War Two transformed the economy of the United States. The Depression did not really end until 1942. We were still in the tail end of the Depression, and it had already gone on for ten or twelve years. It took World War Two to get us out of it.

The same kind of economic explosion will happen when we start to move at that scale on energy. So, for me, the issue is, how do you communicate that? That’s been my issue for fifteen years, it’s a communications problem. And, you know, I think I know a way, but it’s very expensive and I’ve never been able to convince anybody to put up enough money to do it.

If you watch CNN, every third commercial is either from natural gas or the Petroleum Institute, or the other petroleum companies extolling the virtues of fossil fuel energy. They are all in the aggregate spending probably a billion dollars a year on advertising for fossil fuels. I always say to people, “They are not stupid. They’re not throwing that money away, they are doing that for a reason.” It’s been astonishingly difficult to get anyone on the other side to think of spending that kind of money on communications. Even though it’s obvious that that’s what needs to be done. So that’s always been my frame of reference, that this is a communications problem. It’s not a technological problem, it’s not an economic problem, it’s just a communications problem.

Say we solve the communications problem, do we have the technology to limit our carbon emissions? Do we have the technology we need to communicate?

We have the technology. There are a few areas where we don’t have technology yet, but we’re very close. The biggest area where we don’t technology yet is in in storage of electricity, but we are very close, and we in fact have things we could use in the interim, including Tesla’s new batteries, and molten salt [used to store heat in solar thermal power plants]. There are ways to store electrical energy, but the point is we are on the brink of this twenty-year process where we are going to completely revolutionize electrical energy in the world, and what’s standing in the way right now are the public utilities, public utilities commissions, who will lose their economic model if we do that.

So what are we communicating? What’s the first step?

If we were to convince 20 million businesses and homes to put in solar, that would begin to destroy the infrastructure of these utilities. Okay, so then as a nation we’d have to face the fact that utilities have to have a new economic model. To me, that’s the first thing we need to deal with, and it’s already happening. In LA right now, PG&E is trying to pass a rule that charges people with solar an extra amount every month that basically would wipe out all their savings from solar. And they’re saying, that’s because people with solar aren’t paying their fair share of keeping up the infrastructure of the electrical grid and all that, but that’s actually not true, because I think everyone would be happy to pay their fair share of keeping up the electrical grid. What costs the money is the creation of the electricity, and that’s where they are not telling the truth. It’s the biggest roadblock right now.

Do you think that the narratives to create that action are there? Do we already have the stories we would tell if we had billions of dollars to spend on advertising?

Yes, we have the professionals who could do it. We have the professionals who could create the stories. Absolutely. Totally. In other words, the wrong people have been doing this. The wrong people have been handling communications, that’s the problem. The problem is that the heavy lifting of teaching people about climate change, has been with all of the NGOS….NRDC—

Sierra Club…

All of them. Okay, they are all amazing organizations, but their frame of reference is political activism and policy. Their frame of reference is not mass communications, and that’s been the problem.

I live in mass communications. I live or die by whether millions of people come and pay to see my product, and advertisers, the big advertising agencies, live or die by whether they get millions of people to respond, and that’s where the communications have to come from, and that costs a lot of money! Because you’re talking about television buys, and you’re talking about the kinds of marketing efforts that I’ve seen happen scores of times in my business. Where, for instance, we make a movie, nobody’s ever heard of that movie, you know? We then take 30, 40 million dollars and four weeks later, 96% of Americans know all about it. This is a very well established discipline, advertising and marketing, it just hasn’t been applied to this. So, that’s, to me, what still needs to be done.

Even though we are seeing, for sure, that the tide is turning in America, there’s no question about it. There’s no question that a majority of Americans believe that one, climate change is real, two, it’s caused by humans, and three, that we need to do something about it.

I sort of keep track of these numbers, and basically, about 20-25% of Americans think it’s an emergency. And then there’s another 40% who think that we have to do something, but they don’t know what to do and they feel overwhelmed and so they don’t really deal with it in their lives. And then, on the other side, there’s another 35% who either don’t believe, don’t care, and a smaller percentage of them are actively opposed. But about 65% of Americans think we gotta do something, it’s just that we need a much bigger percentage of those people to become active. We have to make it possible for them to do something about it. Right now, they go, “It doesn’t matter what I do, you know? Even if America acts, what’s China gonna do? What’s India gonna do?” It’s changing that perception, and there are ways to do that.

The biggest thing we are not exploiting is self-interest. Right now, there’s something like 120 million buildings in America. And every one of those buildings could be cheaper if it either was more energy efficient, or created its own energy. That’s a huge constituency. That’s a huge market. And most business owners don’t have any concept that they could be saving money, most homeowners think it’s expensive still. People are not aware of what’s available to them right now. It would be very simple, in a marketing campaign, just to show people how they can be saving money right now.

The interesting thing is that when you own a business, you understand that saving money is the same thing as making money. It’s funny because in our homes we don’t think of it that way. As private citizens, we think saving money is nice, but making money is better. In a business, you understand that it’s all the same thing, You have a balance sheet and you know if you can make your expenses lower, that means you made more money! So, the point is, there are ways to start saving money today, by moving to renewable energy and that’s an easy message to get across and it’s not happening.

Where would you be pushing people to act with this marketing campaign? Would it be a move into political action? Once people have made their homes and businesses more efficient, what is the next step?

What you are asking is a really good question. We now understand that the Tea Party movement was organized and funded by the Koch Brothers and others, and was not a grassroots movement, but was in fact a highly organized and focused movement. And what they did was study successful social movements in the past, including the civil rights movement, and they discovered that these movements work by being incredibly disciplined, and by staying on message. The civil rights movement was very organized, and there was a very clear command structure. They were able to use churches because the black community revolved around local churches, so that was a natural sort of organizing spot. There was nothing random about it.

They knew exactly what they were doing, they knew exactly how they were organizing people, and the Tea Party movement borrowed a lot of those techniques in terms of creating these chapters around the country, but it took a lot money, it took three, four hundred million dollars to do that. So again, yes, we need grassroots organizing about climate change, but that can’t happen without that kind of central organization. People don’t want to admit that.

You know, it’s so interesting in America that the left is always disorganized and the right is always over-organized. It’s like a personality difference. Here you have this amazing thing, Occupy Wall Street, which was this remarkable sort of expression, and not only were they disorganized, but they in fact fetishized disorganization. It was exceedingly important to them that they didn’t become organized, and so it frittered away. Because you can’t ultimately get anywhere unless you are organized. There has to be some combination. So yes, I think we need people in the streets, peacefully. We need people in the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, around the country, day after day, getting this message across that this is an emergency. At the same time we need this economic message, and we need people to move.

My feeling is that the minute you do anything, the minute you spend money making your house more efficient, or putting solar on your roof, you are then a constituent. You are a part of the movement then and your consciousness has been changed by doing that. I remember the first time I bought a hybrid car. It blew my mind. I was thinking, “My God, all these cars around me are just wasting energy when they are at a stoplight.” I never thought about that before. When you see it a different way, that then extends itself to every aspect of your life.

So, a lot of this is political, we’re gonna need political change, we’re gonna need changes in policy, in rules, in regulations, all that sort of thing. You need a constituency for that you, you need people who will vote for it. It’s a chicken and egg problem. This is a problem that has six chickens and seven eggs, it’s like, ‘this has to happen before that, which has to happen before that,’ and it’s very complex and difficult. How do you get people on board when there’s not many [things] they can do tomorrow, you know? And for me, one of the answers is: get them to do anything. Get them to spend their money on something that will make a change in their own life. If it’s buying a car, that’s great. If it’s changing their lightbulbs, that’s great. If it’s putting in solar, that’s great.

We have to make it easier for people to have community solar, that’s a huge thing that we are going to have in this country, where, every church, every school every factory, every huge roof, has capacity for solar way beyond the needs of that organization. And the neighbors, they can invest in that, and get a check every month. That’s easy to do, but we don’t have rules that allow it right now. There are a hundred things like that that will change people’s perceptions of their communities, or their own power to make change in this area, so, there isn’t a simple answer, there are a lot of answers, and they are all around engagement.

When you use the example of the Tea Party movement, and say how some central structure and funding was so crucial to that, do you have any idea of where that will come from?

No, because no one’s doing it. Okay, we have Tom Steyer. Tom Steyer, whom I met once, I had a very interesting meeting with him, he’s clearly a very bright man.

I argued with him about natural gas. He was saying, we need natural gas as a bridge to true sustainability. And I was saying, I’m not going to argue against that, but my point is that, from the standpoint of communications, natural gas is a bad idea, and here’s why: The revolution in energy is going to come when millions of people spend their money to change their relationship with energy. It’s millions of transactions, that’s what’s going to create millions of jobs. In other words, when I hire a guy to come to my house and retrofit my house, or put solar in, those transactions, if fifteen million people do that, that’s a revolution, okay? And with natural gas you don’t have to  do any of that, it’s the same big companies. So, it’s a matter of perception. In other words, you are not engaging the public when you are using natural gas.

What do you think about nuclear?

I think nuclear is a disaster. Here’s what I say to nuclear: you’re looking for a house to buy. Someone shows you a house, it’s the most beautiful house you have ever seen. Everything in it is gorgeous. You are looking through the house and you go down to the basement, and you discover that every toilet in the house flushes into the basement and all the shit just stays in the basement, and they say, “We don’t know how to fix that. It’s just gonna be like that, forever.” That’s nuclear power.

It’s been 70 years and we don’t have a solution to nuclear waste, aside from all the other problems with it. And the main issue is we don’t need it and a lot of people think we do, but we don’t. We have technological solutions now that are safer and cheaper than nuclear power. We just don’t have the will to implement them.

I think Steyer is making headway, and I think he’s really smart, so he’ll do what he does, but I’d like to see somebody like Steyer, who has the money, take the people that McKibben has organized. But McKibben – whom I’ve spoken to many times on the phone – he’s an interesting guy and he does not want to be the guru, and he does not want to be the power player and he doesn’t want to become the establishment in some way. And that limits the power of 350.org. Yet 350.org has the most people and has the most firepower, and in some ways, because of its own ethics, won’t use them, do you know what I mean? And I think we need an organization five times bigger than 350.org and four times more willing to use its power. That’s what we need. And that can be done, it just takes a lot of money. That would be very influential.

Could some related influence come from Hollywood?

My business is a disaster in this area. There’s no interest at all. I tried to sell  a pilot that dealt with climate change this year. Not one network would go near it.

Really?

Wouldn’t go near it.

And was climate change very central to it?

It took place in 2085. It existed in a world that had been utterly transformed by climate change; climate change was everywhere. It was called “Storm World.” In the opening scene, you have a guy in his kitchen in New York City, and he’s looking out the window and you are seeing the beautiful trees and a nice vista; he does a little gesture and all of a sudden the window changes to what’s actually outside – a Category Four hurricane. A giant branch hits the window and bounces off because everything is reinforced.

Basically, they just live in storms all the time. And it just goes on from there. In the show, by 2085, 25 million Americans had to be removed from where they lived because where they lived had been inundated, and so they set up what they called “The Territories” in the West. Most of the Dakotas and Utah had been turned into, essentially, refugee camps for 25 million people to live because there was no other place for them. And these were Americans. This displacement had completely messed up the economy and the politics of America.

So the show was essentially trying to say: this is what is going to happen if we don’t change, that’s the world we are going to live in. The story itself was somewhat of a melodrama. It was using climate change as the background.

And why do you think none of the networks would go near it?

Because they are not in the business of making people mad. In other words, they are trying to maximize their audience, and this is still very polarizing in the country. I think they feel that for a lot of people, it’s a turn off.

The TV show "My So-Called Life" (Claire Danes) and the film "Blood Diamond" (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two projects Herskovitz has produced.

The TV show “My So-Called Life” (Claire Danes) and the film “Blood Diamond” (Leonardo DiCaprio) are among Herskovitz’s twenty-seven producer credits.

Among the people you work with, is there a general awareness and a sense of urgency? Is it just that they don’t want to offend the parts of the country that are still anti climate action? Or, is it an issue that is not on the minds of most people who are working in the industry?

It’s very much on people’s minds. I just think they feel powerless, they don’t know what to do about it. I feel like I’ve been more active than any of my friends, and I feel powerless at this point. I’ve spent years, literally, and many thousands of dollars trying to jump start a campaign, going to Steyer, going to other people, and pitching a case for it. I had an ad agency in New York that was willing to do it for less money and I had a whole plan of what we should do. I went all over. I must have met three hundred people, in this space, went all over the country, and couldn’t get anybody to [join in]. I probably raised forty thousand dollars in total. It wasn’t anywhere near what I would have to raise to get somewhere, and so I finally, I had to get back to work. I couldn’t do this full time because I couldn’t afford to, I still have to earn a living. So, I’m really frustrated, and most people I know have not spent, have not been that committed, have not done that much, and they feel powerless.

It seems that you are a proponent of people becoming active, and making smart energy choices, but not necessarily changing their fundamental lifestyles. 

When I say they don’t need to change their lifestyle, what I mean is, we can still live in nice houses and drive nice cars. It’s just that the house have to be really efficient and the cars have to be really efficient, that’s all.

Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, a UK climate change research center, gave up flying about a decade ago. It’s a statement, because he’s someone who’s always traveling to climate conferences where everyone else has flown in. Instead he’s taken the train, or gone by ship, every time. In LA, in a city where the infrastructure requires everyone to drive all the time, how do you factor in lifestyle choices? Can you just get an electric car, or do we need to drive less?

It’s a really good question. Los Angeles is a really difficult place to, I mean, as Los Angeles exists now, you generally have to have a car. On the other hand, technology and cars, you know, if we are talking about an 80% cut in carbon by 2050, cars are already there. I drive a Volt, you know, a Volt is an amazing invention. And the electric cars are amazing too, it’s just harder to get the range from them and not everybody can afford a Tesla, and the other ones don’t have enough range.

But with my Volt, the electricity that I use – because California is better with how it creates the energy – that’s the equivalent of one-hundred miles per gallon, when I am using electricity. When I’m using gas, I’m getting forty miles per gallon. And I drive forty miles a day, to and from work. That’s a very long commute. I know it’s ridiculous. Still, most days I use no gasoline at all.

Basically, I had a Volt for three years, I averaged a gallon of gasoline per week. One gallon per week. If everybody used one gallon of gasoline per week, we’d solve the problem. So, even if  everybody has cars in Los Angeles, we already have the technology for cars that are efficient enough, and we have the technology for their houses to be efficient enough. Most of it is already solved, it just has to be promulgated on a mass scale.

Eventually there are bigger issues we have to deal with. In the next generation we have to deal with the whole issue of growth, you know? But I like to separate those things right now. I actually think it’s dangerous to talk about that stuff right now. By the way, in the same way I think it’s important to separate climate change from pollution and toxicity, because there are different levels of emergency, and if you are trying to create a constituency, the constituency for climate change can be a much bigger constituency. We have to separate all these issues. As important as all of them are, we have to separate them. I believe that strongly.

Getting back to what we opened with, I know you don’t work in advertising, but if you had fifty million dollars to launch an ad campaign, what direction would you go?

Well I think, first of all, the only answer to that can come from testing. In other words, I can tell you my instinct, but testing might show me that I am wrong, and that I have to use a different approach.

My instinct is that we need a combination of messages, because not everybody is the same, but what’s missing is…first of all, historically, America, as people have envisioned it, is a very masculine country, very aggressive, masterful, confident. And there’s been a dearth of “masculinity” in the messages about climate change.

The idea of American as a hero, America saving the day, America saving the world, being the strongest, being the biggest, these are very American messages. I want to reach the people who drive pickup trucks, big, f—ing F150 pickup trucks, and who don’t want to give up that sense of empowerment that makes you an American.

That’s what’s been missing in the messaging: that we could be great, we could be heroes, [and] we can solve this problem.

If you combine that with stories of people who are already doing it, already saving money, making money…I saw one thing somebody did about an entrepreneur in Texas, this guy was basically a rancher, who was making millions of dollars from wind because he’s got all this land. He just does it! The entrepreneurial spirit, it’s appealing to the things that are American in the broadest sense.

The idea of energy independence is not just a national idea, it’s a personal idea. Wouldn’t you like to be independent of these big a——-s who are taking your money? That’s an American idea. It’s the idea of making this exciting. It’s Reagan. Reagan had this great image of the shining city on the hill, and that’s what this can be.

George Marshall has a book about communicating climate change, and his big idea is that you need to segment the messaging and meet people where they already are. Create narratives that fit into their values – the values of mothers, or the guys who are driving pickup trucks.

Totally true, but, this is a problem we face in the movies all the time. The thing is that, the landscape of marketing has changed so much with the internet, and television has changed, everything is more niched than it used to be, but nevertheless, there have to be a few overarching messages that go out to fifty, sixty, seventy million people. And then, there can be these subgroups that you are appealing to for some reason or another. Mothers, worrying about the health of their children, young families, all kinds of groups, or demographic divisions that you have to appeal to. Of course you have to segment the message. And of course a lot of this has to be online, it can’t all be television. But, what they have found is, television is still the most effective thing. Online hasn’t beaten it because online is so diffuse that you can’t reach people in the same way. So, I’m  sure he’s right, and I would, if someone gave me all the money I would apportion it to various amounts. By the way, now, in television buys, you can be incredibly specific about who you are targeting. So, you know, not everything has to be the Super Bowl. But I still think there are some overarching messages that will become a signature of this thing, and then you have other messages for smaller groups.

Is that typically true when you are marketing a big film? That there is sort of the one mass advertising campaign that you hope will get the fifty million people, and then online there’s more?

Yes, [the marketing team] decides what are the likely audiences for this film. So then, you got your TV marketing campaign, and then basically you are going to create two or three TV spots, and some of them will be different. There will be a TV spot meant for men, a TV spot meant for women, they’ll do that sort of thing. But, and then, there’s a whole thing about what are the magazines gonna want, what are the TV and the critics going to want? Is there a university constituency here and that sort of thing.

Those meetings are actually quite remarkable. You sit in a room, and there’s forty people around this huge table, and they all have different areas that they deal with, and they all have ideas about how they are going to reach people that they have to reach, and it’s quite an extraordinary discipline. It’s a very complex, yet highly developed art form, marketing. I’ve always been incredibly impressed when I go to those meetings. I go, “Wow, these people know their s–t.” And it works.

What do you think that young people who care about climate change should be doing?

Oh my God.

That is a big question.

Well I think the answer is they have to be in the streets, you know? But there’s no way for them to do that right now. That’s the problem, that’s the seven chickens and eight eggs thing, you know?

There’s a sense of fatalism that I see in this generation that wasn’t true of mine. That they were raised to feel that they were powerless in a way that upsets me. And yet they are passionate. And I see a change happening, but it may not be the right change. I have two children who are millennials. I know all their friends, and I see several things at work. I think the knock on my generation was that we hovered over them too much, we protected them too much, we gave them too much praise, all that stuff, all true, but what’s clear is that the generation was not ruined by that. What I see is a whole bunch of these people with that initial shock of, “Oh f–k, this is what the world is like? This is terrible!” And then they go, okay, and they figure out how to impose their will on it. Because they do have a very good sense of themselves, and they are strong-willed, and I just see a lot of people saying, “All right I’m gonna make my way.” I think that’s great.

What I fear is that the same thing’s going to happen that happened with my generation. My generation was incredibly activist in the 1960s, and then, everyone got scared when they got into their twenties, and said, “My God, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna starve,” and they just left it all behind and became materialistic. And I fear the same thing happening to the millennials. We thought we were omnipotent, we thought we could do anything, and then we went, “Oh, Holy S–t, no we can’t.”

Most millennials grew up, I think, feeling like there were a lot of things in the world that were really awful that they couldn’t do anything about, and so many kids have said to me it’s so hard to see what the future’s going to be like, and there really wasn’t a belief that there was going to be a great future. And that’s upsetting. So, I wish I saw that zeal, that sense of omnipotence, that we are going to change the world, we are going to make the world do what we want it to do. I wish I saw that, because, boy that’s what we need. That’s why we need a million people out on the streets, that’s what we need. But they can’t do that unless there is a whole command structure for how to do it, [and] what the message is, and all that stuff. Tell your friends, and tell Tom Steyer, that he’s gotta learn from the Koch Brothers. I wish there was somebody out there, who was willing to pay for a movement, because that’s what it’s going to take.

Portrait of Marshall Herskovitz by Columbine Goldsmith

Answering the hardest question on campus

An American university can be like living in a fairy tale, but with trouble just outside the walls. (Photo: Yale University)

An American university can be like living in a fairy tale, but with trouble just outside the walls. (Photo: Yale University)

“…when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to ‘the American way of life.’”

– Elizabeth Kolbert, New York Review of Books (12/4/14)

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At the close of her critical review of Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert provides a point-blank description, excerpted above, of the seemingly impossible challenge of changing behavior.

But if we want climate negotiations to succeed, American society has to change. We have to change simply to convince countries like China and India that we are serious about cooperating. Because if those countries do not commit with us to curbing emissions, we will all fail together – even as fossil fuels remain the most tempting, the cheapest and most accessible source of energy for them in their own race to match the American lifestyle. In that perspective, pursuing our own emission cuts is not idealistic, but realistic. Why would anyone else do what we are not willing to do ourselves?

What’s it like to go to college with this knowledge? Freshmen on a campus now will be graduating in 2018, into a world newly shaped by strict national or global climate agreements that leave two thirds of fossil fuels in the ground. Young people will be participating in a vast industrial shift from consumption to infrastructure and an explosion of invention and creativity as the world races to rebuild the global energy system with non-fossil power.

Or maybe freshmen will graduate into a world that failed to agree, with an emissions pathway uncontrollably veering upwards to extremes of temperature and impacts beyond adaptation, including diminished crop yields, larger displaced populations, and the inexorable loss of coastal cities, including, as the great ice sheets melt over centuries, New York City.

How should universities teach these students, who enter a different world either way? What exactly is ‘the American way of life?’ Since the old one is gone, and the new one is up in the air, might students become leaders in choosing the next American way of life? Will it be failure, or success? Remove every idea that is not fast enough to be relevant in this time frame, and that’s where you will find the answer.

From Yale, Elizabeth Kolbert’s alma mater, the following essay provides a portrait of student life as our culture addresses, or avoids, the central challenge of our time.

This post is adapted from the original in the Yale Daily News Magazine, and was written by Abigail Carney, a former managing editor of City Atlas.

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Featherstone Farm, MN

Featherstone Farm, Minnesota

Emmet Hedin ’17 grew up on an organic vegetable farm in southeast Minnesota, where his family has been farming since his great-grandfather emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. “I grew up thinking about weather as one of the most important things in my dad’s life,” Emmet says.

In August 2007, it rained in Minnesota. Money Creek, in the same valley as their farm, had flooded before, but this time, Emmet says, “The water kept coming and coming and coming.”

Emmet was in Kentucky visiting family, and his dad went into Winona for the night to get away from the flood. On the news the next morning, there were reports of washed-away houses and washed-out roads that had crumbled and collapsed. Twenty-three inches of rain had fallen in 36 hours.

His dad, Jack, got into his 4×4 truck to drive to see the crop damage. He passed a road on a hill. Someone had driven across it, but all the gravel beneath the pavement had washed out. The car fell 30 feet down a ravine, killing the driver.

When Jack got to the farm, everything was gone. “There were butternut squash 12 feet up in trees along Rush Creek,” Emmet says. His dad realized that morning he would have to move the entire farm.

That flood was one of two 500-year rain events (meaning an event that is expected to occur only once every 500 years) in the past 10 years in Minnesota. To Emmet, the storms are a sign of what’s to come, and he explains that it isn’t as bad in America as it will be elsewhere. “In 50 years,” he says, “no Bangladeshi farmer is going to have a livelihood.”

Emmet has found it difficult to work towards climate change mitigation while he’s been at Yale. “I think that here,” he says, “we have a tendency to think about a problem, and simply by thinking about it, reason to ourselves that we don’t need to act upon it.”

When Emmet first came to Yale, he took the train to New Haven from Minnesota. He was determined not to fly. As worked out by British physicist and former government advisor David MacKay in his book on energy, “Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire [space heater] on 24 hours a day, all year.” Take one intercontinental flight and you’re using about 11,000 kWh of energy, which comes from oil. In one day. This is an immense amount of carbon. According to the World Energy Council in 2010, the average household in India — one of the countries that will be hit hardest by climate change — used only 900 kWh in the entire year. (The average American household used 11,698 kWh, two to three times more than a typical European home. And that 11,698 kWh didn’t include air travel.)

“I was not going to subscribe to a system that was based on air travel and fossil fuel consumption,” Emmet says. “That ended quickly when I realized that I was going to be home for like two days Thanksgiving break freshman year if I didn’t take the plane, and I’ve been taking the plane since.”

He considers himself hypocritical because of his air travel, and sometimes feels that he can’t begin a discussion about climate change because his actions don’t match his beliefs. “It’s the problem that faces our future,” he says, “but if I’m aware of the problem and choose not to act on that awareness, how can I possibly seek to influence others and lead by example?”

Rushford, Minnesota, near Hedin family farm, shown flooded in August 2007

Rushford, Minnesota, near Hedin family farm, shown flooded in August 2007

If you ask a room of Yale students if they care about climate change, most of them will say they want to care more than they do.

Adam Goff ’15 asks me, “Let’s say I care about climate change, what does one do about it?” I met Adam three Septembers ago, during our freshman year. We circled Old Campus then, talking about whether we would really be doing anything for the world while we were at Yale.

“I don’t have any good ideas,” Adam says. “Since freshman year I haven’t had any good ideas, or seen any ideas that convinced me.”

Adam has not directly worked on climate change since his freshman year either. “I haven’t found a community I’ve been satisfied with,” he says.

If our world needed climate change action when we first came to Yale, it needs it even more now. The 2014 Pricewaterhouse Low Carbon Economy Index found that: “For the sixth year running, the global economy has missed the decarbonization target needed to limit global warming to 2˚C. Confronted with the challenge in 2013 of decarbonizing at 6 percent a year, we managed only 1.2 percent. To avoid two degrees of warming, the global economy now needs to decarbonize at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100.”

Our current society is headed toward a world that is 4˚C warmer. Even 2˚C won’t be pretty — James Hansen, who testified about climate change to congressional committees in 1988, calls for a lower, 1.5°C limit if we want to avoid sea level rise, loss of Pacific islands, a disrupted food supply, and more massive storms — but 2˚C will be far less devastating than the larger temperature rise that threatens the world’s farms and coastal cities.

A recent report by Stephen Davis (UC Irvine) and Robert Socolow (Princeton) found that if we want to stay at 2˚C and continue with our current consumption and development patterns, by 2018 we should stop building cars, homes, schools, factories, and power plants unless they are replacements for existing ones or themselves carbon-neutral. (Coal-burning power plants and cars lock you into future emissions after they are built.) 2018 is the year that Yale’s current freshmen will graduate.

Yale’s new building plans take into account salt water incursion from New Haven Harbor.
 We are already dealing with the effects of climate change (see Hurricane Sandy, melting ice caps, and droughts and floods in India). According to Michael Oristaglio, executive director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, climate change affected the construction of Yale’s two new residential colleges: as sea level rises, groundwater rises and pushes out the freshwater. Modeling shows that soon the salty groundwater is going to be 3 feet higher than it is today. Salt destroys materials, and so Yale had to modify the residential college building plans.

But the effects to come will be worse than anything we’ve dealt with yet (see more malaria; a flooded Florida; and days when the “wet-bulb” temperature, which quantifies heat stress, would put people working outside at risk of heat stroke).

Max Weinreich ’16 believes that the fact that over half of the Yale student body voted in last year’s divestment referendum, with 83 percent of those votes for divestment, was proof that a lot of students care about our reliance on fossil fuels. But he also thinks this caring is limited. He has never met another undergraduate who is factoring climate change into his or her life plans and believes that the average Yale student fails to view climate change as an issue that will primarily threaten human rights. “If you don’t want to see it, you’re never gonna see it,” he says. “You could be underwater and in denial about it.”

According to a November 2013 report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, 23 percent of Americans still don’t believe that climate change is happening, and just over half of all Americans say they are “somewhat” (38 percent) or “very” (15 percent) worried about climate change.

A report from the RSA Action and Research Centre in the UK concluded that “about two-thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it.” This report names this phenomenon “stealth denial”: people accept the facts of climate change, but continue to live as if those facts were not true.

“I think most Yale students would say that they care, because that’s the right thing to say,” Caroline Warner ’15 says, “but in reality they’re not taking any action. I’m not going to say I care if I’m not going to do anything about it.”

_____

“We live in a castle,” Ariana Shapiro ’16 says. “That can delude people into not acting.” Many students I spoke to described how difficult it is to be invested in anything not directly related to their lives here. Yet, that’s the excuse of most non-Yale students too, and it comes with two problems. One: climate change is related to our lives. Two: there are other big, scary issues that we have an easier time acting on or, at the least, acknowledging that we care about. Climate change is always last in a survey the Pew Research Center does on the concerns of Americans, yet we have even less power over some of the other items on the Pew list (ex: terrorism, the decline of morality).

“The fact that there are not riots in the streets means that we’ve done something terribly wrong.”
So why aren’t we more involved in climate change action? Paul Lussier, who is teaching the seminar “Climate Change in the Media” and has worked in the media for 30 years, explains that climate change communication has previously operated under the “information-deficit model”: people don’t know enough about climate change, and once they know more, they will act. But Lussier believes that people already have a general awareness. What’s lacking is action based on that awareness.

“The fact that there are not riots in the streets means that we’ve done something terribly wrong,” he says. The aim of his course is to help students craft narratives and re-craft existing narratives that will lead to climate change action. Lussier calls climate change “the mother of all challenges” because all media narratives are based on either Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, or Man vs. Woman, and climate change challenges all three of these.

“In most narratives our lifestyle is good,” Lussier says. “Here we are forcing a model that’s questioning our most basic assumptions … to call fossil fuels into question is to call our identity into question.” Emmet, a student in Lussier’s class, explains that the conception of wilderness as dangerous and existing for our use is fundamental to our history. Acting on climate change, he says, “means shifting that paradigm, and conceiving of ourselves as the problem, not nature.”

Lussier says that if a terrorist were doing to the planet what climate change is, we would already be at war. The problem here is identifying the enemy, because we are the enemy. In a similar way, others have described the looming threat from climate change like the approach of Godzilla, but our ability to see the threat is blocked by our lack of social cohesion. To move beyond this, Lussier believes we need to create narratives that encourage a wide variety of groups and people to act.

This has already begun. Many faith groups are encouraging their members to reduce their carbon use and to advocate for political action on climate. Pope Francis is expected to release a historic papal encyclical on climate change, following a visit to the Philippines and sending an early message for the Paris climate negotiations later in the year. American sports are turning to address the issue; the NHL released a report this year about how climate change threatens the future of hockey. The report included plans for the NHL to make their practices more sustainable.

And this semester at Yale, members of a project course at the Forestry School are working to see if Yale’s sustainability initiatives are aggressive enough, and what more can be done. Fossil Free Yale organizers told me that this year they are focusing more on divestment as crucial to social justice. And hopefully the students that graduate this May will take their concern about climate change with them. Patrick Reed ’15, the former president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition (YSEC) and one of the founders of Fossil Free Yale, says, “I think it’s even better if instead of dropping everything to work at a nonprofit, [Yale graduates] do what they’re passionate about and mitigate within that.”

_____

Once students are involved in climate change action, whether this is through a group like Fossil Free Yale or an effort to get their sports team to use less energy, the challenges do not disappear.

“Dealing with the reality of climate change comes with the same stages as dealing with a trauma,” says Chelsea Watson ’17 a Fossil Free Yale organizer. “I am terrified by climate change,” Ariana, who has also been involved with Fossil Free Yale, tells me. “That’s my predominant feeling, I think.”

Chelsea believes that the more you do about climate change, the more hopeful you feel. She is optimistic because in just two years more than 400 divestment campaigns have started, allowing thousands of students to take action. For Ariana, who has been involved with the climate movement since she came home to a pamphlet in 2010 that showed all the land in her county that had been leased for fracking, thinking in the short term and taking action are the only ways to avoid being paralyzed by fear.

More than 150 Yale students were at the People's Climate March in October, 2014. (Photo: Philip Arndt)

More than 150 Yale students were at the People’s Climate March in September, 2014. (Photo: Philip Arndt)

Emmet Hedin cancelled his flight home to Minnesota for October break and he will take the train home this Christmas. He acknowledges that the flight from JFK to Minnesota will take off regardless of whether he’s on it, but he decided that he needed to do something. “We have a lot of conversations about the problem itself,” he says. “This is one thing we can do about it.” He believes that any discussion of what kind of future you want should lead to a discussion about what kind of solutions you want, and not flying should be one of them.

We need a carbon tax, but we need a carbon tax because it will change behavior.
Giving up flying entirely might seem difficult. “Am I not going to fly?” Justine asks. “My best friend goes to school in England.” Max and many others I interviewed don’t believe that personal behavioral change is enough. “I actually think it’s a problem when people put the blame for climate change squarely on their personal habits,” Max says, “because whether or not you take out the compost instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s not saving lives.” He was frustrated when President Salovey sent out an email about the new digital subscription to The New York Times two days after releasing Yale’s decision not to divest. The use of fossil fuels is entrenched in our economic system, and Max, and thousands of other students, think we need actions like divestment that will move toward systemic change.

But going home for one less break, or choosing not to go abroad over the summer is not only possible but also crucial to acknowledging the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses. Shane Feyers FES ’15 says, “The people with the biggest footprint are those with the easiest lives.” He explains the paradox of the leaders of the climate movement who fly to give lectures about how dire the situation is. We’ve grown up with the social norms of flying and driving often, but they are not necessities.

We need a carbon tax (or a ‘fee and dividend’) but we need it because it will change behavior. Saul Griffith, inventor and MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant winner, recognized the importance of behavioral change after he estimated that our global society requires 15 terawatts of energy. To avoid more than 2˚C of global temperature increase, we would need to replace all but three of those 15 terawatts with renewable and non-carbon based sources of energy by 2033. To do this, Griffith calculated, would require building one three-gigawatt nuclear power plant every week; 100-megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours; one 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every five minutes; and one Olympic swimming pool’s worth of genetically engineered algae, 50 square meters of solar-themed reflectors, and a 100 square meters of new solar cells every second for the next 25 years. Griffith did this analysis in 2009, given that we haven’t yet begun an industrial buildup that would rival that of World War II, it’s worse by now.

When Griffith calculated the effort required to rebuild our energy system, he realized that even more crucial, and more feasible, than new infrastructure is helping members of affluent societies reduce their energy use without reducing their perceived quality of life.

Experts believe behavior change is the fastest, cleanest tool that we have left, and aren’t waiting for a tax to change their own behavior.
Other climate leaders such as Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Eric Holthaus, meteorologist and journalist, agree. Each has given up flying to reduce his carbon emissions. They believe that the systematic change we desperately need isn’t technological, but social. Social change requires people realizing that even if grappling psychologically with the threat of a warming world can be traumatic, the changes needed to avoid it aren’t. Emmet doesn’t think that flying less is that big of a step when the alternative is considered. “People think about the solution as something that will change their life,” he says, but, in reality, taking action can be simple.

And once you act, it becomes more likely that your family members and friends will act, too. Changing your lifestyle doesn’t mean giving up on political action, it strengthens it.

Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University, studied the 2010 failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. Under cap-and-trade, companies purchase permits from the government that allow them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases, incentivizing reduced emissions. Skocpol is now an advocate of a simpler policy alternative called “fee and dividend,” which forgoes carbon credits in favor of a fee on carbon taken at its point of entry into the economy, and the fee is then paid to the citizens as a dividend. For such a policy to pass, Skocpol writes that “a broad alliance of organizations must be constructed — uniting community groups, churches and synagogues, service-worker unions, doctors’ and nurses’ associations, and green businesses. Networks need to reach beyond self-described environmentalists and include many groups outside of Washington, D.C.” These political networks can be built upon a shared commitment to using less energy.

Climate change is an existential problem, but the solutions are tangible. We need to fly and drive less. We need to eat less meat. We need to research better batteries. We need to demand a carbon tax from our legislators. We need to work within the groups we’re already a part of to use less energy.

If Godzilla were coming over the horizon, we wouldn’t act alone.

_____

Demographer and statistician Hans Rosling demonstrates how the combined effects of population growth, growing economies, and climate change require rapid adjustment in this short video:

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Acknowledgments, references and additional notes from City Atlas:
• Abigail Carney (’15) received a Yale Alumni Community Service Fellowship from the Yale Club of New York for her work on City Atlas.
• The US has 74 of the top 200 universities in the world, and 15 of the top 20, yet according the New York Times, more Americans believe in astrology than human-caused climate change. According to recent Gallup polls, only 1% of Americans picked ‘environment/pollution’ as a top priority for the country.
Major universities have had knowledge of accurate climate change predictions since at least 1979. One possible explanation for the disparity in understanding between higher education and public opinion is that universities did not feel it was their place to explain climate change to the public (or to their students). It is a disruptive subject. During those years and still today, the dominant direction of top graduates has been finance. Because the big universities have enormous endowments, they are integral parts of global finance, first as recruiting centers, then as clients, and later as beneficiaries of corporate and individual support.
Another twist: because financiers have not seen it in their interest to be aggressively regulated, lobbying and political support from finance favors small-government oriented politicians, who are likely also skeptics about climate change. In short: much of the intellectual product of the world’s top universities (ie., the financial system) has been, in practice if not beliefs, at odds with a public response to climate change. This dynamic is shifting, as financial leaders like Hank Paulson, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg now openly speak out on climate.
Decoupling financial lobbying from anti-climate change advocacy would be a positive step in finding political solutions, and engaging the banking system fully will be the only way to finance the transition to a zero carbon economy. The world needs approximately $2T/year in energy investment to modernize, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Modernization will yield a strong ROI, as shown by multiple reviews including one from the International Monetary Fund. The IEA reports that costs rise the longer investment is delayed. The World Economic Forum calls 2015 a “make or break year for climate action.”
• None of the major US universities have fully divested their endowments from fossil fuels.
• Student divestment campaigns have been joined by faculty support at universities including Harvard and Stanford. Alumni support is developing, too: at Dartmouth, alumna and author Louise Erdrich put it this way: “Why should Dartmouth divest from fossil fuels? Because when you are educating students to have a better future, you should do all possible to ensure they have a future.”
• Fossil fuel markets themselves may force the issue, as markets absorb the information that two thirds of reserves cannot be burnt.
What is the relevant timetable for our choices in holding to the 2°C target? Carbon Brief puts it at about 21 years at current rates of emissions; in practice that means we have to begin rapid decarbonization now, to taper off to low levels, or zero carbon, by 2050. We have a vast amount of infrastructure to replace, and that takes time (and we will be emitting CO2 during all that time, while building the new systems).
As a sidenote to the mitigation challenge: the 21 year budget measures a “66% chance of 2°C” – not a 100% chance of success. Since FAA regulations would not permit you to get on an airplane that only had a 66% chance of reaching its destination, it’s worth noting how far our collective assessment of risk has drifted. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson details that point in a memorable video lecture, “Real Clothes for the Emperor.”
MIT has an online simulator so you can see the pace of emission cuts necessary against economic growth. Play ‘experiment 2,’ with ’20 year delay’ for smoothness.
Below are three simple behavioral steps to lead the way to a low carbon future, from among recommendations by Saul Griffith, David MacKayAngela Druckman and Tim Jackson:
1 – fly less (replace business trips with teleconference, take vacations closer to home)
2 – eat less meat
3 – buy less stuff that you’re going to throw away
• Saul Griffith’s slides. At slide 74, Griffith uses a personal energy budget of 2400 watts as a baseline, reached by dividing total worldwide energy (in this estimate, 16TW) by a world population of 6.65B, equalling 2400 watts per person. Griffith audited himself and found his 2007 lifestyle was 17,027 watts, largely from air travel. He’s now on a documented project to lead a rewarding life and raise his family in San Francisco on a personal budget of 2200 watts, and his choices look like this.
• You can design Britain’s energy plan for 2050 on a simple simulator
• James Hansen, NASA’s former top expert on climate, believes it is necessary, and possible, that the world stay well below 2°C. Fee and dividend, brought into play while energy prices are low, is part of his suggested solution. Read his current letter here.
• The farm at the top of this post is Featherstone Farm. Emmet Hedin’s father is Jack Hedin, who himself wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Climate change and the family farm”
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Studying urban resilience at Jamaica Bay

Jamaica Bay from the air, showing the extensive wetlands. (Wikimedia)

Jamaica Bay from the air, showing extensive wetlands once common to the region, here preserved as a National Park. (Wikimedia)

The meeting place of the new Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay used to be an airport. That the former Floyd Bennett Field now hosts information about the surrounding parkland and wildlife perhaps hints at the kind of flexible ‘resilience’ for which the institute aims. Resilience is not necessarily about preserving a landscape as it is today, in a fixed form, forever. It’s about understanding an area, and then managing it so that the valuable and integral qualities can continue despite environmental and human pressures.

Jamaica Bay is divided between Long Island and Queens. It is naturally a wetland but longtime development in the area, including the construction of Floyd Bennett Field and later JFK, the international airport that followed, caused destructive dredging, filling, and pollution of the Bay. It doesn’t adequately support many kinds of aquatic and bird populations anymore, but given that nearly 1 million New Yorkers live in the Jamaica Bay watershed, the stability of its ecosystem is important not only to wildlife, but to people. Hurricane Sandy had intense and lasting impacts on both the Bay and its surrounding communities, such as the Rockaways. 

The Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRI@JB), a CUNY initiative formed last year under Mayor Bloomberg, aims to study and enhance urban resilience. The work of the Institute will benefit not only Jamaica Bay, but the billions of people living in fragile urban ecosystems all over the world. 

This June, the Institute met to develop a report on resilience practice which will be published later this year. Dr. William Solecki, director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, City Atlas advisor, and director of the SRI@JB, led the scientists, academics, and urban planners who had gathered from many institutions, including Rutgers, Cornell, the Stevens Institute for Technology, the Parks Department, FEMA, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Lead authors of each chapter of the upcoming report presented. Then, workshop attendees divided into breakout groups to discuss how to best move forward with each chapter.  

The first chapter of the report will discuss resilience practice in urban watersheds. This chapter provides the context for how Jamaica Bay studies can inform policy for the upper bay, the lower bay, and many other urban watersheds. It uses the definition of resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity.” This was the central question of the day: resilience of what to what.

The bay, with JFK to the east and the Rockaways to the south. (Google)

The bay, with JFK on one side and the Rockaways on the other. (Google)

What is the Institute hoping to protect or manage?  Should ecological or social resilience be the focus? Do we want to increase oyster populations or flood protection for residents? Of course is impossible to separate these kinds of variables, because changes like an increase in oysters can mean better flood protection for residents, while more residents can mean decreased oyster populations. 

Slow changes, like urbanization, have influenced the Bay more than dramatic disturbances like Hurricane Sandy. 
In addition to deciding what parts of Jamaica Bay we value, we also have to decide what the disturbances are. Slow changes, like urbanization, have influenced the Bay more than dramatic disturbances like Hurricane Sandy. You can recognize the impact of a slow disturbance when the function of some part of the system is disrupted (For example, if the marshes collapse, that will disrupt the Bay’s function as a habitat for striped bass, among many other organisms. But the key disturbance isn’t the marsh collapse, it’s the imbalanced nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or problems with sediment which then cause the marsh collapse.) 

Another major challenge of the report is deciding how to make it most useful for the community, especially as one major goal of the Institute is to engage with and protect the people who live in the Jamaica Bay watershed. One attendee, who has worked with those living in the Rockaways since Hurricane Sandy, pointed out that most of the public doesn’t even know what resilience means. She said that there is a great amount of fear and mistrust in the area, especially among those who are not well informed about what’s going on. But the data is not getting to the most vulnerable populations, and when these people do try to participate, their contributions are shut out because they are thinking in a shorter time frame than the scientists. She said that, “At the end of the day, people want to know, ‘Should I move? Should I stay?’ ‘Should I raise my house up by 12 feet…or not?’” Nitrogen or hydrogen sulfide levels may be important parts of the answers to these questions, but they may not be crucial parts of the education the Institute should provide to the community. 

The leadership of the Institute is dedicated to outreach. Participants have been working with their database of 400 community organizations to use existing community structures to communicate with and learn from the people in and surrounding the Bay. Researchers for the Institute have interviewed community residents and leaders, and conducted presentations to open a dialogue with the public.

As one workshop participant said, it’s important that the community doesn’t think, “Oh, they’re just going to study it to death instead of doing anything.” This public contact underlines the importance of the work going on at SRI@JB; observing, learning, and finding solutions to one of the most pressing problems of our age—finding better ways to protect people and nature in coastal communities. 

LES gets a Big U: architecture + culture = resilience

On July 9, in the second year after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Community Board 3 of the Lower East Side heard presentations about plans to protect their community from future storms and rising sea levels. Daniel Zarrilli, who runs the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, introduced the Rebuild by Design BIG Team project, the Big U, and a study which evaluated the feasibility of a multi-purpose levee, previously referred to as Seaport City.

While the Big U and the potential multi-purpose levee are separate projects, the first phase of Big U starts just north of the seaport levee proposal, and ultimately the two designs will be integrated. They already share the goals of both enhanced flood protection and community development. The hope is that instead of just protecting from extreme weather events, the infrastructure will make the community more socially, economically, and environmentally resilient. 

The combined presentation on July 9 emphasized that the design process will be a dialogue. This follows June push-back from board members in reaction to a rendering of the proposed seaport levee that included high-rise buildings. At the subsequent meeting, the Southern Manhattan Coastal Protection Study representative stressed that the image was a mere rendering, not a land-use proposal. The team plans to closely involve the community in their planning efforts, and as construction of the still-conceptual seaport levee will take decades, they will have the time. 

Jeremy Siegel, a designer at BIG, an architecture and urban design firm with offices in Copenhagen and New York City, then presented on the progress of the Big U, a protective system wrapping around lower Manhattan that is part of the City’s broader resiliency plans.

The first section of levee will start at Montgomery and go north to 23rd Street.

The first section of levee will start at Montgomery and go north to 23rd Street.

The Big U received the largest portion of funding in the Rebuild by Design competition, $335 million, and because of its location will likely be the most visible component of the Rebuild series of projects. Construction is expected to begin in the next few years on the first section, a segment that stretches from Montgomery Street, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, north to 23rd Street.

“This is so exciting,” was the first comment from a board member after the presentation. The BIG team has engaged the community throughout their design process, including partnering with LESReady!, and at last week’s meeting, the community seemed satisfied with the current design. To succeed in creating coastal protection that also serves the people, levee projects will have to continue factoring in community concerns such as connectivity to the waterfront and the availability of affordable housing.

JEREMY SIEGEL has been a designer at BIG since 2010. The firm, headed by Bjarke Ingels who founded it in Copenhagen in 2005, is known for the award-winning Mountain Dwellings, the pyramidal housing coming to West 57th street, and other projects that include a waste-to-energy plant/ski slope. City Atlas spoke with Siegel about the design philosophy behind the Big U, the process of working with the community, and what New York City can learn from Copenhagen.

The Big U focuses on both flood protection and usable community space. You’ve mentioned how you chose to integrate the philosophies of both Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Did these two design goals ever conflict with each other? Did you ever feel like you had to compromise storm protection to create something the public would use and enjoy? 

No, certainly not. I think where you have to negotiate those two things, you find unexpected solutions that you wouldn’t really imagine beforehand. Just to summarize the Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses idea in a different way, it’s part of a line of projects that we think of as social infrastructure: infrastructure that serves a utilitarian purpose, but that can also serve as an opportunity for people or for other activities that make it something that people can use, that people can understand, and that people can love 365 days a year. 

One example of another project like this is a ski slope on a power plant that we’re constructing right now in Copenhagen, where we were asked to look at a waste-to-energy plant which has big buildings and a big smoke stack. We were asked to compete for, basically, a facade job that would beautify the plant. Rather than just beautifying it, we thought about how else that site could contribute to Copenhagen, and how it could be something that people could use. So, we actually proposed an artificial ski slope starting at the top, with a green, blue, and even a black diamond ski run, because you have a lot of snow in Copenhagen, but not a lot of topography. 

So, up and down the coast of the Lower East Side, we developed different ideas to respond to different concerns. For example, for the south what we heard was that views and security were a particularly sensitive thing, so all of our solutions there were aimed at maintaining visibility, and also security along the waterfront under the FDR, which is a place that faces some challenges already for access and security. We developed three options. One of them was a system of flip-down deployable panels that sit under the FDR and that flip down in the event of a storm. 

When they’re not flipped down, they act as a canvas for public art for local artists, and they also have lighting integrated, so that it becomes this kind of secure ribbon of public space to walk through at night. Rather than being something that increases the problems with security there, it actually helps to make it a safer place.

From rebuildbydesign.org

Public art doubling as flood protection. From rebuildbydesign.org

We heard that it would be great to be able to accommodate more recreation, things like Ping-Pong and Tai Chi and basketball and skating under the FDR. So for that, we developed something called the Big Bench, which is a four-foot element that acts as a platform for all these different things. There’s seating, basketball courts, and so on. And because it’s only 4 feet tall, you can see over it. It also acts as a passive barrier for most storm events, but then in the case of a 100-year probability storm event, it acts as a foundation for a set of deployables. About 90% of the cost of a system like this is actually in the foundation, so if you have that already, that’s big. 

That’s one example of how seemingly conflicting needs: the need to contribute to the urban environment and to provide use for people, and then the need to protect, actually come together in a kind of unexpected way when you try to solve them. 

I read a quote from Bjarke Ingels, the founder of BIG, about how our society can change to become more sustainable. He said that, “It’s not about changing our behavior – it’s about designing our society in a smarter way.” I’m wondering if you think design can ultimately change behavior. For example, will the reverse aquarium that’s a part of the Big U encourage people to be mindful of climate change, and to, in turn, change their behavior? How can projects like the Big U alter our engagement with our surroundings? 

I think totally, you can already see it happening a little bit in places. For example, Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of the first places along the waterfront in the city where you can actually get down close to the water, to the salt marsh, and it’s one of the most spectacular open spaces in the city right now. And that didn’t really exist a few years ago. So, I think you’re already seeing that kind of thing. Imagine if you didn’t have to go to the Hamptons to have a swim, but you could just hop into the East River. I think if you provide the opportunities for that kind of thing people will start to change their understanding of how to use the water, what the potential is of the water body that surrounds the city. 

I think you picked up on what we were going for with the reverse aquarium, which is that you can actually, once you’re on the other side of the berm, observe tidal change and the gradual rise of sea level at the tip of this incredibly dense city. For us, that really brings it home, just as a matter of recounting the story, or allowing people to discover the story. There’s the simple fact that the edge of water is there at the glass, and if you start marking where it is now, where it is in a year, two years, three years, four years, five years, it’s evidence of something. 

The reverse aquarium. From rebuildbydesign.org

The reverse aquarium. From rebuildbydesign.org

BIG is based in Copenhagen. What does New York have to learn from Copenhagen?

I think quite a bit. For one, in terms of relationships with the water. One of our first projects [in Copenhagen] was actually on the occasion of the water becoming so clean in the harbor that you could swim in it. We were asked to do a Harbor Bath, which we built and it’s a wooden structure that sits in the harbor that contains a series of pools, each one of them deeper, and the last one simply being the water of the harbor protected by this wooden structure with a diving board. It’s one of the best used places in Copenhagen in the summer. It’s a great thing to have access to the water in that way, and also to have access to the great things about being in a city, density and everything that comes with it.

I think another thing, of course, is the bike. It’s a very clean, healthy, and efficient way of moving around the city, and it’s key to moving around in Copenhagen – almost half the city bikes to work and school each day. So we have definitely been looking at every opportunity we can with the Big U to reinforce coastal bike connections, so any sort of a park along a berm we look at as a potentially beautiful, scenic bike path that could meander as the berm meanders, almost like in Santa Monica Beach or Venice Beach where you have these meandering bike paths. 

That’s a matter of mobility, it’s a matter of getting cars off of the FDR because you can take a bike instead. The more cars we can get off the FDR, the closer we get to being able to close the FDR down or think about an alternative to giant highways on our coastlines. So you find that all these things are really linked. 

The Big U received 335 million dollars of the Rebuild by Design Funding, but that won’t be enough to cover your full design proposal. HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, which funded Rebuild by Design) decided what part of your proposal to fund. What factored into this decision? 

We did a conceptual cost estimate for all three compartments within the focus scope from Battery to 23rd. There’s one compartment running from 23rd to Montgomery, one from Montgomery to Brooklyn Bridge, and another running from Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery. Each work on their own to protect a separate piece of the city, and each can be built on their own. As proposed, each of the three compartments cost out between roughly 300 and 500 million dollars, and all told it’s about 1.2 billion dollars that we estimated to protect these four and a half miles of coastline. As part of that, we recommended that HUD fund what we thought would be a meaningful and implementable and functioning component of the plan, which was for compartment one, running from 23rd street to Montgomery.

From rebuildbydesign.org

From rebuildbydesign.org

We identified that compartment for a few reasons. One is that it’s simply one of the deepest areas of the floodplain. There’s about 620 acres being protected there, about 130,000 people, 86,000 of whom are low income, elderly, or disabled. So, in terms of risk, both in the future and also as was demonstrated during Sandy, it made a lot of sense as a place to start.

The second piece of it was the fact that along almost one and a half miles of this 2.2 mile stretch, all the land ownership is contained within New York City Parks jurisdiction, which makes implementation a lot more streamlined. Having one client, one clearinghouse for all the logistical issues was an attractive thing. Because it’s also a mile and a half of a continuous condition, where you have a park, a highway, and a city, we had the opportunity there to do a project which is entirely passive. When I say passive I mean permanent in that it doesn’t require deployable elements at the intersection of the street grid and the water.

Along the Big U, wherever the street grid intersects with the water, we generally specify a deployable barrier in order to keep the views and access out to the water clear. That of course does pose challenges for maintenance, upkeep, and storage of those elements. Across the whole system, to reduce risk as much as possible, you want to put in place as much permanent, passive infrastructure as possible.

We’re able to do that with the East River Park berm because there is no access to the water to begin with. You have to get over the FDR, and you have to do that by bridge, so the berm is continuous and we’re actually improving connections to the water by introducing these bridges, which is why we call it the Bridging Berm. It’s also entirely earthen, which is proven to be the most straightforward and effective way of creating a storm surge barrier, with a wide earthen levee. And we also feel that it creates a great impact from an urban design perspective, just because of the unrealized potential of that mile and a half stretch.

One potential concern of a project like Rebuild by Design is that the adaptation to larger storm events distracts from climate change mitigation. As in, citizens relax because they feel like they are protected from the threat of rising sea levels, and then our society doesn’t transition away from fossil fuels, and we end up with even higher sea levels. Can an adaptation project like the Big U also contribute to climate mitigation? 

Well I think it comes back to what we touched on earlier, where whenever we try to solve an issue of protecting a neighborhood we also try to solve other urban design issues in that neighborhood. I think that does come back to your point about mitigation because when you start to deal with transportation, which is always a concern along the coastline, because so much transportation infrastructure sits along the coastline, you’re immediately looking at ways to make use of space more efficient – biking for example is one way to do it.

Once you start getting people on bikes, and then you start getting autonomous vehicles in the city, even more opportunities open up. Autonomous vehicles are much more efficient, they can pack closely together, they offer a huge range of possibilities for decreasing the amount of area of the city that’s overtaken by highway infrastructure and road infrastructure. 

You start to think, okay, what if in 50 years we need to expand this protective landscape to accommodate accelerated climate change? Or climate change decelerates but we simply need more public space for a growing population? You already start to think about how transportation and the transitions you make now might make those things easier in the future.

There’s also the addition of green space, both in the park and within the city itself, as a means of accommodating or managing storm-water capture of precipitation in a natural way, as green infrastructure. That’s a water management tool, but it also contributes to a healthier environment. It encourages exercise and being outdoors. It also tempers the climate in the case of both increased rain events and heat events, which then of course affects building performance, which in turns contributes to decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

I think one of the great things we’ve found about dealing with resiliency is that when you deal with resiliency at the scale of a neighborhood, you end up really working on everything about that neighborhood, because everything is so interlinked and water goes everywhere. So in that sense, adaptation and mitigation are not so separate.

From rebuildbydesign.org

The community and the future of the city will benefit from more public green space. From rebuildbydesign.org

Can you tell me a bit about the process of community engagement you had in the design of the Big U? What did you learn from working with the community? 

After four months we had developed the idea for the Big U. We had developed some very initial ideas about how conditions might change along the 10 miles but we really hadn’t dug in yet. What HUD required of us immediately was to meet with every local, city, and state entity that might have anything to do with a project like this, and also, really importantly, the community groups in this focus area of the Lower East Side, which was a focus that was requested by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency. So we ended up meeting with 44 organizations in the course of 16 weeks, 22 government agencies, and collectively I think probably between 500 and 1,000 individual people by the end. 

We actually were designing as we went. What we started with was looking at the waterfront and doing our own research to figure out what planning had been done in the past. That was the one of the things that the community organizations we worked with told us immediately, ‘We’ve had almost 15 years of planning here, and nothing’s happened. It would be good if you looked at these things and figured out what it is that’s come up time and again, and why it hasn’t worked.’ So we did that, and we started to get a sense of overall what the major planning intentions were for this area. It was about connecting back into the city better. It was about ecological restoration along the coastline. It was about more programming along the waterfront with free and non-commercial uses, better bike access, better public transit, etc.

And then we started to dig in just as designers. We started to say, ‘Okay what’s the range of possibilities here, from anything like a simple engineered flood wall, to something that incorporates elements of urban furniture, to something that’s more like a building, to something at the scale of a landscape, or even, what happens if we bury the FDR and put a protective park on top of that?’ So we made models of these things and we came to the community groups in a very open way. We said, ‘These represent the conditions, we don’t know what makes sense where yet, we have some ideas that we can talk about with you, but we really want to hear what you think about these things.’ 

That was the content of our first workshops and we really did come to some decisions – for example it was unclear whether a berm at the back or front of East River Park would make most sense. We slowly learned that the back of the park would make sense despite the fact that the park would flood increasingly. We learned that the city and the neighborhood were comfortable with the idea of the park gradually transforming over time – and that to maintain views from the park out to the water, and to maintain the recently built promenade would be a desirable thing.

So then we went back to the drawing board. It was actually an incredibly short amount of time, between our first round of design workshops and our second. It was a week and a half. That first week we basically just brought the whole team into New York, from the Netherlands, from Denmark, from around the city, and we walked up and down our four-and-a-half miles and we essentially, I would say there was a day when we really nailed down what, in broad strokes, the major design elements should be from 23rd Street to the Battery. And then we spent another week developing and visualizing them. Then we went straight back, because we didn’t have a lot of time until final, we went straight back to LESReady!, and I would say we did a workshop with about 60-70 people on the North side, and then the same on the South side, with that material. There we were able to get really specific feedback on how these things would affect very specific areas. We took that, and had about a month to develop that into our final proposal. That was our process.

But the challenge is really how to enhance the public’s relationship to the very water we’re figuring out how to effectively hold back. Of course to get this right, it will absolutely require shifts in how government agencies, municipal service providers who will maintain waterfront parkways and parks, and regulators, play a role today and how they help plan for the future. We’re excited to work with the city and with all of these players to imagine a range of new ways that cities can become more resilient economically, environmentally, and socially, and the Lower East Side is a great place to start.

DJs & and sculpture blend on Saturdays at MoMA PS1 Warm Up

All photos by Maureen Drennan

All photos by Maureen Drennan.

City Atlas attended Warm Up at MoMA PS1 to dance, give out our temporary tattoos (designs by Sascha Mombartz), and hang out in a fungi sculpture. Warm Up, an outdoor music series, will take place every Saturday through September 6 in the courtyard of MoMA PS1. The courtyard also features ‘Hy-Fi,’ this year’s winner of the 15th annual Young Architects Program. Designed by the Living, a New York architecture firm, it is built entirely of bricks made of mushroom structures and discarded corn stalks. The bricks are organic and compostable. The Living designed ‘Hy-Fi’ to funnel warm air up through its open top, making it the perfect place to sit and take a break from dancing. If that’s not enough, there’s also a pool.

After wandering through the exhibits in MoMA PS1, we found a spot near ‘Hy-Fi’ to spread out our City Atlas tattoos, talk to attendees about their New York, and take portraits (see below). We met fashion designers, architects, law students, event planners, and one man who thinks that all New York City needs is for the Halal food trucks “to be a little better.” There wasn’t consensus on this though. Another man told us that he loves “everything” about New York, especially its “really good falafel.”

We met a woman who went by “Hongjikita” when she attended Parsons. She now lives in Seoul, but was temporarily in New York, and spoke about the complicated relationship so many have with the city. “There’s no place like this,” she said, “and then you really miss it. You like it more when you’re gone.” She believes that New York can be a lonely place and that it’s important to find resting places, some of hers were Madison Square Park and Washington Square Park, to take a break from the city. But Hongjikita also loves the frenetic variety of New York. The many different kinds of people make it an accepting place, and learning how to live among all those people can lead to personal growth. She said, “I felt like to engage with the city, you needed to engage with yourself first.”

Honjikita also admitted that New York still has something to learn from Korea. She explains that in Korea you recycle even your eggshells, use food scraps to feed animals, and have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery store. She compares this to the U.S., where the plastic forks you get at a deli are strong enough to use forever, but are thrown away after one use.

Another Warm Up attendee, David Preston, shared the hope that New York will become greener. He wants to see more projects like the High Line, and more vertical parks and farms. Preston, who lives in Jersey City, also thinks New York needs electric rails. Several others mentioned that New York should develop better subway access and faster travel.

Yet, Antony, an architect who moved here from Italy, said that, “All of the things I want to see in the future are here.”

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The business case for fast action on climate

Henry Paulson, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

Henry Paulson, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said Tuesday morning, “A ‘business as usual’ approach is actually radical risk taking.” If American business does not mitigate climate change now, it can’t decide to get rid of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere later. The fact that carbon dioxide doesn’t go away once it’s been emitted is what leads Paulson to call the risks of climate change “much more perverse and cruel than we saw with the financial crisis.” The government can bailout banks, there’s no comparable opportunity for an atmosphere bailout.

Paulson was speaking upon the release of “A Climate Risk Assessment For the United States,” a report by the Risky Business project, a group formed to evaluate the economic risks of climate change in the United States. Risky Business is chaired by Paulson, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The risk and impact of climate change is more cruel than the financial crisis — Paulson
Tuesday morning, Bloomberg referenced the saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” He explained that until today there was no way to measure the serious risk posed to our economy. The report quantifies the economic threat of climate change, estimating the annual cost of hurricanes and other coastal storms to be $35 billion within the next 15 years, that between $60 and $106 billion of existing coastal property will be below sea level by 2050, a decline of national commodity crop production (corn, soy, wheat, cotton) of 14 percent by mid-century and up to 42-percent by late century, and increased heat-related mortality with ll,000 to 36,000 more deaths annually in the Southeast alone by the end of the century.

The report presents only the average consequences of not acting on climate change. Committee members Robert Rubin, also a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, and Alfred Sommer, the former Dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, stress that it’s important to remember the tail-ends of the threats evaluated in the report. Rubin said that the report “vastly understates what we face” due to unpredictable feedback loops.

Yet, even the averages presented in the assessment are harrowing, and the team hopes that they encourage American businesses to prepare for and mitigate climate change. Paulson said that, “If we act immediately, we can avoid the very worst outcomes.” This will not only prevent future harm to the American people, but act as insurance for the future profits of corporations. Bloomberg also pointed out that today CEOs are being held accountable for a wide variety of factors, and suggested that if they don’t prepare for the worst-case climate scenario, they should prepare for retirement.

Companies should inform investors about emissions they might be accountable for in the future
Paulson explained that the bipartisan group formed to agree on the nature of the problem, not to decide on one solution to the problem. They do acknowledge the need for both corporate and political action, and believe that the calculation of a company’s value should include how they are responding to climate change. “This study is basically about quantifying reality,” Steyer said. Companies should provide information to investors about the emissions they might be accountable for in the future, which of their assets may become stranded, and the baseline set of effects climate change might have on their business. 

Measuring and publicly providing these numbers will ultimately reward those companies who are lessening the risk of climate change, and penalize those who are adding to it. Crucially, once companies and investors quantify their vulnerability to climate change, it will create greater incentive to reduce emissions. Bloomberg explained that his company is transitioning because he wants to sleep at night. He said, “People have got to understand that it’s for their wellbeing.”

The lethargy of American business so far regarding climate change has been blamed on an inability to focus on longterm, and not immediate, risks. But, this morning Paulson emphasized the immediacy of the risks of climate change. Rising sea levels are already threatening places such as the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, and Bloomberg today cited Sandy as an example of what New York City will likely see more of soon.

Now that the risks of climate change to America’s economy, measured specifically by sector and region in the report, have been so clearly delineated, perhaps American business and government will account for the true costs of carbon emissions. Business as usual is no longer an option. Companies should prepare to adapt to increasing temperatures and extreme weather events, but more urgently, they should work together now to reduce the risks of climate change that become reality.

The world slackline championship comes to Central Park

Toru “Gap­pai” Osugi from Japan, mid-flip (Photo: Abigail Carney)

Toru “Gap­pai” Osugi from Japan, mid-flip


“This is the first time this has happened in the world, ever,” said one of the announcers at the
World Slackline Federation World Championships. New York had never before hosted a slackline championship, but this Saturday, eight competitors from across the world balanced and flipped backward and fell hard, with grace, onto a bright yellow mat in front of the Central Park bandshell. Beside them, New Yorkers and tourists struggled just to make it across the beginner slacklines. These side-by-side events were what the Adventures NYC 10 Year Anniversary Weekend was all about: displaying the high-caliber outdoor opportunities the city holds, but making them accessible to newcomers.

At Adventures NYC, you could kayak, rock climb, paddle-board, play wheelchair basketball, fly fish in the grass, try salmon jerky, throw an L.L. Bean Boot for the chance to win a miniature L.L. Bean Boot, and wait in line for free Ben & Jerry’s. Despite the corporate presence at the event, it was an introduction to forgoing the computer-bound work­day of the city and getting outside.

Last summer, I lived in Alaska. I climbed mountains, ocean kayaked, and talked loudly when hiking alone so that I wouldn’t surprise any bears. I was thrilled to move to New York this summer, but not for its outdoor adventure. I imagined that I would spend a lot of time in an air-conditioned gym. I was wrong.

Beside the four climbing walls at Adventures NYC sat Kevin Jorgeson. Jorgeson is a professional, champion climber. He’s currently in the midst of a five year effort to free climb the world’s hardest big wall, The Dawn Wall, on Yosemite’s El Capitan. But Saturday he was in Central Park under the Adidas tent, signing posters.

Jorgeson’s girlfriend has a place in Brooklyn, and so when he’s not in California (where he’s from), or on a climbing trip, which is often, he is in New York. Jorgeson says to “withhold judgement of the city itself.” He doesn’t mean New York, but all cities, because if you look for it, every city can be wild.

He recently traveled to Reno and expected that it would be “a mini-Vegas in the middle of Nevada.” Instead, he found a clean mountain town. “You can climb, you can kayak, you can hike all in the same day,” Jorgeson says. “And it’s right there. You wouldn’t know it unless you went there and looked around a little bit.”

It turns out that there is climbing right in Central Park, even when there aren’t rock walls set up. Jorgeson tells me that there is a good bit by Columbus Circle, and then various opportunities throughout the park.

“If you live in New York and you’re not looking for outdoor stuff,” Jorgeson says, “you’ll stay on the streets and you’ll be inside all the time. But if you come to New York and you’re looking to be outside, you don’t have to look very hard.” Behind Jorgeson, a small child in a baseball cap takes careful handholds as he climbs a rock wall for the first time. The plastic rocks are spaced so far apart that it seems unlikely he can reach any of them, but he’s certain, simply looks up, and then grabs.

Frederick Law Olmsted famously designed Central Park as a place to get lost in. Within the funhouse paths and masses of sunbathers it’s easy to find something you’ve never done, ever. You can boulder or set up a slack-line. Because it’s New York, there will probably be someone around who can teach you how, or at least tell you what it is that you are doing wrong.

And once you get out of Central Park, there’s camping at Floyd Bennett Field, a collection of rivers to kayak, not so far away mountains, and an entire ocean, with many chances to wait in line for ice cream on the way.

“You’re gonna find what you look for,” Jorgeson says. “So look for what you want.”

Photos: Abigail Carney

 

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Slackline3Jaan Roose from Astonia

Jaan Roose from Astonia

Gay Talese and a city of permanent change

Photo by Darryl Estrine. From randomhouse.com

Photo by Darryl Estrine.

Gay Talese tells me that he does not have dire notions about the future of New York. He has lived here since 1953 and has seen the city, in many ways, attacked. But a lot of streets have not changed, and what makes New York, New York, has not changed either.

“It’s a city of optimism and city of change and even bad news changes very quickly here,” he says.

He came to New York after graduating from the University of Alabama. The New York Times hired him as a copy boy. Gay says that in a way it was the most important job that he ever had at the paper, where he would later work as a staff reporter.

When you are a reporter, Gay explains, you have to go out into the city and interview people, chase down the mayor, watch a strike, talk to firemen who have hosed down a burning building. But as a copy boy, you are free to observe the secretaries, clerks, publishers, reporters, editors, advertising directors, floor sweepers, window washers, and elevator operators.

“This is perfect material for me,” he says. “Because I am very curious about ordinary people, not the people who make the news.”

The stories of the people at the New York Times would become his first bestseller, The Kingdom and the Power.

Gay Talese left his job as a New York Times reporter when he was 33 years old. He had already published his first book, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, about the people he saw on the streets, and his second, about the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Gay did not find another place of employment. Instead, he worked out of his house, or rather, below his house. From there, he wrote profiles for Esquire that would becomes classics and books that would become bestsellers, and helped to define literary journalism.

Gay opens his front door—which is being repainted by a man dressed in white who asks who I am here to see—with a hat in his hand. He offers me a seat, and then a drink, and then suggests that we visit what he calls his bunker.

We walk out of the house, then down the steps to the sidewalk where we say hello to the painter. Gay unlocks a door at the house’s right corner. He tells me to slam the door behind me, to be careful on the steps, to hold the banister.

There are no windows in the bunker. There is no telephone. You cannot hear the cars on the street. Gay comes here at 9 or 10 in the morning, and then stays and works until 2 or 3. He follows this routine nearly every day of the week, and it is a routine he has kept since he left the New York Times more than 50 years ago.

The walls, the floor, and the ceiling of the bunker are cream colored. Boxes are stacked up to the ceiling along the left wall. Each box contains the notes for a book or profile and is collaged with mementos from the project: photographs, magazine clippings, the name of the subject. The boxes for Thy Neighbor’s Wife feature nude photos.

At the first desk is the large typewriter with which Gay first writes his stories. At the next desk is a clunky desktop computer that still looks too modern for the rest of the room.

There is a vase of red Calla lilies, a potted tree, a poster that reads: “Mondadori dà il benvenuto in Italia a Gay Talese autore di La donna d’altri.” Red file cabinets along the back wall are full of meticulously dated and catalogued notes from life and reporting. Gay takes notes on shirt boards which he cuts to fit into the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Today, his blazer is cream colored and matches the vest beneath it. When I first walked in, he noticed, and then complimented my dress. Gay’s father was a tailor, and Gay dresses impeccably.

“I buy very few things,” he says. “And I can wear them forever. And if you buy things that are fashioned or stylized in a classical way, they’re never out of fashion. You create your own fashion.”

Gay puts on a jacket and a hat each morning before he walks down into the bunker, even though he will not see anyone there in the day.

“I don’t have lunch with people,” he says. “I don’t want to have lunch. I want to have dinner and I do. Every night. I go out to a New York restaurant. I like to have the city at night with a lot of people around. I like big crowds. I go to restaurants. I go to movies. I go to theater.”

Tonight, Gay and his wife, Nan, will meet the son of Eddy Duchin, the pianist and bandleader, and his wife for dinner at La Veau d’Or, a restaurant that opened in 1937. Peter Duchin is a pianist and bandleader like his father. Despite all the newcomers, many people in the city, such as Peter Duchin, work and live in the tradition of family, and the tradition of New York. Gay points out that the same family has owned the New York Times since 1896.

“All over New York,” he says, “there are grocery stores, there are hardware stores that are family owned, that have been there 3 or 4 generations, struggling to adapt to the new technology, to changing tastes of customers, to all the changes that come about as the way of making a living is altered. And there are people whose grandfathers and fathers before them used to ride these tourist wagon horses in Central Park. Now there are people wanting to get rid of those horses, get rid of those wagons.”

Gay, the son of an Italian immigrant, understands that this tension is one of the constants here. He stayed in New York because, “I didn’t have to be a foreign correspondent. New York was a foreign city. It still is. It changes but it’s made up, as I said when we first sat down, of a lot of newcomers, with new ideas, new languages.” It is a foreign city full of old family businesses. Skyscrapers that are nearly one hundred years old rest beside what Gay calls “glass monstrosities.” The newcomers and the new buildings do not remake the city, they maintain its energy, its optimism, the sense that perhaps things here will be better than they were in Italy or Ohio. New York is a city that does not change, precisely because it remains a city of change.

It is a city of construction, and this too is a family tradition. This year there will be a reissue of the 1964, The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, which Gay wrote while still at the New York Times. When not in the office, he went to the bridge to get the stories of the men who were hanging on cables.

Gay reissues his work because “when I finish a story, I don’t think it’s done. I think stories go on. The book that’s coming out this October, called The Bridge, is a 50 year old revival. It’s got a facelift, it’s got Botox, I mean it’s got a new face in a way. But it’s got the same heart, which was individual risk-taking construction. Individuals climbing high altitudes, 300, 400, 500 feet to connect steel and build something like a skyscraper, build something like a bridge, that lasts forever.”

For the new edition, Gay found the descendants of the men who worked on the bridge. He met a man, Joseph Spratt, whose father was a bridge builder and whose grandfather was a bridge builder. Gay tells me that when he interviewed Joseph earlier this year, he said that:

During this New Year’s Eve holidays, Christmas Eve holidays, he was helping to put up the tower on the World Trade Center, the new Number One tower. And he said he got up there, you know it’s 104 stories, and then it’s got the antenna on top of it, I don’t know how much taller that makes it. He was up there with numbers of other guys his age wearing hard hats working at his business. High altitude work. He said as he looked from the World Trade Center, downtown, down the river, he saw the Verrazano Bridge. And he remembered his grandfather. Then he turned around and looked uptown, and he saw the building that’s over Madison Square Garden, and he thought of his father who was up there doing that. And he said he looked around at these other guys who were his age, up there, at the World Trade Center peak, looking around the city of New York, and they saw all these tall buildings. On the East Side, on the West Side, north and south, down Wall Street, up toward Harlem. All these tall buildings you could still see, him and these other guys. And he was saying, ‘The skyline of New York is a family tree for us.’

The skyline changes. But it stays familiar when you know the people who build it, and it stays familiar because the act of building has the same risk of hanging from cables at extraordinary heights. Technologies becomes obsolete, industry shifts, and the City plans flood walls and thinks about adding a storm surge barrier along the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but the act of moving forward is not new.

Gay has covered New York in great storms and great fires, a plane crash. But the street where he lives has not changed since he moved in in 1957. He passes through Central Park every day, and has done so for 60 years. He cannot imagine living anywhere else. He is 82 years old, and for the better part of the past six decades he has worked here, telling the stories of obscure people, and obscure stories of some not-obscure people.

He has never been a political writer. “God almighty,” he says. “Can you imagine covering the Senate for 3 or 4 or 5 years? I mean what a non-story that is. Day-by-day, nothingness.”

It is more than the tedium though. Gay never wanted to move from New York to Washington. And he never wanted to make political statements about a statement from the Senate that would mean nothing two days later, or to write a political opinion about a person who one can choose to see in many different ways.

“Too much instant politicization is instilled now more than ever,” Gay says. “Because everybody’s a commentator, everybody has a smartphone, a computer. They communicate with one another by the millions and make up, interpret, immediately interpret what in the not too distant future is deemed ridiculous.”

When Gay sees New York attacked, he does not politicize it.

“Once I saw New York when the electrical system failed,” Gay says. “The whole city was black. I was a reporter, I’m guessing it was 1965, I think it was. And when I covered the city, my first thought was, ‘Who do I want to interview?’ And I thought, ‘Ah, I want to interview blind people.’ So I started, I went over to the Lighthouse which is the center for blind people here, on 59th street. And I watched blind people wandering around the city. Everybody was blind except them.”

Everybody except them and Gay Talese, who was watching them. Gay does not only observe and talk with ordinary people, he is an expert at it. Before I leave the bunker, he has worked out the problems with my romantic life, learned what I have common with my brother, and explained to me how to finish my profile of a woman who works in a plastic surgery practice (his answer: see her naked).

Gay’s genius as a writer is in his ability to see things from so many points of view. He recognizes that every time there is a change toward the new and the good for someone, for someone else there is an accompanying inconvenience or loss of a job. You can think of a place as polluted, and you can also remember why it is so.

“My father was born in Calabria,” Gay says, “which is the poorest part of Italy. It’s the toe of the boot. And he would say when he came to America, which he did in 1922, he’d hear people complaining in America about the industrialization, ‘Oh too much pollution in the air, too much industry, too many cars, too many busses.’ And he’d say, ‘You know, where I come from, Calabria, it’s farm land, hill country, mountains. It has got the purest air in the world and people are starving to death.’ Wonderful atmosphere, wonderful air, unpolluted sky. People are starving to death.”

His father believed that if you wanted fresh air you should go to Calabria, where “You can find all the fresh air you want.” You do not come to New York for fresh air. You come because you didn’t like where you were.

“It’s a city of news and newcomers,” Gay says.

In New York, they become copy boys, reporters, mayors, bridge builders, bandleaders. There is always news, and there are always stories that come not from an interview with a politician or a baseball player, but from sitting down with an ordinary person.

Gay calls his reporting, “The art of hanging out.”

This, then is the way to get at New York and see how its heart remains. The horse-drawn carriages keep riding through Central Park. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge still runs from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Le Veau d’Or goes on serving boeuf bourguignon and moules de roches. The streets stay full of people not speaking in their first languages. And Gay keeps taking notes on shirt boards from conversations with men and women from all over.

“It’s a foreign city of people from elsewhere who have a lot to give,” he says. “But not only a lot to give, but sometimes a difficult time explaining it.”

Photo by Bruce Davidson, 1964. Gay at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Photo by Bruce Davidson, 1964. Gay Talese at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

An alternative to cap and trade for the Clean Power Plan

Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, signed new regulations for power plants.

Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator, signed new regulations for carbon pollution Monday.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations to cut carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will choose their own paths to meet the emissions goals. They can work alone to develop individual plans or collaborate with other states. State plans are not due until June 2016, and states can use a two-step process to submit their final plans later if more time is needed.

It is expected that many states will implement cap-and-trade policies to comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan. Under cap and trade, companies must purchase permits from the government that allow them to emit set levels of greenhouse gases. There is a set number of permits, and the costs of the permits rise as the number of permits issued drops. The policy is meant to create financial incentive for industries to reduce emissions and increase efficiency. A cap-and-trade program that launched in California last year has so far been successful at raising the price of carbon, to over $11 per ton, 60 percent above the European price, and higher than that in any cap and trade market.

Europe has had many problems with cap and trade since its implementation in 2006. These failures largely resulted from preliminary dishonest emission rates reporting by fossil fuel corporations, and the lack of a mechanism to prevent the extreme dip in carbon prices that accompanied the 2008 and 2009 financial crises. The European system hasn’t significantly increased the price of carbon or lowered emissions, and what carbon price increase has occurred has been largely felt by consumers at the pump, not reflected in reformed industry practices. In addition, the market for carbon offsets, which industries can purchase to offset their carbon emissions, has been beleaguered by offsets that don’t fully recover the amount of released carbon.

In America, the biggest failure of cap and trade has been for it to gain enough political momentum for any overarching policy. Even if a policy was widely adopted and aggressive enough to allow for a significant increase in the price of carbon, climate scientists like James Hansen, and politicians like former Republican senator Bob Inglis still question the effectiveness of cap and trade as a climate change solution. Problems include inadequate carbon offsets, fluctuations in carbon prices, false reporting by corporations, opportunities for the government to give away permits, the burden on consumers, and the fact that cap and trade is a complicated, bureaucratic system. According to James Hansen, “cap and trade increases the cost of energy for the public, as utilities and other industries purchase the right to pollute with one hand, adding it to fuel prices, while with the other hand they take back most of the permit revenues from the government.” He points out that the costs of the trading infrastructure must also be paid by the public. In addition the “cap” of cap and trade ensures a certain level of pollution. Hansen explains that “if every polluter’s emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear.” An alternative to cap and trade, long favored by James Hansen, which Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed in the Climate Protection Act of 2013, is called “fee and dividend.”  

Fee and dividend, like cap and trade, creates an effective tax on carbon. The fee is based on the tons of carbon dioxide the fuel would generate, and is collected at the earliest point of entry into the economy, not at the pump like in cap and trade. Then, instead of that fee going back to the government, like a true tax, it is paid to citizens as a dividend. Boxer and Sanders’s bill proposed that three-fifths of the dividend would be paid directly to the American citizen, to help the citizen recover from increased energy costs, and two-fifths back to the government for investments in renewable energy.

Senators Boxer and Sanders propose The 2013 Climate Protection Act

Senators Boxer and Sanders propose The 2013 Climate Protection Act

Fee and dividend has some advantages over cap and trade. Under fee and dividend, there are no carbon credits or offset credits to manipulate, and no carbon traders and offset investors who can work the market for profit. After several years, companies who do not adapt to use less carbon-heavy fossil fuels become disadvantaged, but this change is gradual, and allows the companies who take action to become more efficient and competitive. The free market selects the winning and losing technology along the lines of what is also best for the climate. As the cost of fossil fuels rise, low-emissions and carbon efficiency practices become economically competitive. In 2008, British Columbia implemented fee and dividend. Per capita consumption of petroleum fuels in the province dropped 17.4 percent, while national Canadian consumption of petroleum fuel grew by 1.5 percent in the same period.

The RSA Action and Research Centre Report, “A New Agenda on Climate Change,” is in favor of fee and dividend but admits that, “its simplicity breaks down when you are not dealing with domestic fossil fuel production but with imports.” In this case, the only option is to charge a fee to the fuel importer. If other countries are not also charging fees, this can threaten energy security. However, even if fee and dividend only influenced domestic production, it would have a tremendous result, as the U.S. currently produces and exports immense amounts of energy from coal and oil.

If a national cap-and-trade or fee-and-dividend policy is implemented, and carbon prices rise, this will be a victory, but many economists and climate change scientists believe that it is impossible to rely on existing financial markets to halt climate change. Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, calls instead for “a comprehensive and regulatory and standard-based framework.” Anderson points out that under any market scheme:

Professors, MPs, ministers, business leaders, GPs, barristers, etc. would all be able to absorb a significant proportion of any politically-acceptable carbon price. So we may buy a slightly more efficient 4WD/SUV, cut back a little on our frequent flying, consider having a smaller second home where we may even choose an A+ retro Smeg fridge- freezer (the A++ being a little too ‘modern’ looking) – but overall we’d carry on with our business as usual.

This view suggests that the only real solution to climate change is to reform the behaviors of the upper class who will always be able to afford high-carbon lifestyles. This means convincing people to drive less, buy less, and fly less, before the unlikely efficient electric airplane, the unlikely advent of clean fuel, or the unlikely political reality that flights become too expensive for those with high incomes.

Anderson continues to point out that as the wealthier echelons continue to consume, the poorer members of society, who will also be hit hardest by climate change, will be hurt by higher fuel prices. Anderson imagines that they:

would have to cut back still further in heating their inadequately insulated and badly designed rented properties. Their children would perhaps begin to suffer more bronchial problems as their houses become colder and damper; so more trips to the doctor – but the increased price of road fuel makes this more expensive.

This is a bleak portrait of a world in which carbon is expensive, and perhaps cynically ignores the possibility of renewable energy that would allow for home heating and travel that is no more expensive than it is currently. Anderson does highlight the reality that the technology isn’t yet there for our current levels of energy consumption to be supplied with renewable energy that is both efficient and affordable. Our energy demand must change too.

However, policies such as cap and trade, or the more straightforward fee and dividend, would encourage the innovation of clean energy. Any move on fossil fuel policy in the United States away from its reliance on carbon is positive, especially as it may signify and encourage the broad societal change that is so crucial today. States have the freedom to decide how to meet the new EPA carbon pollution standards. Cap and trade, fee and dividend, a flat carbon tax, investments in renewable energy, and behavioral shifts all have the same end goal: to keep carbon in the ground. Any policy that leads toward this goal is a good one.

Apply for a MillionTreesNYC mini-grant

From MillionTreesNYC

From MillionTreesNYC

Do you want to support the urban forest in your neighborhood, or help it grow?

MilllionTreesNYC, one of the 132 PlaNYC initiatives, is a program that will lead the planting and care of one million new trees across the City in the next decade. These one million new trees will increase the City’s urban forest area by 20%. Urban trees improve air quality, unite neighborhoods, decrease storm water runoff, increase real estate values, and reduce heating and cooling costs. And they look beautiful when they get big. The City of New York will plant 70% of the trees in parks and other public spaces. The other 30% will be planted by private organizations, homeowners, and community groups.

This year, MillionTreesNYC is offering grants to empower community groups to care for and plant new trees in their neighborhoods. May 26 is the deadline to apply for a MillionTreesNYC 2014 Mini-Grant. Grants of up to $1000 are available for tree care projects and reforestation stewardship projects.

Street tree care projects will involve the care of at least 20 young trees. Any kind of community organization is eligible to apply.

To be considered for a reforestation stewardship grant, the project must include at least one reforestation event or workday between June-November 2014 involving at least 20 community members or volunteers. The grant is only available to NAVigators who have completed 12 independent volunteer hours. To become a NAVigator, you can participate in Natural Areas Volunteers, a program that trains and supports volunteers in ecological projects across the city. NAVigators are needed to help MillionTreesNYC sites grow into healthy forests.

Last year, various recipients of the grant across each of the 5 boroughs mulched and watered tree pits, held street tree care workshops, installed tree guards, and planted flowers. One organization held a beauty contest for the best tree bed. To apply, visit the MillionTreesNYC site.