Author Archives: Angie Koo

Why do we live by the water, and what should we do now?

In the concept above, steel panels decorated with art are part of an overhead structure that can swing down and lock in place to form a flood barrier along the East River. The panel concept is part of a winning design called “The Big U” that is now the basis for a wrap-around levee for Lower Manhattan. This is one step in how the city plans to cope with rising sea levels brought on by climate change.

Plans for the first sections of the new infrastructure, renamed by City Hall as the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project, were recently presented in workshops for input from local communities. Angie Koo and Marlyn Martinez covered two workshops and report back below. But first, some broader context.

Prominent news stories over the past few months have zeroed in on the rising estimates of sea level impacts on cities around the world. The underlying research has been covered in City Atlas, in conversations with James White and Klaus Jacob.

Major newsrooms, many in cities near sea level, have picked up the pace, and stories now regularly appear either set on the great ice sheets (Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker, Justin Gillis of the NYT on researcher Gordon Hamilton) or on the coastlines that are confronting adaptation or retreat. Josh Fox’s short film in Vanity Fair looks at Manhattan at risk from sea level rise:

One project released this month will stand out: Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary for National Geographic, “Before the Flood.”

It’s going to be hard for the public to avoid this information, and our social choices are already bewildering. Coastal cities are hard to contemplate giving up, but now many are on some sort of clock, and only our own rapid changes, towards effective governance and a plunge in the rate we burn fossil fuels (likely meaning in the near term, an associated drop in our use of energy), will slow the clocks down.

Our ability to govern ourselves, either as individuals or as groups, may be inhibited by the attempt to fit economic norms, the principal mechanism of global negotiations, to a problem too vast for economics alone to solve.

For example, in what economic system would the loss of New York City be ‘worth it,’ or, a ‘good deal’? The new construction to protect the city from rising seas is still only a temporary fix; without a rapid drop in global emissions, our current planning will be obsolete in less time than has elapsed since the construction of the Empire State Building.

The animation below (by @ClimateCollege) shows cumulative global emissions from 1850 to the present. New York City needs for the world to hold to the ‘1.5°C Budget’ in order to remain intact. In the case of overshooting the target, carbon might be later withdrawn from the atmosphere in order to return to the 1.5°C benchmark. Carbon capture is theoretically possible but daunting to accomplish at the scale needed. Because building a new, non-carbon global energy system commits us to spending a portion of future emissions in its construction, we may be close to having expended our budget already, meaning that many of our activities today may already be dependent on us being able to recapture the carbon at a later date. (This is the most important fact about our economy and lifestyle choices that the public does not know.) 



How fast is fast enough to address a problem that requires enormous changes?

The workshops to explain the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project provide a model for public participation. But every public conversation about adaptation now must be matched by a conversation of equal duration about mitigation. A steep drop in emissions needs to begin immediately in order to improve our adaptation chances.

Economists and our political system may both be at a loss on how to react with adequate speed, but our science, and the underlying civilization which produced that science, is still first rate. We now know what we’re doing, and citizens can still decide, individually and collectively, not to do it. Angie Koo and Marlyn Martinez report:

The importance of community meetings

In a recent visit to Miami, where one of us (Marlyn) participated in workshops similar to the New York meeting, Miami attendees shared their water related stories and they connected instantly. With the exception of accidents and hurricane-related disasters, living by the ocean shapes Miami residents from childhood to adulthood in positive ways.  

New York has a different history. The construction of the FDR Drive, industrial uses along the river’s edge, and the level of pollution in East River long dissuaded Manhattanites from enjoying the waterfront. This has changed through the years and residents are getting closer to the water in all sorts of ways. Keeping neighborhoods safe must be part of the conversation.   

What do residents in Lower Manhattan value the most about their neighborhoods and about living in close proximity to the water? This is what the LMCR group is trying to find out. This information will guide them during the design of solutions that fulfill their needs and wants while offering protection in from the elements in a rapidly changing environment.

On July 27 and 28 (and repeated on October 5 and 6) the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency (LMCR) held community engagement workshops, one for the Two Bridges neighborhood and one for the Financial District and Battery Park City area.

These meetings were to assess public opinion on flood prevention plans. The project, formerly known as the “Big U”, grew out of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In total, approximately 60 people attended each night, not including facilitators or organization representatives. The workshops largely mirrored each other in setup and structure; if you haven’t been to a community meeting like this, here’s how they worked:

  • Opening Remarks
  • OneNYC: Our Resilient City
  • Project Overview
  • Question and Answer
  • Small Group Discussions + Activities
    • Coastal Resiliency Infrastructure Types
    • Community Priorities
  • Report Back + Questions
  • Next Steps

About five participants sit at each table, where a facilitator and a planner or designer leads the small group discussions and activities. Before that portion of the workshop, we received a presentation on resiliency efforts citywide and how this specific project came about, and how it will be implemented.

The black line traces the East Side Coastal Resiliency project; The blue lines trace the components of the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project. (LMCR)

The black line traces the East Side Coastal Resiliency project; The blue lines trace the components of the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project. (NYC/LMCR)

The LMCR project considers a range of designs to hold back water. (Image: NYC/LMCR)

Some options for New York’s protection from rising seas. Seawalls can be permanent (like a berm) or removable (detachable panels). (NYC/LMCR)

If you were lucky enough to avoid long term damage it may be getting hard to remember the scope of Hurricane Sandy. According to the City, “88,700 buildings were flooded; 23,400 businesses were impacted; and our region’s infrastructure was seriously disrupted. Over 2,000,000 residents were without power for weeks and fuel shortages persisted for over a month.”

The Two Bridges neighborhood, the Financial District, and Battery Park experienced several feet of flooding. In all, Sandy cost the city over $19 billion in damages and lost revenue, and exposed Lower Manhattan’s vulnerabilities to climate change, particularly flooding. Recognizing that this needed immediate attention, the city jump-started efforts to plan a more resilient city.

The last iteration of PlaNYC, the Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency, was released in June, 2013 by the Bloomberg administration, and sketches Sandy-inspired coastal defenses that the city continues to develop. In April of 2015, Mayor de Blasio released his new long-term strategic plan and vision entitled OneNYC, as an update to the Bloomberg administration’s reports.

Lower Manhattan though, required a faster response, and working funds have been pouring in for a range of initiatives. In 2014, an initial $108 million was directed to Lower Manhattan by the de Blasio administration, for implementing coastal storm protection infrastructure. In January 2016, the Two Bridges neighborhood–from Montgomery Street down to the Brooklyn Bridge–was awarded $176 million from the Federal Government, through the HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition for integrated flood protection, and another $27 million came from the city’s budget.

Alongside these efforts to provide comprehensive flood prevention to Lower Manhattan is the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. Also initially funded in 2014, the East Side portion aims to bring similar measures up to 23rd Street from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Overall, the LMCR project consists of four main activities before the final design can be implemented, as framed for us at the workshops we attended:

  • Build from previous and existing planning and design of the areas
  • Develop a comprehensive design concept
  • Evaluate the feasibility and prioritization of the design
  • Scope near term implementation

The workshop organizers emphasized being mindful of other planned or existing projects. The efforts of LMCR do not exist in a vacuum and the representatives in attendance seemed keen on making sure the end-product fits naturally into the landscape.  

At each step throughout the project, community input will be taken account through workshops, informal engagement, interviews, focus groups, surveys, and tours of the neighborhoods. The focus on local engagement means to ensure the project’s acceptance in the community.

During the small group sessions we took part in two activities: First, a discussion of seawall design and implementation. Participants were given a list of images and descriptions of possible seawall designs to be built in the areas prone to sea water intrusion, a chance for the designers to listen to the community about what types of seawall infrastructure residents would like best.

In the second activity, participants were given a poster size sheet in which to create a communal list of priorities. Stickers labeled as: reliability; maintenance & operations; waterfront access; views; safety & lighting; look & feel; recreation; and amenities were placed in one of three zones indicating the level of importance. Red stickers were for residents, blue for everyone else.

Two Bridges

My table from the Two Bridges workshop immediately gravitated towards the types of seawalls that could be seamlessly incorporated into the existing environment, like berms. We did agree though that where areas are already limited in space, a flood wall (more compact) may be the best option. The area near Brooklyn Bridge where there is already a concrete divide between people and water would be an example.

Overall, our main concern with any type of seawall was if it would mean losing access to the waterway, visually and physically. Specific to deployables – removable partitions that would be attached when a major storm approaches – we were skeptical of having to rely on human action. There will always be questions of if and when should they be used. People don’t want to deploy them too far ahead of a storm because it’s visually unappealing and would be a drain on resources should the storm not hit the city. Deployables encourage us to wait to the last moment before acting. Should there be anything amiss with them that cannot be fixed at a moment’s notice, the consequences could be severe.

During the second activity, where we judged priorities, there were two clear messages conveyed by all the participants: reliability and waterfront access. As one participant said, “It has to work.” Just as important, especially to the residents, were access and view of the East River. More than one table said they did not want permanent walls and if a wall must happen, it should be glass. Residents were also quick to point out that they wanted whatever was going to be implemented to be done with the residents in mind, not speculative residents or tourists. The existing community, with a sizeable population of young children and seniors that enjoy the waterfront, must be prioritized.

Financial District and Battery Park City

At one of the tables from the Financial District and Battery Park City meeting, the consensus was that a single type of seawall won’t work, and that solutions should be chosen for the characteristics of each area. Some areas require a combination of seawall and elevated streets, while others could have walls that double up as green spaces. The main concern among the five participants at the table, who were not residents of the area, but are worried how sea level rise may affect them in the future, was the reliability of the seawall designs that require deployment or installation before an event that may cause flooding is expected. Who will deploy them? Is electricity required? What will happen if the power is off? These were some of the questions raised.

Reliability was chosen as the number one concern at our table, and this was true for every group that night. Maintenance and operation, safety and lighting, and waterfront access came second to reliability; preserving views, look and feel, recreation, and amenities came in last in the scale of values these New Yorkers would prioritize. 

We wondered what makes one group value reliability over looks or vice versa. Differences in income, geography, and their experiences during disastrous events such as Sandy could be factors. Nevertheless, the fact that each community responded to the activities in different ways drives home the importance of having opportunities like this to assess public opinion. The needs and desires of adjacent populations can be distinctly different, meaning one-size-fits-all solutions can fail to mesh with the daily urban fabric. It is now up to the LMCR team to create solutions that reflect the public interest at the local level, while providing security for Lower Manhattan as a whole.

Our take

These two hour kickoff meetings promised to be the first of many encounters that will allow residents to see and react to possible flooding solutions before final designs are selected. If you live in the area, but do not know much about OneNYC do not let this prevent you from attending the next meetings. You will find that facilitators will share a great deal of information to help you understand the issue. History of the development of the project and about each neighborhood, funding efforts, and partnerships were all covered.

It was a relief to hear that others groups besides LMCR are working around this issue, they acknowledge the existence of each other, and the importance of working together. How will they share resources and not duplicate efforts? This was left unclear.   

It is understandable that, given the scale of this project, there was a lot of information to talk about in a short time. This may have been an issue for some participants, but in no way prevented them from speaking up in the small group discussions. In order for this event to be accessible for more people translation in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish was available.

Seawall design was one of the main topics during the small group discussion. Climate Central research indicates that the US has seen more than a doubling in flooding due to global warming caused sea level rise. Recent events back this up. Seawalls are important components of initial adaptation efforts, but they are not a long term solution. In future meetings we would like to hear about mitigation and remediation strategies that help reduce global warming and offer a chance to slow down the rise of the oceans. Some of the methods can be done at the individual level, such as reducing energy consumption and air travel. If such strategies are not in place, we can only expect to need higher and higher walls every couple of decades, which eventually will not be enough to protect coastal life, infrastructure, or ecosystems.



Wellington Chen


Chinatown was hurt during Hurricane Sandy, with many non-English speaking elderly stranded in high rises without water, lights, heat, or elevators. A Bloomberg News photo essay provides a glimpse of the days right after the storm. Because so many city workers were themselves stranded in their own neighborhoods, it took more time for outside relief to reach some buildings; volunteer organizations and local officials became first responders. Among those helping to coordinate the response was Wellington Chen, Executive Director of Chinatown Partnership, a nonprofit that serves the people and businesses in Chinatown. 

In May of 2016, City Atlas led an MAS Jane’s Walk on sea level, and a few dozen very engaged and thoughtful New Yorkers found the tour through the walk listings, including Mr. Chen. Recently, Angie Koo followed up to interview Wellington at his office in the center of Chinatown, to hear more about his experiences during Sandy and his thoughts on what to do next, as projections for the city become more challenging.

What motivated you to come to City Atlas’s sea level Jane’s Walk?

During Sandy, [our office] was like a command center for our local Council Member, Margaret Chin, and as well as the state. The state insurance department was here and the governor’s office had the relief center. SBA (Small Business Administration) was in our basement where they took applications for their emergency relief fund. 

I’m very proud to say that before this, in 2010, we had multiple workshops and we gave away 300 Red Cross Go Bags. This was two years before Sandy. When I started here, one of the first things I did was ask, “Where is our emergency evacuation center?” That was out of instinct because I knew that the storm that Long Island had in 1938 comes in 70-year cycles. So by 2009, it’s getting close. I reached out to Red Cross and I said let’s do an emergency workshop.

We planned for 2010, and right on 2010—you see this glass window, it turned frosted white. It was a horizontal rain. You know how architects have this glass you can flick on a switch, and it becomes totally frosted like in bathrooms that are totally transparent? I thought I was seeing things.

That was the week where the storm ripped off a roof off of Queens’ College, and ripped up a lot of trees in Flushing. Since then you have had a series of fires. This corner building burned, this corner building burned, that burned. We had an earthquake in Virginia that we felt all the way up here; the ceiling was shaking. All my staff went out the door.

From the Red Cross emergency workshop, the great takeaways were two things: One was that there are a quarter million incidences a year and guess what the most common problem is? What happened in the news in Texas?


Yes, the most common emergency out of the quarter million around the world, not just here, is flooding. That’s why I started looking at OEM (Office of Emergency Management), emergency evacuation routes, and where the nearest evacuation center is. They said Seward Park High School. I asked, “How many people can you accommodate?” They said 7000. Seward Park High School cannot accommodate 7000 but even if it could, it is not adequate for Lower Manhattan. The nearest one is Baruch College, on 23rd street. That’s very far from here and any time it rains—within four inches—the MTA shuts down. I look at them and say, “We’ve got to be kidding.”

People don’t respect history. In 1832, the Hudson River met up with the East River south of Canal Street. Also, my interest is because I was involved in the Blue Way, which is the sea shoreway workshop. We were talking about how we used to have a million oysters here to buffer the storm. All the environmental pollution and all of that—we’re very good at messing up the ability of the Earth. Mother Nature has no mercy. She’ll reclaim what is hers. This is something that we should be very careful about.

Also on top of that, I’m part of the committee on New York Rising, which is asking, post-Sandy, how are you going to help evacuate people, what are the mitigation plans you should plan for the future, and that type of thing.

So all of these things contributed to why I went to the weekend Jane’s Walk. I was surprised to see that many people.

What happened to Chinatown during Sandy?

Chinatown, I always say, is a walking wounded patient. Almost like someone who has internal bleeding that you couldn’t tell on the outside. He looks fine, there’s no outward sign of problem: He’s not bleeding on the outside, but he’s bleeding on the inside. That’s the most dangerous. Chinatown is further in, so we don’t have the debris, we don’t have the water flood line directly into Chinatown, but the damage was done. The seafood stores lost all their lobsters, all their shrimp, all their clams, and all the conch. We lost power. The command center I was talking about, we were operating in the dark without electricity, without heat. We helped to go up to the National Guard to get water on 23rd Street at the Armory. We helped to pass out meals. We raised almost $80,000 and immediately gave it out to 80 merchants, within a matter of 2 weeks. That was very meaningful. But the paperwork was so arduous that to this day many people never got any help.

[Terse descriptions of the storm’s impact in Chinatown are listed in a local Community Board report: “Sandy: Lessons Learned“]

Is there still ongoing work being done, whether it’s recovery or support for damages?

This is the part that people will appreciate: The infrastructure is much more important than the one-time gift. We gave you a one-time gift, it didn’t even cover the rent. It was more of a psychological boost that we are in solidarity with you, together with Councilwoman Margaret Chin. Margaret was operating in the dark, even during Sandy, she slid into a police and cruiser and there’s a famous photograph of her talking on the radio.

NYC Council Member Margaret Chin provided Chinese language info on food and water (Ph: K Heinemann/Bloomberg)

NYC Council Member Chin provided Chinese language information on food distribution, via a police car loudspeaker (Ph: K Heinemann/Bloomberg)

I was standing next to her at the time. Margaret basically spoke in bilingual languages, reassuring the public that help is coming, the food is on its way, the water is on its way, just stay in line. People were extremely well-behaved. They formed an inverted L on both sides, 600 people in the dark and there was no sound. People were just standing quietly in line. It is a credit to everyone involved—the public, the housing tenants that believed in us, the National Guard, the elected officials like Margaret Chin. One thing good about Sandy is it showed how much we are in it together. If Mother Nature wants to reclaim what is rightfully hers…

You mentioned evacuation routes and emergency management during Sandy. Since then, have these measures improved four years after Sandy?

I think the city has made improvements and so has the state because it has raised the level of awareness much higher than when I gave the Red Cross Go bags in 2010.

Back then, I had people come in from Brooklyn, Queens and I think the Bronx, as well, because that week [in 2010] was the hail storm. People were hit and were for the first time, aware. Not too long after that, the earthquake from Virginia rumbled up here. Then you have tropical storm Irene, which was basically a hurricane that turned into a tropical storm the minute it hit the shore. So we were involved in Irene, going door to door at the Smith Houses, the public houses, knocking on doors of the tenants. The trilingual team—Spanish, Chinese, English—knocked on every door.

That’s when you realize this is not going to be adequate. There are seniors, there are people on wheelchairs, and there are people that are handicapped that cannot leave their apartment because even if you have a shelter, it is worse than what they have at home. So they will prepare to shelter in place in spite of all the pleading from us. We said, “There will be no power tonight, you know that right?” They said, “We know.” Just like in Louisiana with Katrina and everyplace else, there are always people that are not able to leave psychologically or physically.

So to answer whether it got better: yes. Just the amount of Go bags that got distributed by the state and the city in the last few years is quite a sign. We also recognize now it is not just a one entity effort. Now it is about how we can collaborate, how we can share resources, and how we can share information. That is a work in progress for us as the Jane’s Walk on sea water rise demonstrates, it is a massive area and it is not just a localized problem. It is a regional and global problem.

The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance released their analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC this past April. In reference to the evacuation routes and zones, they said that there is a lack of specificity and preparedness on the local level. What are your thoughts on that?

Right. That’s something that we have to work on and obviously, it’s not that people don’t know. People know Seward Park. It just needs to be more in-depth. You cannot have all the blood flow to one clot, one area. You cannot expect a quarter million people or more to fit into a few thousand room shelters. It becomes very clear to me that it is about sharing, building up an infrastructure of support. That is the key for the future.

Similar to the radioactive bomb shelter plans of the 1950s and 1960s, you could scatter storage of food, emergency supplies, and water throughout the city so that there’s enough rationing to share. You need local community to coordinate because not one organization has all the resources. It is also not just a government issue. It is about public/private partnership because the government doesn’t have that kind of budget.

Sea level rise is inevitable. We can debate about how many meters it is going to be but it is going to happen. In light of that and where Lower Manhattan is, does it make sense for people to keep developing here and staying here? There are people like Klaus Jacob who are fans of strategic relocation, instead.

There’s no right way or wrong way. It really depends on the situation and the location. It is easy for us to say, “do strategic relocation,” but it is really difficult for people that are either emotionally attached, financially attached, or physically attached to that place. You just have to look at the past. How many storms have hit Long Island beaches and how many houses keep on rebuilding along the shore? For some of those along the beaches, it makes sense for them to do a strategic retreat. If you know the water is going to come to this level, you might start building to the back, start going away from the water. But for the people that are already enjoying the sea shore view, as long as their insurance policy and their federal emergency keeps allowing them to rebuild, they will.

In terms of Lower Manhattan, it is harder because you have such rich history down here.

Humankind has tended to fill in the harbors. We like to fill them in and gradually each city now is becoming like Kobe in Japan. They [city planners in Japan] recognize that it is a no-no because when an earthquake happens, there is liquefaction. The landfilled areas turn into mud and your first level becomes your basement because the building literally sinks into the mud. But in the meantime, with the rising water, limited land, and growing urban migration—you should look at the UN report of 2014, it talks about the urban migration and urbanization. In the 1950s, 30% of the world’s population lived in urban centers like this. Now it is more than half. In the future, it will be almost 70%. From 30% to 66%, almost 70%, in such a short time, there is intense competition for resources and for the land. So it is not as easy to say.

However, here is the question I throw back at you: During Sandy, most of Lower Manhattan flooded to pre-landfilled zone which is mostly whatever was filled in by man along to Pearl Street here. If you look up the original shoreline of New York City, mother nature reclaimed. There is one area that didn’t get reclaimed. Guess what that is? Battery Park City sea wall. 

[During the downtown blackout after Sandy] …People accused us of trying to cater to the wealthy. They asked why they have their lights on [in Battery Park City]. It is laughable.

They said, “You’re favoring the rich.”

“I only cover Chinatown. I don’t cover all of Lower Manhattan.”

“How come Wall Street had their lights on?”

What they meant was Battery Park City. The only reason their had lights on was because they have their own generators, they had a backup system. This is the partial answer to your question which is to say that Battery Park City is built on landfill and it had a seawall so it held during Sandy. So the question is do you prefer a strategic retreat or do you build it out to meet it? Battery Park City is built on landfill from the World Trade Center excavation, over one million cubic yards of land from digging the foundation for the Twin Towers, and they filled in the Hudson to create Battery Park City, and then they build a seawall around it.

It held. It has its own backup generator, it has its own infrastructure, it has its own master framework guidelines. All the naysayers at the time were saying “You will pollute the Hudson, you will kill the fish, you will destroy the environment.” Then 40 years after that, they gave a gold medal to the regional designer that conceived the idea because that million cubic yards of debris would have gone to the landfill and instead it got put to use in that location and it held during one of the greatest storms in the last 100 years. There’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer. It’s really specific locale. Do I encourage you to rebuild Sandy beaches of Long Island? No, you can easily retreat further back and you can avoid the costs. But you incentivize them to keep building because you have the view, the federal government keeps on wanting to pay for it, so you will rebuild your house a couple of times.

The past few years have been relatively quiet for New York City in terms of extreme weather. How have residents and business owners in Chinatown talked to you about climate change? Has that ever come up? Or do they consider Sandy more as a one time event?

It’s an interesting question. I must say, you know how people adjust to a blow? They think it’s a storm of the century and it passes, and it’s back to business as usual.They go back to their old ways. Occasionally one or two of my volunteers will talk about how during Sandy, how we used to do things. But there has not been any discussion other than the work that I mentioned in New York Rising with a couple of leaders from Lower Manhattan and the Councilman’s Office about how we should prepare for the future. There were some elected officials like Gale Brewer that talk about where the emergency center should be located—like this building [Chinatown Partnership] should be a perfect communication center; we are on the second floor now so water level will have to be even higher to reach us.

During Sandy, was there mention of climate change or again, did people see it as an individual event?

In the last few years it has become very clear that something is wrong with the climate, at least for us. To the average folks on the ground, I don’t think it’s very prominent in their minds unless you happen to go to Alaska and you gawk at the glaciers that are now melting en masse. What is more alarming is the underneath melting that you don’t see, the melting internally. That’s why the water pattern is changing around the world.

People do not realize the magnitude of and how rapidly this melting is occurring. It is quite alarming.. I thought the same way too even though I’m keeping an eye on this, “Oh what’s the big deal? Sea rises only an inch a decade. It will take many years to get to that.” I know Upper Manhattan and Bronx have cliffs and bluffs so you’re fine. But in Lower Manhattan, you face the Atlantic and especially, Staten Island and Brooklyn and the south shore of Long Island, you face the full brunt of the Atlantic. [The rate of sea level rise is accelerating as the oceans warm. See more detailed information for New York in a talk from Klaus Jacob.] 

As a result of that, what can we do and what needs to be done to make people aware of the situation and take action, both in New York City as a whole and in Chinatown?

This is where we really need to take a much higher view. This is the time that you have to think strategically about a multi-prong approach—a short-term plan and a gradual, incremental plan over the years and decades to come. How much are we prepared to invest in this long-term infrastructure? It is clear there needs to be a new infrastructure support, both at where you meet the sea as well as inland because the water is going to continue to come in—what happens to your power grid, what happens to your emergency response system, your communication system, your food supply system, your water system, your transportation network? All of this has to be looked at in a very holistic way, but you have to do it in a realistic manner. On the local level for us, it is very clear. We have to start equipping the local centers with communication capabilities.

I want to get back to your question about the criticism about localized response. The thing that struck us was during post-Sandy when Red Cross sent in their teams from the West Coast, they don’t even know which way Mulberry Street is. I had to give them directions.

Historically, we’ve been going about it wrong. What happened locally in Katrina? You found volunteers from outside to go into Louisiana who do not know how to deal with the local conditions and who you’re trying to help. Whereas the guy that has been there—the local block-watcher that has been dealing with the people for ages—those are the resources we should tap into. They can best direct us and say so-and-so lives up on the third floor and she needs water right away, she’s diabetic, you guys better get out there. That’s one thing.

The other thing is, to this day with Katrina, there are certain people that never got any help. [The bureaucracy] has got to change because if you’re going to continue to create this red tape monster and not recognize time is of the essence and there’s a sense of urgency to it, that is to me the glaring fault. If you look at all the emergencies that we’ve had, the number one thing is I filed all the paperwork. People came in here and filed their paperwork. How many of them got their grants? How many people got their loans? Very few. That’s why they’re now ramping up and saying we have money to give away. Why did you reject them in the first place? Why do we need to raise the 80,000 dollars if you are fast enough? Because when people are needing the most, you [messed up].

So it’s not just about the physical infrastructure, it’s really that the process needs to be looked at. Which is to say, FEMA, is this how you are going to handle the future storm? Is this how you are going to coordinate with the emergency responders? To say you are going to have to wait, wait, wait? Who says you have to wait?

Is it important to engage the people who live here to inform and make them aware about climate change? Is education needed?

There’s no question that massive education is needed. [As discussed on the sea level walk], if 300 million people in India have no electricity and they want their iPads, iPhones, they’re going to build their power plants based on coal like China because that’s plentiful and easy.

The rest of the world now knows this. We keep on burning. In the US, we’re 320 million people of the six billion on earth. [5% of the world’s population.] We use up 25% of the world’s resources. We need to make people understand that you cannot keep on doing this.

Gradually we need to go back to the old design that is not all these sealed windows and relying on air conditioning like we’re doing now. In the old days, you had high ceilings, you had transoms that pop open and the air can circulate, you had high porches because the air circulates underneath your house, or you do it like in the Middle East where you have very light materials and have marble and stone material that can deflect the heat and keep you cool. Design techniques that minimize our dependency on fossil fuels.

To follow that, how can New York City be a leader in moving towards ideally a zero carbon economy, not just from government action, but from choices as individuals?

Not being doom-and-gloom. This city should be very proud that it has residences on the island of Manhattan where 76% of people do not own cars. It is one of the greenest footprints in North America.

That comes back to the infrastructure support. Why should we depend on fossil fuel to drive a few miles when in fact the subway system demonstrated very well during Sandy how critical it was? After Sandy when the subway was not running, they were trying to block cars from coming in. Why? Because this island can only absorb one million cars coming in and there’s already massive gridlock. Now, what the subway carries every day is five or six million. That’s a good example of why this island is ahead of its time.

We have our water from upstate and it comes not mechanically but with just a quarter-inch of a pitch to every foot. It is carried by gravity and is one of the freshest water supplies. We learned from the Romans, the infrastructure we use to bring water all the way from upstate down to New York City to feed the millions. That’s why the third water tunnel is so important to us.

The balance of Central Park, having the lungs of the city, so we can have a breathing space and fresh air and oxygen—in a way, Battery Park City does that too. Imagine everyone in Battery Park City has to drive a car. Imagine everyone in Battery Park City lives on the seashore with an individual house and has to rebuild each one of them. You may want to vertically stack them up and preserve the ocean, preserve the oysters, and preserve the marshes so you don’t have to keep on destroying your buffer zone.

This country is blessed with vast territory and we are spoiled. The European and Asian countries don’t have this kind of luxury. They deal with much smaller footprints. They deal with much higher density. Even Detroit now is finding out they cannot support the logistical line. If your house catches on fire [in Detroit], they don’t have a fire truck to go out three miles to put out your fire. You better move into the city ring.

That is why I talked about urbanization, besides the water crisis and climate change, it is one of the looming issues that we have to deal with: can we get along?

You’ve worked as an architect and a developer, and now run a business district and serve on boards of New York institutions. How did you come to be involved in civic leadership?

When I went to school, the school was called the School of Environmental Studies and Architecture. We were raised to be aware that buildings should not be designed with four identical facades because North versus South should have different fenestration patterns. You can have passive solar, you can have thermal walls, you can have all kinds of techniques just addressing the local issues. That was before the oil prices, that was before all of these things. It was a very progressive school with teachers teaching at both Columbia University and City College.

So it’s not so much that I’m a developer as I have been in the trenches all these years. I tried to advocate for public policy and realized that public policy matters to the greatest extent because to design individual buildings, at the end of the day, it is only one address. Whereas a greater understanding, a white paper that can influence public policy, has much greater impact than anything else you can ask for. Also I came to realize the real consequences of what not to do.

Architecture is extremely good training, it shows you how to analyze the problem and assemble an arsenal of tools and possible solutions in response. You then can come up with 15 different options. We benefited from people’s past models that did not deliver their full potential and therefore, we can adjust to a new way of designing and preparing for things.

There are benefits to urbanization, but at the same time, people often criticize the MTA and other aspects of city life. Is there a way to change that narrative?

Here are a couple of facts you can consider. I get on the subway every morning. I transfer in the packed cars. I bring my reading materials or my laptop to work on the subway. That productivity gained is not something I can get from driving in my car. Also, my footprint is a lot smaller. I’m sitting in a massive car with thousands and thousands of people. Whereas if I drive with fossil fuel, that’s three or four thousand pounds of material only transporting one or two individuals even if I get somebody to carpool with me, which often does not happen. From a carbon footprint point-of-view, you have a choice.

The incentives are in the wrong place then.

Right, that’s why I say that people are not even aware of their choices. They think that, “Hey, I have the birthright to drive in a four-by-four that gets 10 miles to the gallon, or if it’s a Humvee it’s eight miles to the gallon.” That’s dinosaur fuel and you’re only paying $2.50 for it? If I go to the Museum of Natural History and say this belongs to the dinosaur and I’m selling it for $2.50 a gallon…you can also see our pricing structure is also wrong.

By the way, that’s a one-time deal. After you use it, it doesn’t regenerate by itself unless you want to grow another breed of dinosaurs and have them turn into fossil fuel. Or you want to cause earthquakes? Sure, do fracking. Go and cause all kinds of earthquakes that never happened before. You’re really shaking things up. Have your car and have some rumbling on the ground. For those who want to drive, go into the rumbling ground. We’ll do fracking in your backyard. That’s why cities [around the world] subsidize a transit system.

There are consequences to our choices; don’t forget that automobiles didn’t exist too long ago. Just the plastic bag came into wide use in the late 1980s. When I was growing up there were no plastic bags and now people say they cannot live without them.

Top photo: Maureen Drennan

An energy town hall on the Upper East Side

Energy heroes? Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (Wikipedia)

Energy heroes? Here in NYC: Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (Wikipedia)

Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail has revealed a vast new sustainability plan, budgeted at $7B, being prepared by the provincial government of Ontario. The Globe and Mail quotes Kathleen Wynn, Premier:

“We are on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime transformation. It’s a transformation of how we look at our planet and the impact we have on it. It’s a transformation that will forever change how we live, work, play and move.”

The Ontario plan includes 80 initiatives that remove fossil fuels from daily life, and is meant to be enacted between 2017 and 2021.

Here in New York City, the same climate science is understood by government, and the initial steps of ambitious plans are underway. But work towards the goals is largely still building by building, in conversations between architects, owners, the City, and developers. Earlier this year, Angie Koo went to an energy town hall to learn more:

Which apartment building is more energy efficient to heat: a complex designed in 1948 and built in 1961 in Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, with master metering for heat and electricity, or the Solaire, the first gold LEED-partnered building in the U.S., built in 2004?

Andy Padian, Founder and President at Padian NYC Consulting, posed this question to the audience at an Energy Town Hall at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on the Upper East Side. The answer will be revealed later on, and it may surprise you. In many ways this comparison, between old and new, and traditional and innovative, framed the challenges discussed in the town hall itself.

The backdrop to the town hall could be summed up by Mayor de Blasio’s call to arms in the “One City Built to Last” initiative launched in 2014, which aims to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050:

Global climate change is the challenge of our generation…New Yorkers will rise to the challenge. We will build on progress we have made to become more resilient to a changing climate and to mitigate the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. We are committing to reduce our emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, making us the largest city in the world to commit to this goal.

The town hall event, one small front in an ongoing challenge for the city, was moderated by Ken Gale, host of WBAI’s Environmental show Eco-Logic. Guest speakers Padian and Chris Benedict spoke to a captivated audience of about 50 local apartment owners and tenants about how their homes can become more energy efficient, and in doing so, save them money. Also among the participants and attendees was the New York City Safe Energy Campaign (NYCSEC), passing out leaflets advocating for the closing of Indian Point nuclear plant.

Padian’s expertise on building science was on display as he ran through what appliances should be retrofitted in homes and how attendees should change how they interact with their space and technology. He points to lighting as the most important feature to modify within homes, as we’ve moved from incandescent to fluorescent, and now to LEDs, best of all, and which are dropping rapidly in price.

Then, the basics: our parents have likely reminded us a countless number of times to turn off the lights if you’re not in the room. Growing up, our parents likely didn’t have access to the smartphones with timer apps, motion sensors, or smart power strips that add options to controlling lights and appliances – easier, or more complicated, depending on your perspective. 

Padian reminded the audience that television cable boxes consume the same amount of energy regardless of whether the TV is on or off. The only way to cut this energy consumption is to cut the power to the cable box every time we want to turn off the TV, and a power strip does the trick. And as you replace major appliances, choose the highest Energy Star efficiency rating.

In practice, making multiple, careful changes to lighting and water, replacing inefficient heating systems, air sealing windows, switching from master metering to sub-metering, and other internal changes have led to significant savings, reduction in energy consumption, and reduced vacancy rates in housing developments. Padian also remarks that the energy savings that could be made through these methods would reduce reliance on the Indian Point nuclear plant, to the point that its operation is may longer be necessary.

Whether our energy grid should include nuclear, either from existing plants or new designs, in a mix with wind and solar, is a subject for a future City Atlas piece. But whatever the zero carbon solution, curbing the growth in our power demand is a far cleaner and more effective solution than attempting to build more supply. The cleanest, and most economical, power station is the one that is not built.

Council Member Ben Kallos and Senator Liz Krueger made brief appearances midway through the town hall, speaking about the alternative energy developments underway in the city and their 80% renewable goal by 2050 while calling on Mayor de Blasio to aim for 100% renewable. The audience cheered and clapped as Kallos and Krueger mentioned the ban on fracking at the state level, expanding solar to tie into grids and cars, developing offshore wind in Long Island and Coney Island, and getting the governor onboard with the closing of Indian Point. They closed out with an impromptu rendition of “Blowin in the Wind”, marking the end of the halftime show of the town hall.

Chris Benedict, a practicing architect heavily involved in passive housing, picks up where Andy Padian leaves off, with a focus on the external facade of the building. She aims to create a culture of resilience through the synergy of managing air, water, vapor, heat, and light.

Knickerbock Commons in Bushwick, a Passive House design (ph: EIMA)

Knickerbocker Commons in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is a Passive House design by Chris Benedict (ph: EIMA)

The Passive House movement has its roots in Illinois in the 1970s when scientists created a self-regulated heated home, whereby the structure loses heat in equilibrium with the heat generated by the people inside, negating the need for additional heating fixtures. The concept was met with little fanfare in the States, but it was picked up in Germany where it was widely executed. The movement then found its way back to the U.S. where it is currently gaining momentum and lauded for its energy efficiency gains.

In practice, Chris Benedict uses a method that layers foam insulation over the cement blocks of a building structure, and then brick over the foam insulation. These layers trap heat and prevent the air leaks that traditional buildings are prone to. She explains that in essence, it is like putting a sweater over a building. Only buildings that pass a de-pressurization test that checks for air leakage can be certified as a passive house. Ultimately, these buildings use roughly only 20% of the energy of comparable structures. Benedict’s design at 803 Knickerbocker Avenue, in Bushwick, has been featured in the New York Times and is used as an example in the “One City Built to Last” plan for the future of New York’s buildings.

Part of the challenge of applying Passive House methods to buildings more widely is that, up until recently, it was against the law to do so to existing buildings. A change in code has made it possible for individuals to add up to eight inches of insulation to an existing facade. This opens up a world of possibilities as Benedict and other architects move to develop more passive houses and retrofit older complexes. Particularly, Benedict spoke excitedly about the potential to renovate mechanical systems from the outside, such as with energy recovery systems and heating and air conditioning systems, to add efficiency without compromising the interiors of people’s homes.

Returning to Andy Padian’s question from the beginning of the town hall, which building do you think is more energy efficient?

If you answered the 55 year old building in Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town, you would be correct. In fact, buildings in Peter Cooper Village require one-third less energy to heat than the Solaire. Padian admits that the comparison is not completely fair: the Solaire has central ventilation and fans that run 24/7 to remove heat, amenities that add to power usage. But the point it drives home is effective. It is not always the flashy, new ideas or developments that are most suitable for the task at hand, retrofitting and rethinking older and existing structures is just as necessary, if not more so.

The inner workings of our homes and appliances appear seemingly divorced from the conversations of global energy sustainability where the big headlining rockstars are solar, wind, hydro, biogas, and so forth as brought up by Council Member Kallos and Senator Krueger. Yet, we live in a world of existing infrastructure, and emission targets and energy goals must take that into account. Were we to re-imagine our cities from scratch, it is easy to find ways to only depend on renewable energy without removing fossil fuels from the earth and to build in environmentally sustainable ways with the best technologies and materials. But we inherit our cities; we have a legacy building stock that only turns over slowly, across many decades. (As Joel Towers, Dean of the New School/Parsons School for Design and an architect himself, told us in his interview in City Atlas, New York City’s replacement rate of buildings is one or two percent per year, meaning likely more than 80% of our current structures will be still here and in use in twenty years time. 2036 may look a lot like today, in other words.)

To begin moving towards sustainability, we need to first become energy efficient with what we have in our homes and neighborhoods. Innovations in renewable energies will be that much more potent in the future if we can reduce our energy consumption now.


Chris Benedict has a concept for modernizing New York’s building code that is ingenious in its simplicity. Rather than writing (and regulating) dozens of rules for every type of material or method that produces sustainable structures, why not simply shrink the size of maximum permissible heating and cooling devices, in proportion to the total square footage of the building? It’s the energy consumed by these devices, after all, that we are trying to conserve, and the smaller they can be (and still serve the building) the better.

That would pull all new buildings towards Passive House standards, as they have naturally have smaller heating and cooling demands.

Logically enough, this is called “The Perfect Code” (described here), and in a sign of how the life of a New York architect revolves around the mysteries of the Building Department, Benedict even explains it in a one act play (presented by architects not actors).

The de Blasio Administration has two excellent and very readable plans online that delineate the importance of building efficiency to the city’s future.

From One City, Built to Last, a 100 page guide to current initiatives and ideas for the future, comes the following summary:

Under an 80 by 50 scenario, our aging buildings will need to be transformed into highly energy efficient structures and powered by renewable sources of energy, and new buildings will need to meet the highest possible energy performance standards. All buildings would need to significantly increase the insulation of their exterior walls, roofs, and windows. Buildings would also need correctly-sized and energy efficient heating and cooling systems, and must install high efficiency lighting and appliances. Heating and cooling equipment must also be operated by personnel trained in energy efficiency best practices, and residents would need to make changes to their everyday behavior to conscientiously conserve energy. Eventually, all buildings would also need to move towards low-carbon and renewable sources of energy and advanced energy recovery systems.

And from One NYC, the City’s overall climate strategy document, you can see the dominant role of building efficiency:

The City's plan for 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050. (One NYC 2016)

The City’s plan for 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050 relies on buildings for the biggest effect. (One NYC 2016)



The Natural History Museum


Some background to put the following interview with artist and organizer Beka Economopoulos in context:

The Paris COP21 climate negotiations completed on December 12 as a success, a failure, or both, depending on one’s criteria. For the American public, this puts the ball squarely back in our court – because our per capita emissions, while having leveled off (at about 17 tons), are still more than double China’s (6.6 tons) and ten times that of India (1.6 tons), and most of the work of curbing emissions will fall to our three countries. Over the next three or four years, we need to show India in particular that we can accomplish major cuts in our per capita emissions, or there will be little reason for them to take action on our behalf or sacrifice their economy for the world overall.

The more ambitious language in the Paris talks, the goal of the 1.5°C limit, came from a group led by small island nations that will disappear if sea levels rise beyond two meters. Their goal also serves New York City well, because our city has about 400,000 people living in the 100 year flood plain, in homes that are equally vulnerable to the sea.

1.5°C as a target gives us an excuse to talk about what that means. Justin Gillis of the New York Times has an excellent brief explainer. And the best single presentation we’ve seen comes from energy engineer Saul Griffith in the video above. It’s worth watching through to get a complete understanding of the scope and timetable of our challenge. [Updated here.]

Can we live more efficiently? We know for sure we can, because people already do, and people in the US did even in earlier generations; parents, grandparents. But will anyone agree to? And we have to agree, or else…why would India agree? That’s the real negotiation.

A lot of things Americans take for granted would be changed to achieve 2°C, or push further for 1.5°C, and Griffith uses examples from his own life as he decarbonizes his lifestyle ahead of us. The changes are all doable, he’s already doing them. Air travel might be once a year, or once every two years, or less. New cars will be electric. Wind turbines and pumped storage systems would need to be built everywhere possible, but the net available energy will be lower. If you poke around on this massive device, you can see some of the relationships. Here’s a similar but more fun toy for the energy side, setting the UK up for a 2°C future.

Our society as a whole has to decide – or at least enough of us – that we do want a solution, and that we will agree to participate in it. How can a transformation of this scale ripple across our society at a rate that is relevant to a solution? Every cultural institution needs to become a reality transmitter.

Which leads us to the forward-thinking work of Beka Economopoulos and her colleagues: showing that a small group of determined activists can get enormous institutions to confront reality, when their short term interest (financial support tied to fossil fuels) is directly at odds with their long term interest (an intact society). For example, to understand the true stakes facing New York’s priceless set of museums, see a map of New York City under a 4°C scenario, conditions that would cause the city itself to shut down. The front end of that kind of change is already underway in Miami, as reported by the New Yorker.

Economopoulos interviewed here by Angie Koo.

How did you get involved in the fossil fuel divestment movement?

I’m with a collective, Not An Alternative, that works in the intersection of art, activism, and theory, or pedagogy, and we’ve been in operation for the last 11 years or so. We launched our first long term, ongoing project last year called The Natural History Museum.

We started a new museum in order to get inside the museum sector, to transform it from within. Our museum does everything traditional natural history museums do. We do exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops, and public programming, but we make a point to highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature that are left out of traditional natural history museums.

This project knits together the various backgrounds, skills, and interests of the members of our collective. I come out of activism and organizing, specifically with the environmental movement over the last 20 years. My husband comes from an art and exhibit design background. Another co-founder of our collective has worked in our country’s largest natural history and science museum. We were interested in modeling the museum of the future, one that has no ties to fossil fuel, one that champions bold climate action and equips its visitors with a full range of stories and tools that they need to understand the rapidly changing world and shape it for the common good.

Were there any museums that had already divested or was The Natural History Museum the first to take that stand?

Not that we are aware of. It’s entirely possible that a museum divested and didn’t make an announcement of it.

Yet – the divestment movement is a global movement that is intended not to be a decision behind closed doors, but rather a proclamation that the fossil fuel industry is jeopardizing the future of life on this planet and that in particular, they are spreading climate science disinformation and lobbying to block action on climate change.

We should not have science deniers in leadership positions at science museums.

So, if you’re going to divest, you should make an announcement and be counted as among the other institutions that are doing so to contribute to this global movement.

In particular, the divestment movement this time last year announced $50 billion in pledges in funds divested from the fossil fuel industry.

Their goal was to triple that by this time this year – and they have increased it 150-fold: $2.6 trillion dollars have been pledged in divestment. It is probably the quickest growing movement we’ve seen to date. Universities, municipalities, foundations, philanthropies, and faith-based institutions have been divesting, but it only makes sense for science and history museums to do the same and to really lead the way in the museum sector because this has everything to do with their missions.

So what has the general response from museums been when they are confronted with the call to divest from fossil fuels? Has it been positive?

I want to clarify that we’re not just calling on these museums to divest their financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry, we’re asking them to refuse fossil fuel funding, to cancel any fossil fuel industry sponsorships, and if you’re a science museum, to kick climate deniers off your board. We should not have science deniers in leadership positions at science museums.

For that reason, this spring we teamed up with 150 of the world’s top scientists and Nobel Laureates to release a letter calling on science and natural history museums to cut all ties to fossil fuels. In tandem with that, we launched a petition calling on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, here in New York, to kick David Koch off their boards. Koch is one of the Koch brothers, the owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately held fossil fuel company in the world. He has spent $79 million over the last two decades funding climate science disinformation campaigns, and openly denies the scientific evidence himself. So there is a clear contradiction between the politics of their patron and board member and the mission and values of the institutions. [David Koch is also the wealthiest New Yorker, and 6th wealthiest individual in the world. Perspectives on the Koch influence on US action on climate change here, here and here.]

Inside Climate News has covered the response we’ve been getting from the museum sector. There’s a couple of things to note:

Some institutions have responded very positively and have implemented gift policies refusing fossil fuel funding and pledged to divest. We’ve seen that from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, and from the Australian Academy of Science. Just last week, the London Science Museum dropped Shell as a sponsor and also we just learned this weekend that The Field Museum in Chicago is divesting. So yes, great response in many ways.

A lot of institutions, however, push back and say two things:

You can’t be neutral on a moving train, and history is a moving train.

One, there’s a firewall between funders and donors or board members and programming and curation. They have no influence over it. But we have several board members who are former science and natural history museum directors who have said there is still influence.

Case in point, James Powell is the former director and president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia; he said, “Listen, I’ve been on the other side of the table. Your multi-million donor doesn’t have to be in a room to influence your decision when you know their politics and you don’t want to piss them off. That has an impact.”

Another one of our board members is a Nobel Laureate scientist, Eric Chivian, and he said, “Those strings need not be visible to be attached. It’s the threat of self-censorship more so than the threat of censorship that we need to be concerned about.”

The second point we’re hearing from these museums is, “Well, we can’t divest; we can’t do what you’re asking us to do because we’re neutral.” It’s this issue of neutrality, or in the museum sector it’s written about as “authoritative neutrality,” that becomes this sort of guiding principle and it’s delusional. Our position is that there is no such thing as neutrality. There is always a curatorial point of view and whatever default position you deem to be objective is actually informed by the status quo, by the socio-political moment we find ourselves in. There is a politic to it already.

Even if they refuse to acknowledge it.

Exactly. So it’s if you make that implicit or explicit.

Historian Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” History is a moving train; it’s heading in a direction. Right now it is heading towards environmental collapse. So simply by standing still and doing nothing, we are complicit. Neutrality does not serve us in the midst of a climate crisis. The Code of Ethics for Museums,” says that it is incumbent on museums to preserve the rich and diverse world we’ve inherited for posterity, to act not only legally, but ethically, and to take very seriously any threat to our institution’s integrity.

When our institutions cozy up to the world’s biggest polluters, take funding from them, and invest in them, we’re forced to question whose interests are served and it undermines the integrity they have gained through years of dedicated service. For that reason, we are inviting these museums to align with their missions and to reevaluate their role in times of profound environmental change.

The Natural History Museum traveling exhibit comments on the sponsorship behind AMNH (Ph via Natural History Museum)

Do museums have an ethical responsibility to their audience? The Natural History Museum’s new exhibit confronts the sponsorship behind the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Photo via Natural History Museum)

What will you be doing in Paris and what do you hope to accomplish?

We, as an art collective, were inspired to start this museum, which by the way is not a joke. It is an actual museum. It’s registered with The American Alliance of Museums. We’ve been exhibiting and presenting on panels at all the world’s various museum conventions, and we just spoke to hundreds of museum directors at the International Council of Museums leadership conference. We’ve been very much working within the sector and developing exhibitions, and research, and such. But it was initiated by an art collective and we are stewarding the museum.

We did it because we were inspired by what peers in the UK were doing. There’s a network of artists over last several years that call themselves “Liberate Tate”. They have been calling on the Tate museums to drop BP as a sponsor and they are using the vocabulary of contemporary artlike performance art, oil paint, and suchthe vocabulary of the institution that they’re intervening upon. There’s a collective of theater professionals called “BP or Not BP” that has been calling on the Royal Shakespeare Company to drop BP as a sponsor and they use guerilla theater to do that. So there are all these groups around the world that are using the vocabulary of the institutions they’re intervening upon.

Museums are leaders, and we’re asking them to demonstrate their leadership.

This borrows from this tradition in art called “institutional critique.” A rapidly growing number of groups around the world are calling on our cultural institutions to cut ties to fossil fuels.

So, we got funding to bring folks together from 8 or 9 countries—Norway, UK, Ireland, France, Australia, Brazil, US, Canada—to have our first face-to-face. We are going to have a two-day retreat to share lessons learned and to do some strategy and planning. We’re doing a couple of public events, panel discussions and workshops, and then we’re doing a joint performative intervention at the Louvre.

[Our interview took place prior to the event in Paris; see images from the Louvre protest here and here. Top image in this post by Reuters.]

We are calling on the Louvre to cancel their sponsorships with Total and Eni, two of the six super-major super oil companies in the world. Total is the French State oil company; Eni is the Italian State oil company. By the way, Shell Oil just pulled out of Arctic. Everyone celebrated that, but Eni is moving in to take Shell’s place with much more expensive drilling rigs.

Are we shutting our borders to climate refugees, or are we really doing some soul searching about what it means to be human in this context?

This is a growing international cultural movement, and we are one manifestation of it. We were seeing what our peers around the world were doing and we really wanted to kick that off in New York and transform the museum sector here. We’re doing this not to target museums, but because we love museums. We see them as leaders and we’re asking them to demonstrate their leadership.

There are more museums [and historical sites] than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined in the United States alone.

Museums see more visitors annually than the entire number of people that go to sporting events and theme parks combined. They’ve got millions of visitors. They have incredibly robust educational programs for toddlers on up to adults to seniors. Many museums confer academic degrees; they have degree programs; you can get your PhD from American Museum of Natural History. They’re incredibly powerful and salient spaces. We would like to see them reevaluate their roles and turn into hubs for contemplation, reflection, education, and yes, collective action.

That’s great and also answers my question about why we want institutions like museums to divest. They play such major roles in society that having them be leaders in this movement is so important.

Yes. And there is a precedent. Over the course of the past couple decades, zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens really steered their ships to embrace a conservation message, infusing all their exhibits and programming with conservation messages. They engage in conservation campaigns in the field, and they provide on-ramps for their visitors and members to take action on conservation campaigns. We think it’s about time that science and natural history museums do the same for climate change.

What do you see is the role of art in climate change activism and why is it important that art has this voice in this movement?

There are many ways in which art can advance climate change activism. One, is raising visibility and educating people. Two, is art is a medium that is so great at evoking emotion and shepherding people through emotion. Art can help to frame understanding. It can help to reveal exclusions, something we’re very concerned with, with this project.

We’re looking at what stories and voices are included in natural history museums and what are excluded, and why are they excluded. Does it have anything to do with corporate sponsors? Does it have anything to do with work XYZ? We don’t have the luxury of time with climate change.

Art can help bring urgency and engage a much broader swath of the public than straight activism or policy work.

The other thing is, I think art asks us what it means to be human and what it means to be human in the time of the Anthropocene, in the time of the climate crisis. The changes are already here, so while we can work to stem the course of climate change, we also have to ask what our response to it look like. Are we just stepping on each other’s heads scrambling to get on the life raft, or are we reaching out hands out pulling up our brothers and sisters? Are we shutting our borders to climate refugees, or are we really doing some soul searching about what it means to be human in this context? Is our response militaristic or humanitarian? I think art is really great at raising those questions and presenting solutions.

And with Paris showcasing so much public art and performative art related to climate change throughout the city as COP21 is happening, it’s great to see how art is adding to the narrative. I didn’t think something of that scale would have been possible.

I just came back from the Creative Time Summit this weekend which was at the Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy. It was incredibly powerful and Boots Riley gave the keynote. He’s the rapper, hip-hop artist from The Coup. He said that meaningful art, radical art, challenges capitalism. He’s going straight to the root and that’s something I think that we can do as artists. We have a little bit more license than others to say things that are controversial, that need to be said, to really interrogate the roots of problems, not just the surface solution. We don’t just decorate protests or make things pretty. We’re really about questioning paradigms that we find ourselves in. Historically, art has always played that role and made people a little uncomfortable sometimes, but in that process, shake things up and make space for meaningful transformation.


More thoughts on Paris and the future from political scientist David Victor (a proponent of the successful approach used for diplomacy at COP21), and from climate scientist Ken Caldeira.


A correction to this piece: Saul Griffith was identified as a ‘Google energy engineer;’ he led development of Makani Power (wind energy) with funding from Google X and ARPA-E. Griffith has moved on to new projects at his company Other Lab, including lightweight heliostats for efficient solar power systems. Profile of Saul Griffith in the New Yorker. The slides that accompany the video at top are available here.

UPDATED 1/21/16: We’re happy to report that the Natural History Museum’s campaign to remove David Koch from the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has successfully concluded: Koch stepped down as reported in an announcement reported in the NYT on 1/20/16. Other coverage: Guardian; Grist; Hyperallergic; New York Magazine.

Saul Griffith has updated his talk on energy and infrastructure. His current thoughts, recorded at the Long Now Foundation in September, are a brilliant and comprehensive look at what we need to do to solve climate change. 

More scenes from the plan to save the planet


Kaia Rose’s remarkable web series (introduced earlier on City Atlas) lets you follow the process and players of next week’s Paris climate talks through the past several months, leading up to and through the talks themselves. Rose’s episodic documentary is an easily understood guide to the story of the century. The series gives context to the intermittent (and excellent) coverage from others, like Justin Gillis of the New York Times, who frames the limits of the talks this way:

Wrestling with a [carbon] budget would, for instance, throw into stark relief the global inequities at the heart of the climate crisis. And it would underscore just how big the problem really is, how costly the delay in tackling it has been and how inadequate the plans being discussed in Paris are for limiting the risks.

One stand-out note in the second part of Rose’s interview with Angie Koo (below) is her discovery of how accessible our public institutions can be. Despite the level of backdoor lobbying that is no doubt a driver of policy, our national and global institutions themselves remain surprisingly open to observers. That distinction may become more important as climate negotiations and the need for very steep emission cuts take over global policy. Conversely, multinational corporations have never been more powerful, but have no equivalent social norm of transparency.

Facebook, for instance, with 1.5 billion users, could wield tremendous day-to-day influence in explaining the crisis. Facebook can see into the daily lives of many of us, yet its own internal decision making on the story of the century remains opaque. 

Google also has enormous reach without much public involvement in decisions. The effect of these giant corporations is not necessarily negative on a topic like global warming. But considering the pace and scope of change necessary to attack the problem, the puzzle of the appropriate role of corporations is heightened by their daily role in society, power which may dwarf most of the nations attending the Paris talks.

Kaia Rose points out that it’s up to us to hold governments accountable for what is achieved at Paris and after Paris. But every part of our society needs to become a reality transmitter. 


Is Paris a starting point, not an end point? Is it the beginning of what we have to do?

Exactly. I think when you look at it in that context, the UNFCCC, at least this year, the COP organizers have been really good about getting everyone together and really trying to do it in a different way that long-term will give us more success. But there’s a lot that will still come out in Paris I think.

With Paris being a starting point, what should people be doing right now? Is there anything we can do ourselves?

That’s such a good question. That’s kind of what I’m trying to figure out. I think awareness is huge. The more people that know Paris is happening and have a basic handle of what’s being decided in Paris, and what specifically their country is suppose to be doing, then it’s really up to citizens to hold governments accountable and ask for more after Paris. It’s really important when something is decided in Paris, that citizens know what it is and what it means for their country. Then own it and figure out how to make it even better and grow. Awareness is huge – and talking to friends.

In each kind of movement, there’s a watershed moment where public consciousness fits with the point, where everyone gets on the same page and things shift very quickly. For instance, marriage equality; that happened quickly. You got to that point where basically everyone thought, ”Oh, yeah. Of course, duh.” Then it got to the Supreme Court and [the decision] had to go that way. There’s a small, very vocal minority who were fighting it [but] that will always happen. In terms of just everyday people, everyone kind of shifted —whereas ten years before that, I wouldn’t have guessed it would have happened that quickly. I really wouldn’t thought that many people would have been that open to complete marriage equality.

So, now we wait to see what happens in Paris?

We want eyes on Paris. We want them to know the world is watching because it is a bunch of diplomats. They answer to their government and the government is supposed to answer to the people. So the more it’s in the public awareness the better.

Even calling up Congress.

Honestly for Americans, this next year going up to the next presidential election is huge, even maybe more important than Paris in terms of what you can actually do because I feel that really goes down to the level of your congressperson.

Call your congressperson and let them know this is an issue that you care about. Build a relationship with your congressperson and continue to say we want stricter emission rules and a carbon tax in our state. Chose something more specific than we want you to co-sponsor a bill or we want you to publish a public letter with signatures.

I sometimes get carried away by the big picture because it’s super important. But on a very local level, we forget how powerful each congressperson actually is when it comes to making decisions in this country. Your district is pretty small and representatives really care about people in their district; they listen. You’re treated well if you show up because that’s who voted them in. So they have to answer to you, basically. Also on a city level, cities are, especially like NYC, a huge place not only just for innovation and leadership, but also they tend to be where most of the emissions come from and are more capable of doing transformative energy efficiency.

The thing I am trying figure out with this series is – how do you relate the small pieces to the big picture? Because that’s one thing I felt frustrated about. I’m recycling and I don’t own a car but I don’t feel like I’m doing that much, you know? That doesn’t feel enough. I didn’t know how that fitted in. Whereas if you look at the big picture of how do we, as a whole global economy, decarbonize and bend the emissions curve, you get these pillars of energy efficiency. For instance, changing the power grid.

You change the way that electricity is created over to renewables and clean sources and then change sources of energy over to electricity [for example: electrifying our cars, and our building heat, so everything in our life works off electricity, and that electricity is generated from a zero carbon source like wind, solar, hydropower or nuclear].

In terms of the global economy, that’s what you need to do. That’s true as well on a local level. So even in your building you can try to get a group of people together and try to figure how to make it more energy efficient.

How do you change your power to a renewable source rather than a coal source? The more people that do, the more politicians will see that the people are on their side if they go forward with climate and move all of NYC over to renewable power plants. Then if all of NYC goes toward renewable power plants, then the industry will see there’s an opening for renewable power rather than coal.

How do you find a local movement that creates a wave of change? Recycling is good, but I feel people want to do more than that. If you can figure out a small thing, you see how it links to the big picture and you effect change at a higher level by doing something locally.

One episode is on carbon pricing, which is something again that you can lobby at a very local level and if put in place on a national level or even a state level, would be possibly the biggest single thing.

Getting involved with Citizen’s Climate Lobby, going to Washington and lobbying, there are things like that, but each person is different. I feel like there’s different ways [to get involved]. For me, it’s linking what small action I can do up to the big picture that can waterfall that change. What we’re trying to do with the series is seeing the links and making that cohesive.

Economist Shiqui Zhang describes China's interests in success at Paris. (Photo: Kathy Zhang)

Economist Shiqui Zhang at Peking University describes how China has joined the push for climate solutions. (Photo: Kathy Zhang)

So far, what has surprised you the most in the process of making your web series?

All of it has been surprising. Episode 8 is about China; that one was surprising because up until now, over the first five or six episodes, because of the classes I took, I knew a little bit, but now we’re starting to get into areas where I know less. 

I know very little about technologies and about financial instruments, and with China, I didn’t know anything. One of our co-producers went to China and interviewed people; it was interesting to see what they were saying within China, some of which fit into what I thought, but it was much more encouraging than what I expected.

Because China is taking steps technology-wise and policy-wise?

Policy-wise, yes, and what seems like a commitment to make Paris work. I’m not sure if that commitment is coming from the same place as the European commitment necessarily but it is a commitment so I don’t know if that really matters.

I think Bonn was surprising to me. I just have never been inside the UN before this year. The places they’ve let me in, I thought, “Really?” Actually, that’s what surprising.

As a citizen you feel like the government, Congress, the UN, and all these really big institutions are so closed off and exclusive, which in some ways they are. They have so much jargon and you need to know so much to understand what is going on, which is what we’re trying to break through. But actually in terms of just attending events and going to places without a big media body behind me, just as a citizen, the fact that I can get in these places was surprising.

Since I’ve started this project I’ve gone inside the World Bank, the IMF [International Monetary Fund], Congress, the UN, and the UN in Bonn. It’s amazing how much is actually accessible to you if you are interested and look for the right things. They mail out invitations to go to events at the UN not because I’m making this project, but I’ve used them for this project. Anyone can go if they look around and get on the right lists. Even Congress, you can literally just walk into the Congressional office building without any appointments. They scan you and there’s security but you don’t have to prove you have a reason for being there. Anyone can just go in and hang out in the Congressional office building if they wanted to.

Were there people there or was it fairly empty?

There were some tour groups. I was there for a big lobby day so there were a lot of people lobbying around. I just thought because we had an appointment signed up, that I had to show I had an appointment. The next time in DC if I just wanted to go and have lunch in the Congressional office cafeteria, I could. That’s been very surprising, just how accessible places are actually to a citizen if you feel empowered and feel like you want to.

I didn’t know that you could just walk in.

Surprising, I know! With the World Bank and the IMF, there are spring meetings and they always have a civil society aspect to that. You just sign up and go and there’s all these great talks. You get to wander the World Bank; you just flash your pass and you can wander anywhere and it’s extraordinary.

Have you become more optimistic about climate change and what human action can do to stop it?

Yes, I have. Partly because of the people that I’m meeting. I’m usually talking to people who are working really hard to enact change in some way. There are a lot of really smart people working on this. I’m finding out that plenty of people have good plans about how we can do this. We just need more public awareness.

That’s great because, there’s usually a gloomy aspect about climate change.

Which I completely understand. But I think I’ve also protected myself from that in a way because it doesn’t do me any good to say, “Oh well, it’s too late.” Because where does that put me? I can’t do anything with that. On the other hand, I can think, “Okay, the Paris agreement will get us through 3 degree warming so we’re going to have to figure out how make it better.” It’s completely disempowering to feel depressed. I got to a point where I don’t see the point of falling into that trap because the only thing it’ll make me do is just feel bad and feel like I need to hide away. I guess that’s an option, but I don’t really want to just pretend. I think when you get to that point, you just ignore it. You either pretend it’s not happening, which some people are doing, or you just decide you can’t do anything about it and just ignore it and that’s not helpful.

The only way to be helpful is not be naive but just to be realistic. Here we are in a crisis and the world is bad and it will get worse. We as the human race are fairly innovative and we have a lot of ingenuity. We’re very capable, so capable that we’ve almost destroyed the environment that we live in. We can enact change very quickly and we can transform economies very quickly. We can come up with new technologies that are transformative, so we’re capable. It’s just are we going to do it in time?

I really hope that we will. I feel like I need to believe that we can because otherwise I won’t want to… it would be too sad. But I actually think that we can as well. There’s a momentum building, and that’s one thing with Paris, I feel like there are people arguing that you can say Paris is already a success. There is so much momentum built just by [COP21] happening and by being built up into this thing that’s a ‘last chance’ type of thing. All the INDCs, all the commitments with businesses that we have, and Obama’s Climate Action Plan—I don’t know if he would have done that if it wasn’t for Paris happening, and with China, I don’t know if they would have done that if it weren’t for Paris…

So you can say it’s already been a success and what we get in Paris will be what it is. We need to take off and make it better and more successful.

Will you continue your series after Paris?

I think so, yes. We called it “Climate Countdown” so that it wasn’t a countdown to Paris. We do have a countdown happening, but no one really knows exactly when that ends. Right now we’re counting down to Paris because that’s the next big event and it’s important. But Paris is certainly not the end; it’s the beginning and I think it’s important to keep going. We might not release episodes as quickly after Paris because right now we’re in this time crunch, but I want to keep going. I think it’s important for citizens to know what comes out of Paris and to figure out how it’s being regimented and if countries are carrying through, because if there’s no system of legally binding action, which is really hard for the UN to enact, then it really is going to be a name-and-shame game, you know?

You have to make sure the countries don’t want to be the one that isn’t fulfilling it, so that means a lot of civil society action in terms of holding them accountable and citizens holding them accountable. So then I think in some ways citizens are even more important after Paris.

Additional resources: A very concise Justin Gillis/NYT explainer: “Short Answers to Hard Questions about Climate Change” (Best if shared with fifty of your friends)

James Hansen’s critique of the US position entering Paris; Hansen supports a carbon fee and dividend policy to put a price on carbon; similar concept here

Climate Central’s interactive quiz: can you solve the aims of the Paris negotiations in these eight quick steps?

Chief economic columnist Martin Wolf describes his hopes for the Paris talks in the Financial Times

Behind the scenes of the plan to save the planet


Kaia Rose knew she didn’t know enough about what the world is doing to solve climate change, so she’s making a film (in several parts, presented on YouTube) for young people like her to watch and learn. And it’s become a record of the steps up to the pivotal meeting about the fate of the planet, which starts at the end of next month in Paris. 

Rose’s project is a fascinating tour of people and organizations coming together over the course of 2015 to hammer out an agreement that can be approved in December, and set the world on a path of hope. Angie Koo talked to Kaia to find out how she got started earlier this year, what it’s been like, and what she plans next:


What motivated you to make the series? Who did you want to target to watch it?

It’s funny when you look back because it’s like, “When did that idea pop into my head?” I moved to New York to start making films that were more politically engaged, socially engaged. I have always been very politically minded and just working in animation wasn’t fulfilling that side of me. So I took a couple MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), three courses online given by SDSN (Sustainable Development Solutions Network) and they were all on climate change.

This was just a year ago. It was interesting because I knew climate change was a big issue. I knew it was bad and I thought we were a bit doomed. Then I started taking these classes and I didn’t realize there was this big conference coming up. I didn’t know about COP (Conference of the Parties). I’d heard of the Kyoto Protocol but I didn’t know that it was part of COP. I didn’t know 2015 was being called this “Our Last Chance” kind of thing and so the way the MOOCs, especially the Climate Change Science and Negotiation, talked about this COP was “if we start now, we can really thin that curve of emissions. We can do it. We just have to do it.”

I thought, “Well, why aren’t we doing it and why don’t I know this? I’m the audience that should know about this because I’m politically minded and I care, and I just had no idea.” I listen to the news. I read the news. I may not watch cable news but I feel like I’m pretty tuned in and aware, and I just had no idea. I started talking to friends and none of us knew.

So that’s really what started it. I should do something on this; I should make something. I decided on New Years that I am going to be in Paris, doing something. I don’t know what, but that’s my decision. Then this video series developed through talking to people. It was going to be a film, but then I realized it would be more interesting and more up to date if it was building awareness as it went and updating because it was so much about this time leading up to COP21 and raising awareness about it.

So the audience is following along with you.

The main audience I had in mind were people who were in my position. I guess the millennial generation. I never really know who is in that generation but [they are] usually younger people who care about climate change, would get involved if they knew what was going on, and who are turned off by the old narrative of doom and gloom.

All of the climate change documentaries I had seen, which there were not that many actually, were about how bad it’s going to be or saying [climate change] is happening. I thought, “I know. I know that. I don’t need…”

Then you just think that you need to unplug from modern society and go live in the woods because you’re part of the problem. You start feeling guilty and horrible about things like, “Do you know how much energy your phone uses?”

You can’t go travel. You can’t really eat anything that’s not local or sustainable. You can’t drive.

Exactly! Exactly. You end up feeling really disempowered. I think traveling is important and I would just feel guilty when I travel. Then I wouldn’t feel like I could do anything and I also wouldn’t feel inspired to do anything because I felt so bad about it all. That was the narrative I was stuck getting. If you say a film about climate change, everyone thinks, “ Oh, it’s going to be depressing.” I wanted to change that and skip over the whole debate about if it’s happening or not. I wasn’t interested in that.

So I started with the fact that it’s happening. What are we doing about it? What can we do? What are we doing? What do we need to do? Why isn’t it happening? [I wanted it to be] very solutions-based and very rational. We’re in this crisis; we have the tools, technologies, and the basic ideas of how we can get out of this crisis. So how do we do that, and if we aren’t doing that, why aren’t we doing that? How do we as citizens—how do I find a way of helping make it happen?

I remember you mentioning in the video that we have the money and we have the technology; we just aren’t politically willful enough to make the changes that we need to. That’s a pessimistic thought, that we have everything we need but what’s stopping us is ourselves.

Yes. That quote helped me structure upcoming episodes because I felt that gives us three areas of focus. You need the money. So where is the money? Where do we need to be and what’s that gap? So I know there’s the gap of the Green Climate Fund – there are gaps still there. How are people working to gather the money and put it in the right places? As for the technology, where are we in all these different technologies that we need: renewables, batteries, carbon capture? I know the terms, but I don’t really know what’s scalable.

Or what’s practical?

Yes, exactly. So where are we in that? Where do we need to be and what’s the gap?

As for political will, where are we and what are people doing to build political will? I feel that this is probably the place where most citizens can make a really big difference. The population and citizenry can build political will. They can push political will in the right way.

To follow that up, do you think enough people follow climate change news? If not, why? People in my circle who follow it have studied it or were involved in environmental organizations in college. Then I have friends who are fairly well educated, keep up with the news, and know that climate change is happening, but they don’t care to do much about it, or find out more about it…

I think that’s social. I jumped into the climate world and so now, I have a completely different perspective from where I was before. I’m not an outsider but I still feel a little bit like an outsider. I definitely think [climate change is] growing in the public consciousness, but actually I think the problems are growing in the public consciousness. You say droughts in California and people think climate change. Hurricane Sandy. Climate Change. People are making the links but I feel that the solutions, practical solutions, aren’t so much in the public consciousness.

For instance, solar; people know about solar or wind. But I didn’t realize batteries, battery storage, and smart grids are just as important, if not more important right now. We can’t just have a bunch of solar panels. We still have to figure out the grid. So these areas, new ways of using money to invest, or ways of using the litigation system to do things are all really innovative solutions that people are working on that I don’t feel like are in the public consciousness.

Another thing that started us off and I think is missing is that we’re in a crisis, but we have the opportunity to become a sustainable society and that’s really exciting. There are really cool things being done and I feel like [with] our generation, it is cool to be green or sustainable.

Like a new trend.  

Yes. I feel like with all of those technologies, [it’s better] if you got people to look at climate change or climate action as an exciting possibility of how to make our society better and not just averting doom.

If you phrase it as we have to avert doom, people think, “Ugh.” Whereas if it’s about how we’re going to have electric cars or green roofs, people think, “That’s cool and awesome.” Then it follows that if we’re going to have electric cars, we need to first clean up the grid because that is what makes sense. Then what are we missing from there? Oh, batteries! Whoever invents the next type of battery is going to be a bazillionare. Kids going to university saying, “I’m going to work on batteries.” That’s exciting and different.

I feel like there’s so many exciting entry points. That’s what I’m hoping with the series, that I’m introducing all of the different facets of how we solve this problem and each person can find their own little entry point. Not just, “Oh god, I got to do something, let’s do that.” It’s more about, “That’s really interesting, I’m inspired by that. I want to work on that.” I feel like it’s such an overarching issue. It really connects everything. It underlies so much. No matter what you’re interested in, you can be working on something to solve this problem just by rearranging the way you think about it.

Okay, so what am I? Me? I’m a filmmaker, so I’m not going to invent the next battery. What can I do? Well, I can make a web-series about this. Who knows how much it’s impacted on me but I’m really enjoying it. I’m finding it inspiring and invigorating.

Filmmaker Kaia Rose (Photo: Angie Koo)

Filmmaker Kaia Rose (Photo: Angie Koo)

I’ve learned a lot from your series. I studied Kyoto. I didn’t know much about Copenhagen, and I heard about Paris this past summer, but didn’t know how it all interconnected.

Thank you. We’ve been having good feedback; it’s really nice. It’s been used in a class at University of Wisconsin. A guy’s using it for his UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) class; it’s great. It seems like it’s hitting the right tone I wanted. I was talking to my mom the other day. She was talking to one of her really good friends and said, ”Oh, have I sent you Kaia’s web-series about climate change?” The friend then said, “Oh, it’s going to be depressing, isn’t it?” My mom then said, “No, it’s not, actually.”

That’s what I was really aspiring to do, making it accessible, engaging, interesting, and not exclusive. Since I’m learning as well, I figure if I get it, the audience will be able to get it. I’m not on the inside of this and the way I like to work out problems is by thinking, “How do these pieces interlink? This needs that, and that needs that. That needs that, so that kind of goes back to this and that’s interesting.” You start to see how the puzzle starts to fit together better.

A thought just came to me. People are talking about Mars and how we can go to Mars. If we don’t change and become a sustainable society, we’re going to do the same thing to Mars when we get there.   

I know. There’s that quote people have been saying a lot, “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B.” Then the next day, we find water on Mars! Here I am thinking, “Oh no! I think we should stop saying [that quote] because there might actually be a planet B and we don’t want that. We want to try to fix planet A.

The thing is we can. We can, actually. It is definite that climate change is happening. It’s definitely having an effect. It definitely will continue to have effects. So it’s not like we can stop it from happening. There’s going to be a lot of disasters and that’s all true, but we can [fix it]. It’s just a matter of survival and not surviving. It seems like a really simple answer, you know what I mean? “Do we want to survive as a society or not? We do? Well okay, we need to actually do something, so let’s just do.”

With Kyoto and Copenhagen, everyone came together and decided there what to do. Now at Paris, the countries have to submit their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) beforehand. So my question is, what is going to happen in Paris then? Are they going to discuss and then they haggle over their plans?

There’s definitely a lot of negotiations still going on. I think what’s interesting about Paris, from what I understand, is that it really is a different approach to the earlier COP process. People say that the COP process has been going for  21 years and they haven’t been able to solve it yet, which is true. But Copenhagen and Kyoto were top-down approaches and Paris is much more bottom-up. It’s getting countries to be more invested in the solution by having them own the solution, rather than telling them what to do.

It’s like, you tell us what you can do and we’re going to bring everyone together.

So the INDCs—actually, today is the deadline for the INDCs. So they’re going to do a report by the end of the month about where those are so we’ll know the level of ambition.

[The good news is that countries have submitted them; the bad news is that we’re still shy of the 2°C target. For an example of the process, you can see India’s recently submitted INDC document here.]

It is confusing as [the countries have] all different target years, base years, and methods, so they’re going to produce a report. The way the text is right now in Paris, there are two kinds of groups. One has a whole group of issues we don’t know where any of which should goes. Basically people want to fight for issues to get it out of that [group] to go in either an agreement or a decision.

There’s a whole Paris package that they’re still deciding what it’s going to look like. It’ll include the INDCs, a financing element, the agreement, and  some kind of climate action plan, which includes businesses, industries, and and civil society. As I understand it, the decision is pre-2020 action and the agreement is post-2020 action. But that’s all very in flux.

It all seems very vague. I’m trying to wrap my head around it.

It is pretty vague, but I think it’s pretty vague because they haven’t decided yet what each document should be, so that’s up in the air. Everyone submitted the INDCs but the big contentious issues are whether loss and damage is in the agreement and there are people that are working to try get carbon pricing in. A lot of negotiation is going to be financing, who is going to pay for what.

Do all the nations have to agree?

The thing about the UNFCCC is that they rely on consensus so that’s why things move so slowly. You have almost 200 countries coming from very different domestic agendas and capabilities. There’s this contentious issue of responsibility and capacity. Who’s most responsible for carbon emissions? Historically, they have been the developed countries. Who has the capacity to do more? These are also mainly the developed [countries], but then also China.

Who can help developing nations financially and with technology? How do we work together to get this done? Who has the most responsibility and who has the most capacity? That’s all very touchy.

[And this very issue has been holding up the last minute preparations, on the issue of climate adaptation and mitigation finance for poor countries.]

Is there a chance the nations won’t agree to it? If so…

I don’t think—I mean, I guess there’s a chance, but I think they’ll get an agreement. They’re working very hard to make sure there’s an agreement. The level of ambition, I think, is what we’re not sure on. It might be an agreement that everyone agrees on, but it’s not that ambitious. When I was in Bonn, it was interesting because it’s a really different atmosphere when you’re there and in the room with about 200 people, each representing a whole country.

I wish I could have seen footage of that.

I know, I know! We can’t film inside the room but they’re literally like group editing a text. If you can imagine even trying to do that with a group of 200 students, all agreeing how something is written is just like…

I think I get it. We have something very similar at my college where we revise our school Constitution every year and requires ⅓  of the students to be there. It’s just a word document that they’re editing and it requires can easily over an hour for one sentence to change.

Yeah. So it’s basically like that, but on a global scale and with the fate of the world. It’s kind of mind-boggling but when I walked away from Bonn, and other people are talking about this as well, but I think we have to put the UN and the UNFCCC in the right context. The power that they have is to convene. They have amazing convening power. They can bring almost all the countries of the world together to talk about how we’re going to address climate change and to agree that we need to address climate change. That’s huge. And the fact that they got so many countries to submit their INDCs—actually, that’s never happened before that you have many countries saying this is what we’re going to do to reduce our emissions. Even if it doesn’t add up to enough, that’s kind of amazing. There’s something in that I think, and people will say that’s not enough but they [the U.N.] don’t really have a lot of legal power to say you have to do this. They’re trying to construct this in a way so that countries are part of the decision making process and really want to be involved in it.

Another issue that they’ll talk about in Paris is the monitoring, the recording, how to make sure countries carry through, and also how to work in increasing the ambition level over time. There’s talk every 5 years, checking back in on the plans, reassessing, and trying to increase [the ambition]. I think the people organizing COP21 are very determined to get a good agreement and they know that it is not going to be as ambitious as it needs to be. So they’re trying to figure how do we galvanize non-governmental organizations, like business and industry, civil society, and also like sub-national leaders to help raise the ambition after Paris.

Also, how do they build into the agreement a way that the ambition increases over time? They don’t want this to be the top of what we do; this to be the bottom of what we do. This is where we start. Then we’re going to need to go on from there and get better and better.

[This is part one of a two part interview about the creation of Kaia Rose’s new web series on COP21: Climate Countdown]