Author Archives: Rowan Wu

About Rowan Wu

Rowan is a first year at Barnard College of Columbia University and a prospective Urban Studies major.

The great nuclear hope returns

Revkin, Nye, Stone and Wagner discuss nuclear at Columbia. (Ph: Anna Ablogina)

Andrew Revkin, Bill Nye, Robert Stone and Gernot Wagner discuss nuclear at Columbia. (Ph: Anna Ablogina)

After decades of talk about CO2 emissions, our civilization is still more than 80% powered by three very effective fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas – which are among the cheapest sources of power if we leave out the social cost of carbon and the $500+ billion per year in taxpayer subsidies fossil fuels receive from governments worldwide.

But the way is prepared for rapid change, as charted by downloadable reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and especially by the State of California, which has committed to cutting emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, a path fitting to the 2°C target of climate negotiations. Governor Jerry Brown has also called for a mandate of 50% renewable power statewide by 2030

Across the US, wind power is already competitive with coal in many areas, and the Department of Energy has an animated map showing the projected growth of wind power through 2050.

One puzzle on which top experts disagree is the role of nuclear power in providing a solution to climate change. A nuclear reactor is a huge, constant supply of power that can replace all fuels. Until new, smart power grids and energy storage can balance out intermittent sources, wind and solar rely on natural gas turbines to back them up – so with wind and solar, fossil fuels must still be burned. And we can’t continue to burn fossil fuels. 

James Hansen, for­mer direc­tor of NASA’s cli­mate research, believes nuclear power is essential for solving climate, as it is the only source scalable to entirely replace fossil fuel in vast growing economies like China. Joseph Romm, physicist and former Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration, has a more skeptical roundup via his blog Climate Progress. The costs and social resistance to nuclear now make it difficult to build rapidly (China is expanding its fleet of nuclear reactors, and there the concern is that building too rapidly can be risky).

Thorium reactor power plant. (Image: thorconpower.com)

Thorium reactor power plant with safety features. (Image: transatomicpower.com)


New thorium designs
 of nuclear reactors are expected to be safer, and their advocates make claims that the designs will also prove to be reliable and affordable. Two start-up companies, Thorcon and Transatomic Power, are among those racing to demonstrate improved methods to solve the world’s energy needs with nuclear power.
But public opinion, funding and time constraints may be steep barriers to expanding nuclear in Western countries, most of which are shutting down old reactors and building few new ones.

Renewable technology and storage will also improve, but a hurdle for non-nuclear sources is simply the enormous amount of energy modern societies demand. A challenge with renewables is getting a sufficient amount more energy out of them than you put into building them. An offshore wind farm to power New York City would need to be 40 miles by 40 miles in area, equal to an array of turbines off the coast of Long Island, stretching from Coney Island to Montauk and about fourteen miles deep – a huge project – and even then would still need to be supplemented by fossil fuels or balanced by a smart grid that can shift supply and demand across renewable resources around the US. Ubiquitous solar plus far more efficient storage could be part of the ultimate answer, but technology breakthroughs that are needed may be years away.

The best single overview of this conundrum might be the online Global Calculator, from a team led by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is consistent with the work of David MacKay, physicist and former science advisor to the DECC. The ‘nuclear lever’ of the calculator is described here. The underlying theme of MacKay’s research: it’s important to remember proportions, and it’s increasingly important wealthy nations begin to use less energy and cut demand while we build a zero carbon energy system as fast as possible. Behavior change is the most powerful clean technology we have.

Against this background of nuclear controversy and potential, in April Rowan Wu went to see a film aptly titled “Pandora’s Promise,” followed by a discussion led by science educator and media star Bill Nye:

The evening at Columbia started with a screening of Robert Stone’s controversial pro-nuclear documentary, “Pandora’s Promise.” Named after Pandora, the Greek goddess whose box unleashed evil into the world, the movie argues that benefits outweigh the harmful effects that have been historically associated with nuclear power. The film questions the opinions of groups that have campaigned against nuclear because of its health hazards, and argues that nuclear power will be crucial to meeting the energy needs of climate change. Several prominent activists appear, among them Stewart Brand and Richard Rhodes, and reverse their anti-nuclear beliefs, adopting a view toward a future that incorporates nuclear energy. Overall, the film strives to remove the stigma of nuclear left in the wake of disasters such as Chernobyl to present a more favorable, if one-sided, case for nuclear power as a critical alternative to fossil fuels.

The keynote address, delivered by Bill Nye “The Science Guy” was, not surprisingly, stocked with scientific content. But Nye, with his background in mechanical engineering, experience in educational entertainment, and enthusiasm for all things science, has the natural ability to simplify the most complicated aspects of quantum physics into basic concepts that even humanities majors can wrap their head around. Throughout his talk he remained relatively impartial on the divisive issue on nuclear energy. Despite the fact that pollution from coal power plants have caused vastly more deaths than nuclear accidents, he does not deny the certainty of another nuclear accident occurring if more nuclear power plants are built simply because of human error. “We have to say to ourselves, is that worth the risk?” Nye encouraged the audience as voters and taxpayers to figure out that tradeoff. 

The panel discussion following “Pandora’s Promise” featured director Robert Stone, Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Nye. Revkin served as an unofficial moderator, directing his own questions and audience questions at the other panelists. Predictably, Stone’s answers assumed that nuclear would be incorporated into a solution for climate change, that nuclear power is “a certainty; everything is trending into this,” but also encouraged innovation and passing on good habits to our descendants.

When asked by Revkin what his thoughts were on nuclear, Nye stated that he was “all for it,” but cited the public uncertainty and distrust around nuclear too, stating that “nobody is gonna get on it.” He also suggested a top-down system to discourage carbon production, not explicitly saying the “t-a-x word,” but instead calling it a “fee.” As an economist, Wagner agreed by stating the law of demand: “price goes up, demand goes down. Works every. Single. Time.”

Despite their range of professional backgrounds and opinions, the panelists could all agree that they had faith that given the rapid pace of technological advances, members in the audience would be able to witness a reverse in climate change within their lives.

To quote Stone, nuclear isn’t “the perfect technology, but right now…given what we’re confronted with…between now and 2050 [we grow to] 10 billion people, we’re running out of fossil fuels, and there are only a few options available to us…it’s incumbent upon us in this situation to try to throw everything upon this.”

The next day, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network hosted a workshop at Columbia entitled “Nuclear Power’s Possible Role in Lowering the Global Carbon Output.” On a panel called “Future prospects of nuclear energy” Richard Lester of MIT and Eric Loewen of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy spoke from the perspective that nuclear power is a necessary component of reaching the 2° C temperature target for 2015. Lester explained his conviction that nuclear energy development and research is needed by visualizing energy in physical space. All of the coal that America uses in a year, Lester notes, would need to be carried on an 83,000 mile long train. To replace this coal energy with wind energy would take 200,000 miles of turbines. To replace the coal energy with nuclear would require only a 1 mile long train.

Additional reporting by Madeleine Levin; “Pandora’s Promise” event hosted by Columbia University Coalition on Sustainable Development.

An example of how time-sensitive decarbonization is, via a tweet from analyst Glen Peters of CICERO. The slower we are to begin the energy transition, the steeper the drop in emissions must be. (A fast response to this chart is to immediately choose to use less energy; substitute teleconference for air travel, bicycle for car, and make meat a smaller part of one’s diet.)

A simplified version:

skislopegraph

 

Chart showing necessary reduction in demand: 

The upward tra­jec­tory ris­ing towards 70 GT of CO2 is the path our soci­ety is cur­rently on. The down­ward slop­ing curve is an alter­na­tive future in which we dra­mat­i­cally curb our car­bon emis­sions. With this graph, Kevin Ander­son illus­trates that change must first come from a reduc­tion in demand, while we wait for polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments to take effect. Graphic by Max Reice, based on the Tyn­dall Cen­tre pre­sen­ta­tion by Kevin Anderson.

The upward tra­jec­tory ris­ing towards 70 GT of CO2 is the path our soci­ety is cur­rently on. The down­ward slop­ing curve is an alter­na­tive future in which we dra­mat­i­cally curb our car­bon emis­sions. With this graph, Kevin Ander­son illus­trates that change must first come from a reduc­tion in demand, while we wait for polit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments to take effect. Graphic by Max Reice, based on the Tyn­dall Cen­tre pre­sen­ta­tion by Kevin Anderson.

See also: A summary of energy and climate options for the individual

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Stone describes his motivations in making the film “Pandora’s Promise” on video below:

Today’s Outlook: live readout of California’s energy demand and supply from renewables.

Here Comes Solar: residential solar comes to NYC

 

Chris Neidl is an expert in the rapidly growing field of solar energy and distribution. He currently directs Here Comes Solar, which encourages solar adoption in New York and is a community initiative of the sustainability nonprofit Solar One. Chris also has had over four years of experience making off-grid solar accessible in India as the South Asia Program Manager of Arc Finance, Ltd, a nonprofit that connects microfinance and rural energy sectors. Prior to his stint in India, Chris served as the Advocacy and Community Outreach Coordinator at Solar One.

Rowan Wu had the opportunity to ask Chris about the future of solar on a local and global scale, and how New York City and India can serve as leaders in adapting their economic and energy sectors to become more sustainable:

Tell us about Here Comes Solar’s work in New York; what do you focus on?

We’re interested in how to overcome challenges in the residential market where there is high potential for solar. Here Comes Solar focuses on row houses, especially flat-roofed ones, one to four family private homes, multi-family condos, and affordable housing run by nonprofits.

Why do we choose those particular types of buildings? In residential New York City, some areas have seen record growth, some of fastest growth in the country. Among these areas are Staten Island and the far reaches of the boroughs. Because they’re more suburban in character and have larger roofs, they’re easier to work with compared to the brownstones in Brooklyn which are more restrictive because they cut away at the space you can work with.

Even though there’s demand for solar on smaller roofs, like brownstones, solar installers aren’t necessarily interested in installing panels there. It’s lots of work, has a lot of uncertainty, and tends to be low revenue per job.

So instead of working with individual homes, our program identifies groups of neighbors in the immediate area and groups them together to do a cumulative site assessment to verify if they can do solar in first place. This enables installers to bid on groups of projects through a website – we use an online bidding platform called Sunblock. These two steps change the value proposition, because potential installers can offer more competitive bids and we can attract larger solar installers who can do solar for cheaper because of the scale.

With our program there’s great potential, but the process of getting solar done is difficult – getting anything done in New York City is hard. The fire code limits the roofs we can do it on. The fire department won’t change the policy, but design solutions around fire codes can solve these issues.

For example, if the fire department requires clear space on the roof that we can’t put solar panels on, can we come up with a form of racking to move part of the panels in the instance of fire? Can we build above fire code requirements?

Looking into ways to design around this policy problem can massively increase the amount of homes that can do solar, and the amount of solar power we produce in the city.

Solar generates power during the day, and sends it to the grid, but what about storage for power at night?

Batteries are an important solution to storing energy on the grid and storing solar to use at night. We’re seeing new developments coming pretty quickly.

[Note Tesla’s new attention-getting home battery system. WIRED discusses the performance of the Tesla battery here. For perspective on the scale needed, see solar plus storage systems compared with our entire energy demand. But some analysts see the field developing so rapidly that the Tesla battery is only a start. – Ed.]

PV solar panels, from 2010 to 2015, have dropped in price by about 80%, and the same could happen to batteries, especially in New York where electricity prices are high and utilities are increasingly incentivized to subsidize batteries to support distribution. It would make the system more resilient, especially as more people are interested in resiliency and backup power in the wake of Sandy. 

We don’t have to wait to follow California, New York can be a leader, because of a change in how utilities are compensated. We’re shifting [utility’s] compensation away from selling electrons. Distributed generation like solar will be a part of that. Batteries make solar more predictable; it’s a really exciting thing that could be happening, but like I said, it’s also New York. Trying to get the fire department and buildings to actually develop permitting requirements for that and signing off on it can be time consuming.

Solar installation on an apartment building in NYC. (Courtesy Here Comes Solar)

Solar installation on an apartment building in lower Manhattan. (Courtesy Here Comes Solar)

What’s the benefit of distributed generation?

Say it’s three o’clock in the afternoon in July, air conditioners are at their max, New York City hits the 13 gigawatt peak demand for power, and that’s when the possibility of a power failure is high. It requires massive investments in the grid to accommodate that peak demand. The peak may only total 20 hours over the whole year, but it means we still have to build up the system to avoid a blackout. All that investment cost gets passed to ratepayers. 

Rather than centralized generation in the form of a large power plant with a huge megawatt scale that generates power and then distributes it through a grid, distributed energy is produced by the user and located close to user. It brings all kinds of advantages to making grid more resilient. 

Let’s say you have solar on a roof that’s got a little bit of battery storage with it. That’s electricity that can be used immediately by that building or stored. It basically reduces in real time, the possibility of failure during peak demand, and reduces the long-term need to make those investments. That’s why the state is really interested in it and how it can both save money and make the grid more resilient to power outages. 

Given your experience working with solar in India, does India’s progress on solar have benefits for NYC and other places around the globe? How are places like New York and India leaders in developing clean energy methods? 

I got involved in solar a little over decade ago. I started in Northern California where solar really became available for everyday people, albeit on small scale. That kind of launched solar in certain way, and now it’s moving forward by leaps and bounds. It doesn’t just happen globally, it really happens in particular moments in time in particular places.

When Japan and Germany adopted feed-in tariffs [policies that supported solar], it caused solar to scale up, and prices to come down. We all benefit from that. China became a major producer [and the price of PV panels dropped rapidly].

For me, it’s interesting to look at New York and to see if there are new breakthroughs that will happen in New York’s denser environment that will reverberate globally.

A solar micro-grid in West Bengal, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

A solar micro-grid in West Bengal, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

Installing solar in Bihar State, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

Installing solar in Bihar State, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

It’s also interesting to see what India will bring to the future of solar. In India, you have an enormous country where economic development is very fast and the major constraint is unreliable electricity or no electricity in urban and rural areas.

India has a lot of coal reserves. But they also have ridiculous amounts of sun. The cost of developing transmission distribution into rural areas is expensive, with a very high infrastructure cost and a very low likelihood of recovering those costs because you’re distributing it to the most low-income people, who are the most expensive to collect money from. So, they are forced to look at distributed generation like solar as a primary driver of electrification. 

You may, in fact, never have rural India mostly electrified by a centralized grid, but by the most cost-effective ways: renewable sources like solar or micro-hydro. The solar potential is enormous. 

India is a really exciting story because they want to call themselves, under Prime Minister Modi, “the first solar-powered superpower.” What they mean by that is a place where you have renewables as a fundamental, key way of generating energy for a large population. The prime minister is a controversial figure for many reasons, but one thing he was able to do when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat was push solar forward big time, Gujarat State was the national leader. He clearly had big ambitions for it, so we’ll see if he can translate that on a national level.

India is a total outlier in so many ways, so it’s hard to predict how things will play out. One thing for sure, their lack of a reliable supply of electricity is one of the biggest constraints on their economy at this point.

When they talk about solar energy in India, increasingly it’s not just in relation to the conversation about climate change or the environment, it’s about how to solve the problem of energy access. Solar doesn’t require India to import fuel and increase their balance of payment, but it allows them to use a resource that the country has an abundance of (it’s one of the sunniest countries in world), and that fits in with demographics. Although urbanization rates are very high, most of the population lives in rural areas, and those are very difficult to serve with centralized infrastructure. 

Solar power in India is not just about responding to climate change, but about providing energy in rural areas that don’t yet have any kind of power.

You now have signs that this is a doable thing, because you have leadership at the top that’s pushing for it. You have the really distributed small scale stuff (solar charging systems, portable retail products, solar home systems) and micro grids (hot thing these days) where you generate hubs of solar micro-grids that can have higher levels of electrical service made available [in rural areas]. These can be managed at a regional level. They’re decentralized enough, but they have some of the larger benefits of centralization where you can start to get the forms of financing that you would for larger capital products.

And India’s not the only one, you see innovative stuff happening in East Africa in the integration of mobile networks and energy services. The epicenter for that has been Kenya and Tanzania. You have Bangladesh, which in the last decade has had incredible amounts of growth in solar home systems. Almost two million households have solar systems that have been financed through the Marine Bank and there’s all sorts of innovative stuff happening in different centers and emerging markets. But India is massive and can have a ripple effect in a way that many other countries in the developing world can’t. 

How did you get the opportunity to work in India? 

I took a course in graduate school, at NYU, called “Solar and Development.” One of the instructors worked for a non-profit called Arc Finance, which focuses on increasing affordability of off-grid energy solutions through linkages with microfinance and other financial mechanisms. I was able to meet the founder and director of the organization through the course, and once that wrapped up I applied for a position and got it.

What would you recommend right now to someone looking for a career in solar? 

Decide first what your main interest is, and go from there. Compared to when I started over a decade ago, solar is now a very large and rapidly growing multi-billion dollar sector. Opportunities for getting into solar abound for people with all kinds of different skills. My big advice would be: don’t wait. There is a job out there with your name on it. Just consider what your strengths and primary interests are and that will lead you in the right direction, be it for a solar company or financier; or in the public or non-profit sectors.

What does resiliency mean to you, and how is it related to sustainability?

I was gone in India when Hurricane Sandy happened. Resiliency wasn’t even part of the vocabulary; when I left it was all “sustainability, sustainability, sustainability.”

It was interesting to come back and discover this new word in the lexicon and its significance. The point is, the power of events and how they can reshape the game board. That’s been the observation from a New Yorker who moved away when Sandy happened to come back and see how much that has permeated the thinking of everyday New Yorkers, public policy makers, and so on.

Sustainability was always the contested term in terms of what it actually meant: was it defined around environmental lines, or economic lines? It was an unresolvable debate about that. And resiliency is a layer of sustainability, it’s directly related to it. 

If something is not resilient, it’s clearly not sustainable. So, it’s not eclipsed the word sustainability, it’s just another piece of pie.

It can also mean multiple things, it can mean how do you withstand and maintain service in the wake of a weather event like Sandy? Or, how do you keep it going in the first place?

In examples like the Solutions Project 100% renewable power plan, solar would be given priority in the sunnier parts of the country, and be less of the mix here in New York State. Do you think solar can do more than their target? Or, is it important to us for other reasons such as individual control, resiliency for the grid, etc?

In recent years solar growth has far surpassed estimates made by the IEA and other analysts. It will continue to do so. Much of this relates to the inherent creativity of the technology, which results from its basic design characteristics. It’s modular and has no moving parts, requires no day-to-day operation by the user and lasts a very, very long time.

As a result it can be widely adopted by many people in many different contexts. This diversity and accessibility unlocks enormous amounts of creativity in both the private sector and public sectors, and, importantly, in civil society. In the past five years, the real price of solar equipment has declined dramatically as a result of increased scale driven by mostly European demand and mostly Chinese production. At the same time, in many states — New York definitely included — the policy and regulatory context has evolved to support rather than suppress distributed generation.

New policies can shape a home-grown clean tech sector in New York, with ideas and products sent worldwide.

These conditions are generating new business models and forms of collaboration that drive technological change, price reduction and other transformations that industry prognosticators – used to modeling around stable centralized generation – are not well equipped to predict. They will continue to be increasingly wrong because they cannot model around something so disruptive, unpredictable and creative. Don’t be fooled by those who point to today’s pie charts that barely register solar. That can and will change very quickly. When it comes to solar, small is not small, small is very big because small can be very fast. As conditions evolve, solar can be adopted and implemented by many people, very quickly. That’s not how power plants are built. These days, here in New York, traditional power plants take forever to build.

What about New York City’s “80 by 50” goal to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050?

WIth that, they’re really focusing on making buildings more efficient, but there is a big renewable energy component. In a similar time frame, they want to have electricity almost completely from renewable sources. 

We’ve come to a point where you can’t be a leader in this state or the city and not have an ambitious plan for renewables; that’s the nature of politics in this city and in this state.

Regarding “80 by 50,” I think it’s totally doable. But aside from whether it’s politically possible, I don’t think numbers alone mean a lot. 

Some people were really excited when President Obama struck the deal with China to reduce emissions, but only looking at numbers is the wrong way to look at it. Someone told me that for China to meet their goal, they’ll need to add as much clean energy capacity to their economy that they currently have in dirty capacity.

What happens to the technologies along the way? What innovations happen, what breakthroughs occur along the way that end up making the initial numbers irrelevant? Through that effort of making so much clean energy come on line, you’re going to think of so many ways of driving cost down and supporting innovation that the market will take over from there.

With “80 by 50,” New York has put a goal in place, and at same time New York is rapidly developing a clean tech sector to address the needs in New York. One of goals of New York State’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” [REV] initiative is not just to keep the grid stable, but it’s to cultivate an interesting, globally dominant clean tech sector that serves the needs of cities in the future. [More about the REV here.]

It can give rise to a home-grown clean tech sector that can develop innovations to accelerate the path towards decarbonizing our grid in ways we could have never foreseen.

New York’s lead role in solving for the future

 

Radley Horton is serious about climate change. As a NASA researcher, an author for the National Climate Assessment, and climate science lead for the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), he knows first hand the impending challenges of a warming planet. He rattles off measurements from the most recent NPCC report – including increases in average temperature and a greater frequency of extreme events such as coastal flooding and heat waves – with a calm that belies the urgency in the numbers.

Horton was one of five panelists at a Columbia University talk last month titled “Resilient New York: Architecture and Urban Planning in the Face of Climate Change.” The event, hosted by Sustainability Media Lab and open to the public, brought experts together to discuss New York City’s role in setting an example for other cities and regions by adapting its urban planning and infrastructure to the demands of climate change.

The speakers came with different specialties and skills; along with Dr. Horton, the climate scientist, were Brian Baer, an architect focusing on sustainable communities; Pippa Brashear, landscape architect and consultant to NYC on coastal protection; Tara Eisenberg, research coordinator for Rebuild by Design, the pioneering HUD program for new design solutions to protect the city’s coastline; and Jeffrey Raven, architect, planner, and author on the forthcoming Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities (via the organization UCCRN, covered earlier in City Atlas).

Every speaker returned to the buzzword “resiliency.” The use of the word resiliency, both in the talk’s title and by its guests, recalls the City’s “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan released in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy. Resilience has a working policy definition, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and cited by New York’s panel, the NPCC:

“Resilience is the ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a potentially hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration, or improvement of its essential basic structures.”

Among the questions the Columbia panel faced were: what does ‘resilience’ mean to them? What is its relationship with sustainability; are they one and the same? Does the philosophy of ‘resilience’ call for adaptive solutions with steep emission cuts, or in place of emission cuts?

It should be noted that elsewhere, researchers are deeply engaging with the fundamental challenge of emission cuts, even in their own lifestyles. Nature cites a new paper that questions the norm of gathering for scientific conferences which could be replaced by online meetings. “If scientists want to bolster their credibility on the subject of global warming, the authors say, then they must harness the power of the Internet and reduce the time they spend in the air.”

At the Columbia talk, Brashear described her fascination with the concept of risk and its role in resilience. In her design solutions, she seeks to perceive risk and reduce fragility, emphasizing that “there are no generic solutions.” Her project at engineering giant Parsons Brinkerhoff, designed by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and titled Living Breakwaters, is one of the winners of Rebuild by Design, the multi-regional design competition for resilient solutions. Living Breakwaters aims to reduce risk for the exposed southeast coastline of Staten Island, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, by creating a breakwater system to buffer against wave damage, flooding, and erosion. The redesign includes recreational and educational features for the community as part of the package.

For Brian Baer, director of The Elevated Studio, resilience and sustainability “are constantly being defined, redefined, put in a blender, hit pulse, and we try to figure out what those definitions are…they’re interwoven. A lot of times we try to separate what is resilience from sustainability, and at the end of the day, it’s about adapting the built environment to climate change.” Baer works with families affected by Sandy to cut through the complex and often ineffective government agencies and organizations created to help rebuild their homes.

Baer’s focus on the built environment is primarily centered around the mitigation of future damages the floods may cause. Similarly, Horton sees resiliency as designing with a flexible approach to adaptation, using integrated methods: engineering, ecosystems, and social strategies.

Tara Eisenberg, the research coordinator for Rebuild by Design, like Baer and Horton, highlighted the importance of speaking directly to the community. Part of what makes the Rebuild by Design program so unique is that it pushes its competitors, as Eisenberg notes, to “talk to everyone. Find out what happened and what the community needs.” Rather than starting with a definition of resiliency, participating designers and firms begin by finding what resiliency means to others–whether that constitutes more elevated land, an engaged community emergency center, or marshland protection.

While Eisenberg, Baer, and Horton focused closely and specifically on New York’s affected communities after Sandy, architect Jeffrey Raven spoke with a more global view of architecture’s expanding agency in protecting the climate. Raven works on resilient design solutions all over the world and is currently coordinating lead author of the planning section of the next Assessment Report for Climate Change in Cities; he stressed the importance of collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries. While collaboration and leading by example is key,  Raven also pointed out that adapting to climate change is different between sprawling cities like Phoenix and dense cities like Shanghai.

In the questions portion of the talk, one audience member challenged the panelists to look beyond the immediate needs of New York’s community to 100 or 200 years in the future. Another audience member asked the panelists to speak on South America’s rainforests; there is a link between here and there, because as the Amazon dries out in a hotter climate (or undergoes other changes), the forests may take up less CO2, which would increase the impacts felt in New York City.

Although the focus of the talk was on the immediate and geographically specific response to Hurricane Sandy, our response in New York, in adaptation and mitigation, has implications far beyond the metropolitan area. Leadership, locally, nationally, and globally, is where the solutions begin. As Radley Horton stated during his presentation, “New York City can really act as a multiplier. People look to New York as an example…New York City’s leadership really can be an inspiration.”

Reported by Rowan Wu and Madeleine Levin

Photographs courtesy of Sustainability Media Lab/Kaia Rose