Climate Change: Impacts and Solutions (Yale Club of NYC)

Heidi Cullen, Nat Keohane and Rit Aggarawala discuss our options on climate (Photo: Norma Padron)

Hei­di Cul­len (Cli­mate Cen­tral), Nat Keo­hane (EDF) and Rit Aggarawala (Side­walk Labs) dis­cuss our options on cli­mate (Pho­to: Nor­ma Padron)

A cli­ma­tol­o­gist, an econ­o­mist, a pol­i­cy advi­sor, and an epi­demi­ol­o­gist. What they all have in com­mon: big pic­ture ideas about cli­mate change, a solu­tions-focused approach, and a dose of opti­mism. To a cap­ti­vat­ed audi­ence at an event spon­sored by the Yale Alum­ni Asso­ci­a­tion of New York, alum­ni orga­ni­za­tions YANA and YBG, and chaired by Miran­da Massie, direc­tor of The Cli­mate Muse­um, the four experts out­lined their strate­gies for cli­mate action: the chal­lenges, the oppor­tu­ni­ties, and the way for­ward.

Cli­ma­tol­o­gist Hei­di Cul­len, Chief Sci­en­tist at Cli­mate Cen­tral, began the dis­cus­sion by high­light­ing why cli­mate change is such a unique­ly dif­fi­cult prob­lem: it chal­lenges the basic biol­o­gy of human brains, which evolved to per­ceive and respond to imme­di­ate threats, not to plan glob­al respons­es to an issue with seri­ous and far-reach­ing yet seem­ing­ly dis­tant con­se­quences.

As a cli­ma­tol­o­gist, Hei­di is used to be being to bear­er of bad news on pan­els like the­se. Tonight she deliv­ered some sober­ing sta­tis­tics:

  • 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record
  • June of 2016 is the hottest mon­th on record for the four­teen­th con­sec­u­tive mon­th
  • To find the last year we’ve expe­ri­enced below-aver­age tem­per­a­ture, you would have to go back four decades to 1976
  • We now have a bet­ter han­dle on extreme event attri­bu­tion, the abil­i­ty to claim with near cer­tain­ty that extreme weath­er and oth­er nat­u­ral dis­as­ters are direct­ly tied to human-caused cli­mate change. Stud­ies of the Great Bar­ri­er Reef have shown that the coral reef bleach­ing is 175 times more like­ly with tem­per­a­ture ris­es caused by cli­mate changes
  • New research from Penn State has dou­bled pre­vi­ous sea-lev­el rise pro­jec­tions to 6 feet by the end of the cen­tu­ry. The very long term out­look, over cen­turies of Green­land and Antarc­tic ice melt, includes pro­jec­tions of up to 50 feet of sea-lev­el rise.

2016 marks the point where we real­ize that cli­mate change does not sit in iso­la­tion from oth­er prob­lems,” says Cul­len, “but in fact is deeply inter­twined with prob­lems like pover­ty, inequal­i­ty, and the long-term sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the plan­et.”

Despite the­se alarm­ing signs, Nat Keo­hane, Vice Pres­i­dent for Glob­al Cli­mate at the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund, is hope­ful for three rea­sons:

  1. Grow­ing pub­lic aware­ness (70% of Amer­i­cans under­stand that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing, and 60% think it’s seri­ous)
  2. Polit­i­cal momen­tum- The Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment marked the first time 195 coun­tries agreed to a uni­ver­sal, legal­ly bind­ing glob­al cli­mate deal. In the U.S., Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion has shown seri­ous com­mit­ment to the issue with first-ever lim­its on pow­er plants, auto­mo­bile emis­sions lim­its, and “super pol­lu­tant” hydro­flu­o­ro­car­bons.   
  3. Tech­nol­o­gy- Renew­able ener­gy costs are plum­met­ing (although still a tiny share of the ener­gy mar­ket) and green tech­nol­o­gy like elec­tric vehi­cles is advanc­ing

Rohit (“Rit”) Aggar­wala, for­mer Direc­tor of New York City’s Office of Long-Term Plan­ning (which pro­duced the much-laud­ed PlaNYC) and cur­rent Chief Pol­i­cy Offi­cer at urban inno­va­tion firm Side­walk Labs, believes that “the bat­tle [again­st cli­mate change] is won or lost at the local lev­el,” because that’s where poli­cies on ener­gy pro­duc­tion and use, tran­sit sys­tems, and waste man­age­ment are actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed. “Almost every gov­ern­ment in the world, no mat­ter how pow­er-hun­gry,” says Aggar­wala, “lets the munic­i­pal­i­ties pick the up the garbage.”

That could be a very good thing, because the co-ben­e­fits of cli­mate action in cities is often more intu­itive than it is elsewhere–urban-dwellers gen­er­al­ly want less garbage and air pol­lu­tion and more oppor­tu­ni­ties for hous­ing and pub­lic and phys­i­cal trans­porta­tion.

The dan­gers of cli­mate change are also less the­o­ret­i­cal at the local lev­el. See­ing a pro­jec­tion of La Guardia Air­port under­wa­ter, for exam­ple, hits very close to home, mean­ing local gov­ern­ments are often more pro­gres­sive than state or nation­al gov­ern­ments. In devel­oped coun­tries, cities are already more car­bon effi­cient per cap­i­ta than sub­ur­bia or rural areas. As more of human­i­ty moves into cities, Aggar­wala argues, “if you want to save the plan­et, the answer lies in bet­ter cities.” 

Zoom­ing in even fur­ther, epi­demi­ol­o­gist Robert Dubrow reminds us that reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions is not just about pro­tect­ing the plan­et, it’s about pro­tect­ing our­selves. Dubrow directs the Yale Cli­mate Change and Health Ini­tia­tive, and pro­vid­ed a cat­a­logue of the pub­lic health dan­gers of cli­mate change:

  1. Injuries and deaths due to extreme weath­er events.
  2. Occu­pa­tion­al heat stress- in many parts of the world, fac­to­ries and ware­hous­es are not air con­di­tioned, lead­ing to dan­ger­ous con­di­tions for work­ers. Cer­tain parts of the world will become too hot to work or live in. 
  3. The spread of vec­tor-born dis­eases (like malar­ia spread by mos­qui­toes) and food­borne and water­borne dis­eases.
  4. Food inse­cu­ri­ty, and water scarci­ty.
  5. Vio­lent con­flict due to com­pe­ti­tion over scarce resources (cli­mate change was a pos­si­ble con­tribut­ing cause to the Syr­i­an civil war). 
  6. Refugees and migrants due to shrink­ing liv­ing spaces and the expan­sion of deserts.

On the flip side, imple­ment­ing solu­tions to cli­mate change will yield a host of pub­lic health ben­e­fits:

1) The shift to renew­able ener­gy will min­i­mize air pol­lu­tion, which cur­rent­ly  caus­es about 6 mil­lion deaths a year 

2) Enhanced infra­struc­ture for walk­ing, bik­ing, and phys­i­cal trans­porta­tion- some of the best ways to stay active and healthy 

3) The shift from ani­mal agri­cul­ture to plant-based agri­cul­ture, which will reduce methane and CO2 in the atmos­phere while also yield­ing health ben­e­fits.

Robert Dubrow of Yale on left, as an attentive audience learns from the panel. (Ph: Adam Glenn AdaptNY.org)

As the pub­lic becomes more aware, pub­lic forums may become more fre­quent. Robert Dubrow of Yale on left. (Pho­to: A. Adam Glenn of Adapt​NY​.org)

But what about that nag­ging real­i­ty, cost? Some peo­ple say it’s “just too expen­sive” to solve cli­mate change. Keo­hane, an econ­o­mist by train­ing, assures that the fight again­st cli­mate change eas­i­ly pass­es a cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis. The U.S. gov­ern­ment esti­mates that the “social cost of carbon”(representing all of the impacts of cli­mate change we can mon­e­tize) is $40 per ton. With every per­son account­ing for about 20 tons of CO2 a year, we already have a price to pay. Keo­hane believes that eco­nom­ic poli­cies we are already famil­iar with, like the car­bon tax or cap and trade (which solved the acid rain cri­sis in the 1990s) can har­ness the mar­ket to help solve cli­mate change.

One inno­va­tion we can’t do with­out? The trans­for­ma­tion of the vehi­cle fleet to elec­tric (even autonomous) vehi­cles, as well as fur­ther invest­ment in pub­lic infra­struc­ture like inter-city trains (solv­ing for cli­mate change may have the  sec­ondary ben­e­fit of solv­ing for traf­fic).

To con­clude the dis­cus­sion, asks an audi­ence mem­ber, what gives each of the­se pro­fes­sion­als hope?

Cul­len points to the expo­nen­tial growth in solar ener­gy. Keo­hane to the 195 coun­tries that signed the Paris agree­ment. Aggar­wala to the num­ber of may­ors who have pledged to reduce car­bon emis­sions, and Dubrow to Chi­na begin­ning to take cli­mate change seri­ous­ly.

Some­thing else you might want to check out? The price of Tes­la on the mar­ket. Noth­ing says change like soar­ing stock in elec­tric cars.