A sea level walk, and Klaus Jacob


If you look at where the water is going, it’s not nice.” 

Klaus Jacob describ­ing a slide of the new World Trade Cen­ter Tran­sit Hub, designed by San­ti­ago Cala­trava, under water in a future sce­nar­io of sea lev­el rise.

If you pur­chased a tick­et to San Fran­cis­co on an air­line that told you there’s a 90% chance you’ll land safe­ly, but a 10% chance you won’t, what would you say? (We’re guess­ing: ‘No, thanks…’)

Many low-lying neigh­bor­hoods of New York con­front those same odds over the next cen­tu­ry as pro­jec­tions of sea lev­el rise come into greater detail.

In a packed audi­to­ri­um at the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Archi­tects near Wash­ing­ton Square Park on a spring evening in March, a crowd pre­pared to hear Klaus Jacob, Columbia Uni­ver­si­ty geo­physi­cist and one of the city’s top experts on sea lev­el rise. In atten­dance were Cyn­thia Rosen­zweig of NASA, who is the co-chair of the City’s advi­so­ry pan­el on cli­mate change (NPCC), the archi­tects Don­ald Wat­son and Deb­o­rah Gans, and Daniel Zarril­li, Direc­tor of the Mayor’s Office of Recov­ery and Resilien­cy. Togeth­er with mod­er­a­tor Lance Jay Brown, they fol­lowed Dr. Jacob’s talk with an open and can­did dis­cus­sion of the future of the city. The talk can be seen below (the excerpt­ed note about the Cala­trava sta­tion comes at 59:00).



Slides for the talk are here, with thanks to Dr. Jacob. And here is a tran­script. Many of the sea lev­el maps used in the talk come from Cli­mate Cen­tral map­ping tools.

Accord­ing to Klaus Jacob’s research, 90% of sci­en­tists project not more than a 6 feet rise by 2100, while 10% deliv­er esti­mates includ­ing more than 6 feet rise by the end of the cen­tu­ry. Fol­low­ing the events of Hur­ri­cane Irene and Sandy, we know that New York City’s Achilles heel is our sub­way sys­tem, rais­ing ques­tions about how the city can best pre­pare for more fre­quent flood events even before sig­nif­i­cant land area is affect­ed.

Despite attempts at light­heart­ed jokes through­out the event, it was yet anoth­er somber dis­cus­sion about sea lev­el pro­jec­tions for New York City. Views con­verged on the need for both rapid adap­ta­tion, and rapid mit­i­ga­tion – ie., the few­er emis­sions we pro­duce, and the more ambi­tious we can make world­wide tar­gets, the less sea lev­el rise we will have to wor­ry about. 

Because of our late start on chang­ing our ener­gy sup­ply and the amount we use, the rel­e­vant glob­al cuts for pre­serv­ing New York City are a big step. Amer­i­cans are still at the top of the ener­gy lad­der, and wealthy Amer­i­cans, of whom New York has many, can par­tic­u­lar­ly be a help in lead­ing the changes need­ed, through invest­ment and lifestyle lead­er­ship.

It should become nor­mal to be cli­mate-con­scious in all aspects of life, espe­cial­ly now when it is still easy to re-shape our habits with­out the simul­ta­ne­ous chal­lenge of cop­ing with impacts. An online tool pio­neered by the British Depart­ment of Ener­gy and Cli­mate Change (DECC) allows any­one to mod­el the cli­mate and ener­gy sys­tem to dis­cov­er a bal­ance that fits.

Addi­tion­al notes fol­low from Richard Reiss:

New York­ers that love their city – if you’re still read­ing, we think that must be you – have irre­place­able roles as lead­ers in the cre­ation of a zero emis­sions econ­o­my. A trans­for­ma­tion in how we work and live will be cru­cial to keep the city intact: that’s the under­ly­ing mes­sage of cli­mate change.

After Klaus Jacob’s talk, the Munic­i­pal Art Soci­ety invit­ed guides for this year’s Jane’s Walks, in hon­or of the famous urban advo­cate Jane Jacobs. We felt it would be ide­al to do a walk about sea lev­el, espe­cial­ly as Jane Jacobs her­self lived at the cor­ner of Hud­son Street and Per­ry in the West Vil­lage, a his­toric neigh­bor­hood now crit­i­cal­ly exposed to the impact of ris­ing seas.

We were joined by Alison Engel of CUSPmap​.org, Adam Glenn of Adapt​NY​.org, and Nicole Cresci­man­no and Phil Kahn of Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by.

Sea level maps by climatecentral.org; Jacobs house at 555 Hudson St.

Sea lev­el maps by cli​mate​cen​tral​.org; urban­ist Jane Jacobs lived at 555 Hud­son St.

We led our walk along a cou­ple of blocks of Bar­clay Street, just north of the Cala­trava train sta­tion and WTC memo­ri­al site. Search­ing the Cli­mate Cen­tral ‘Choic­es’ map, you see that Bar­clay descends down towards the river, lead­ing you first into ankle deep, and then waist deep, water, as future sea lev­el is tak­en into account. By the con­clu­sions of sea lev­el experts, only with the fastest emis­sion reduc­tions do we achieve a tran­si­tion that does not ulti­mate­ly flood Low­er Man­hat­tan. (The lev­ee pro­pos­al for Man­hat­tan would provide some pro­tec­tion for a time, but some experts already dis­miss it as a long term solu­tion with­out it being cou­pled with steep emis­sion cuts, which are also the only solu­tion for the entire city.)

Once peo­ple com­pre­hend how hard the tar­gets are, how impor­tant it is to achieve them (it makes a real dif­fer­ence in mil­lions of lives), and how we already depend on future car­bon cap­ture to achieve the goals we cur­rent­ly talk about, it could reshape how we view what we may cur­rent­ly take for grant­ed, in terms of fly­ing, dri­ving, eat­ing a diet heavy on meat, and oth­er activ­i­ties that go with a large car­bon foot­print (on an indi­vid­u­al lev­el, those are the big three).

Just shar­ing the recog­ni­tion that the sta­tus quo is gone is the place to start.

Let’s assume Land­marks Preser­va­tion for the entire city – what would be nec­es­sary?

  • More maps are not need­ed at this point. But hon­est assess­ment is need­ed, and for that, give our polit­i­cal lead­ers per­mis­sion to tell us the truth, and give each oth­er per­mis­sion to take action.
  • Seek sta­bil­i­ty.
  • Devel­op lead­er­ship work­shops on what is nec­es­sary to achieve the 2°C tar­get (or bet­ter, the 1.5°C tar­get – dif­fi­cult to achieve but worth under­stand­ing).
  • City IDNYC cards are the type of ini­tia­tive that might be adapt­ed as a broad­er pilot pro­gram to edu­cate on ener­gy and cli­mate, to guide the pub­lic towards indi­vid­u­al and busi­ness steps con­sis­tent with the 2°C tar­get of the Paris Agree­ment.
  • Pro­fes­sions that plan to stay in NYC should begin to change prac­tices to align with the 2°C tar­get. A tem­plate is this lead­ing pro­pos­al to med­ical researchers about cut­ting back on air trav­el for sci­en­tific con­fer­ences. The same points can be relayed to law firms, banks, and oth­er indus­tries. Vis­i­ble com­mit­ments pro­duce val­ue. It’s a dif­fer­ent world, and we need to get used to that.
  • Pub­lic edu­ca­tion and dia­logue events on cli­mate must be fund­ed at a scale pro­por­tion­ate to the over­all econ­o­my. The scope of the prob­lem makes it a poor fit for jour­nal­ism. The news cycle is too short and too shal­low to ade­quate­ly address a long term exis­ten­tial prob­lem, one that requires the remak­ing of much of our infra­struc­ture and habits to solve. Glob­al mar­ket­ing, which is a $500 bil­lion indus­try, obscures the changes tak­ing place, and makes it hard for peo­ple (or cor­po­ra­tions) to shift to new aspi­ra­tions. As with tobac­co edu­ca­tion, a resource for fund­ing at some per­cent­age of the scale of mar­ket­ing itself is required for peo­ple to see the top­ic as part of every­day real­i­ty. An edu­ca­tion fund based on 2% of the New York metro area’s media mar­ket might yield an annu­al bud­get of about $100 mil­lion. For com­par­ison, the mar­ket­ing bud­get of a sin­gle Hol­ly­wood film can reach $50 mil­lion. Let’s assume that the preser­va­tion of New York City is a top­ic worth at least two films; the cen­ter of grav­i­ty has to shift, and the soon­er the bet­ter.
  • Rec­og­nize that an econ­o­my pow­ered by renew­able ener­gy oper­ates at the lev­el described by Richard Hein­berg, and by David MacK­ay, and by Saul Grif­fith, each of whom has cre­at­ed a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis with a pack­age of engi­neer­ing and cul­tur­al­ly adap­tive solu­tions.
  • David MacK­ay, who was Chief Sci­en­tist for the UK Depart­ment of Ener­gy and Cli­mate Change, esti­mat­ed UK ener­gy demand per per­son at 125 KWh/day. US ener­gy demand is about dou­ble that, though New York City res­i­dents (with­out air trav­el) can eas­i­ly meet the UK stan­dard. A zero car­bon ener­gy sup­ply might only be half the UK lev­el (68 KWh/day), so that rep­re­sents the size of cul­tur­al adap­ta­tion we need to make. A price on car­bon lead­ing to new tech­nol­o­gy deliv­ered by mar­ket forces and effi­cien­cy can bridge some of the gap, but behav­ioral changes are the fastest and cleanest method of bring­ing down emis­sions. MacKay’s book on ener­gy is cen­tral to many people’s under­stand­ing of the pos­si­bil­i­ties for tran­si­tion. Read Bill Gates on MacKay’s work.
  • The more New York­ers (and peo­ple in gen­er­al) know about our ener­gy sup­ply and our options the smoother the tran­si­tion becomes. And hon­esty is para­mount. In New York State, for instance, where solar is advo­cat­ed, a 3KW rooftop array gen­er­ates enough pow­er in about a year for one NY/LA roundtrip air­line tick­et. Alter­na­tive­ly, skip­ping one roundtrip flight each year saves the equiv­a­lent of 5000K­Wh of fos­sil fuels, a year of the ben­e­fits pro­vid­ed by the same 3KW rooftop solar array. (Solar gen­er­a­tion data for NYC pro­vid­ed by NREL.) Under­stand­ing the pro­por­tions involved is the first step to mak­ing good choic­es that make a last­ing dif­fer­ence.
  • World­wide, almost 20% of emis­sions come from the wealth­i­est one per­cent, those with incomes of $82,000 and above. This group, which includes many New York­ers, steers the dis­cus­sion on cli­mate; if we want New York to last, it’s our choic­es and our influ­ence that will have the biggest effect.
  • The con­cen­tra­tion of emis­sions from those with high­er incomes also may explain why uni­ver­si­ties, NGOs and phil­an­thropies have been slow to con­front the neces­si­ty of our own lifestyle changes. Envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions rely on donors in that one per­cent income brack­et, or with incomes ten times or one hun­dred times that num­ber. Uni­ver­si­ties might rely on dona­tions from bene­fac­tors who make 1000 times that amount in a year. Fear of los­ing access to those dona­tions mutes the abil­i­ty to be forth­right, but that fear has to be over­come. The world is phys­i­cal­ly chang­ing. To restore bal­ance we must learn to change our ways faster than the dis­rup­tion we’ve caused.
  • Cli­mate change is real­ly an aspect of ener­gy, but how we pro­duce and use ener­gy is an aspect of how we gov­ern our­selves. The long term solu­tions will come from bet­ter ways to engage an active cit­i­zen dia­logue, and learn to gov­ern our­selves, at a time when trust in gov­ern­ment is low and insti­tu­tions with pow­er may be indif­fer­ent. Some of the lead­ing thinkers on restor­ing trust include James Fishk­in and Nobel Lau­re­ate Eli­nor Ostrom. Aca­d­e­mics from the top uni­ver­si­ties in Ire­land have called for an Irish nation­al cit­i­zen dia­logue on cli­mate, and their pro­pos­al is a good mod­el for an ini­tia­tive that could begin in New York City and spread else­where. To be clear: the bet­ter you under­stand cli­mate, the more you real­ize that the con­se­quences of con­tin­ued CO2 emis­sions were already fair­ly well under­stood in 1958, 1969, 1975, and 1979. And the ener­gy engi­neer­ing required to shift our soci­ety to renew­ables, or renew­ables and nuclear, is also well under­stood (Saul Grif­fith lays out a sim­ple plan to decar­bonize the US grid in an eight min­ute video). Cli­mate is not about cli­mate sci­ence, and it’s ulti­mate­ly not about ener­gy; it’s about how we gov­ern our­selves, and how we will reshape our soci­ety to meet a dif­fer­ent ener­gy stan­dard.
  • Kim Stan­ley Robin­son wrote a valu­able essay for McK­in­sey describ­ing how a soci­ety that solves cli­mate change would look; not only are the ener­gy sys­tems dif­fer­ent, but the social struc­ture is dif­fer­ent. What do we need from the pub­lic? In the future, people’s iden­ti­ties may not hinge on pro­duc­tion or con­sump­tion, but on their abil­i­ty to self-gov­ern. The goal is to provide pub­lic lead­er­ship at every lev­el, what Eli­nor Ostrom called poly­cen­tric gov­er­nance. Stronger cit­i­zen engage­ment can provide the dig­ni­ty and mean­ing that con­sump­tion sup­plies, and in the chal­leng­ing land­scape of com­ing years and decades, we’ll need everyone’s input.
  • New York has a vibrant tech econ­o­my, includ­ing offices from Google and Face­book. Because cit­i­zen to cit­i­zen com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic forums for build­ing local lead­er­ship might be cen­ter­pieces of a city-wide respon­se, tech giants would be ide­al allies. Not for prof­it, but to cre­ate the sta­ble soci­ety that they too depend on. MacKay’s meth­ods for improv­ing pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions in the UK is a mod­el. In the after­math of the Brex­it vote, it’s good to con­sid­er how democ­ra­cy was orig­i­nal­ly con­struct­ed as an inclu­sive polit­i­cal sys­tem that could bring out the wis­dom of the peo­ple:

    Many Athe­ni­an democ­rats would have argued that peo­ple must learn to do pol­i­tics, they must learn to be cit­i­zens; it is not some­thing that comes nat­u­ral­ly. Much of the Athe­ni­an polit­i­cal sys­tem was about that process of learn­ing. Below the lev­el of the city insti­tu­tions them­selves, there was a whole series of local gov­ern­ment com­mit­tees and talk­ing shops, where the Athe­ni­ans prac­ticed the art of pol­i­tics. The use of ran­dom selec­tion for polit­i­cal office had an impor­tant role to play too. (Mary Beard, TLS)

You can see how hard it is to change a non-demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tion by Ben­jam­in Franta’s descrip­tion of his six years of work push­ing Har­vard to divest its endow­ment from fos­sil fuel stocks. It’s an incred­i­ble sto­ry; Harvard’s own cam­pus lies in the path of sea lev­el rise, and the uni­ver­si­ty is home to many world experts on cli­mate.

Basi­cal­ly, with­out our voic­es, it’s a risk shift — the incum­bents in ener­gy, and those invest­ed in the same, are pass­ing the cost on to soci­ety at a vast scale. Because they don’t want to pay it. (Total­ly under­stand­able, if dis­il­lu­sion­ing.) But that can change. And our sci­ence is good enough so that no one can say we weren’t told.

Keep­ing New York intact should be some­thing we can agree on. Work­ing back­wards from that goal can give us a con­crete way to move for­ward on cli­mate.

Addi­tion­al read­ing:

Lim­it­ing the anthro­pogenic tem­per­a­ture anom­aly to 1.5–2°C is pos­si­ble, yet requires trans­for­ma­tion­al change across the board of moder­ni­ty.” Nature, July 2016: Schellnhu­ber, Rahm­storf, Winkel­mann

Rolling Stone “Can New York be saved in the era of glob­al warm­ing?” (July 5, 2016)

Miami, hav­ing no topog­ra­phy to pro­tect it, is decades ahead of New York City in terms of feel­ing the effects of a ris­ing ocean. A new MSNBC report shows how pub­lic offi­cials and experts pon­der the future of the city. “We as a peo­ple will become afraid of the ocean” (June 30, 2016)

New Sci­en­tist “The real cli­mate con­spir­a­cy: what you’re not being told”

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia has pledged to be car­bon neu­tral by 2025; “Bend­ing the Curve” is their pre­lim­i­nary report, list­ing ten scal­able solu­tions to cli­mate change.

Open­Democ­ra­cy: “Social­ly con­struct­ed silence? Pro­tect­ing pol­i­cy­mak­ers from the unthink­able”:

If cli­mate change work is stuck at the lev­el of  ‘sym­bol­ic pol­i­cy mak­ing’—a set of prac­tices designed to make it look as though polit­i­cal elites are doing some­thing while actu­al­ly doing nothing—then it becomes all the more impor­tant for the sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ty to find ways of aban­don­ing the social defens­es we’ve described and speak out as a whole, rather than leav­ing the task to a belea­guered and much-crit­i­cized minor­i­ty. – Rose­mary Ran­dall, Paul Hoggett