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 AdaptNY.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 climatecentral.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