City-scale climate education for NYC

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On February 25, 2020, Richard Reiss and Archie Kinnane of City Atlas gave testimony to the NYC Council on two new bills intended to strengthen the City’s carbon emissions reporting and management. Richard’s live testimony is below, on video (cued to the last chart, one minute), with written proposal below that, and Archie’s testimony is posted here. The chart shown is from the UK FIRES Absolute Zero report. All three charts in the full five minute testimony, and their sources, are at the bottom of this post.

I’m the editor of the project, about the future of New York City; we’re based at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College, and William Solecki, former co-chair of the City’s climate panel, is one of our advisors. Today I speak on my own behalf and do not speak for the Institute or for the City Atlas project.

The local laws proposed would be a valuable step in continuing New York’s leadership on climate policy. I testify in enthusiastic support of these steps, and hope the City can go further, faster. As C40 Cities puts it, we have a 2020 deadline to curve emissions down rapidly.1 NYC is formally committed to the C40 emission pathways, though the city shows no sign of being able to meet them.

Part of the problem is that carbon commitments for a city extend far beyond that of the municipal emissions or city agencies, because up to two thirds of our emissions are lifestyle-based.

Lifestyle emissions are unequal. Wealthy people own larger homes and cars, consume more goods, and travel more. As shown by Oxfam, in the US, the top 10% of emitters average 50 tonnes per person, while the bottom half average below 10 tonnes. If we collect ten New Yorkers, nine will average a little over 10 tonnes each, and one will be at 50 tonnes. And some ratios are far higher.2

This disparity is why C40 points out that bringing high emitters down towards the average is essential to rapid decarbonization: the wealthy are where the emissions are, so their changes are more effective. (C40 calculates a 35% drop in emissions by bringing the global top 10% down to the EU average.3 Bringing the top 10% in NYC down to the city’s per capita average would likely also be about a 35% cut, bringing us in line with Paris agreement goals.)

Other governments are grappling with the equity challenge now, including Paris (as in the guide I brought to the Council hearing in December, 2018), Finland, where the nation has a national decarbonization guide, including an online test now taken by 850,000 Finns, and Barcelona, where the city’s equivalent $1B climate emergency plan includes culture shifting and education.

Better than just reducing their own emissions, the top 10% – in New York, about 860,000 people – can begin to contribute answers. New Yorkers are hard workers and want to produce value. That’s good, because we need a war effort, and New Yorkers can lead it. But it won’t happen until enough of us shift our own aspirations. As we shift, the economy will shift, and new careers will open up that match a low carbon life. Until that happens, most of our fixes are window dressing, because we are still living in the past in our own lifestyle choices.

How can we fund city-scale climate education? The hard truth of climate change is that resilience infrastructure has no value without climate education, and without the deep social change that permits emission reductions. We won’t be able to adapt to coming impacts unless we moderate them by rapidly curbing our emissions, and that project must include all New Yorkers.

A Percent for Climate law would immediately set aside a percentage of each budget for resilience infrastructure the City undertakes, and create a fund for climate outreach, cultural communications, public education, and civic dialogue on climate change.

One idea is to duplicate the fiscal Percent for Art concept and create a parallel with art for an even more important public good: climate education and dialogue. A Percent for Climate law would immediately set aside a percentage of each budget for resilience infrastructure the City undertakes, and create a fund for climate outreach, cultural communications, public education, and civic dialogue on climate change. These outreach programs, already urgently needed, will help New Yorkers learn, normalize the changes we all need to make, lead with confidence, and prepare for the future. 

The Percent for Climate fund could be managed in the way the Department of Cultural Affairs already funds arts organizations throughout the city, and the funding would be a catalyst to bring New York’s cultural skills to work in transforming the way we live. 

Ed. Note: Updating my testimony: the UK FIRES Absolute Zero report was ultimately not among the materials presented in the UK Citizens’ Assembly; however, the House of Lords took up the report for debate.

Graphs from the testimony

1 – The rate of lifestyle emission cuts necessary for various cities, with NYC in the topmost category:

C40 Cities and Arup, “The future of urban consumption in a 1.5°C world”


2 – To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is impossible without cooperation from top 10%. The top 10% also include many of the best-educated people in our society.

Oxfam “Extreme Carbon Inequality”
The disparity in emissions by wealth is also detailed here:
Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories
Yannick Oswald, Anne Owen, and Julia K. Steinberger (Nature Energy March, 2020)
and in this graph via @jksteinberger


3 – Adapting to 2°C, a changed planet, will require a heroic effort. Achieving 2°C, through curbing emissions, will also require a heroic effort.

The UK FIRES Absolute Zero report for the UK shows how much we need to change in order to achieve the 2°C minimum ambition goal of the Paris Agreement.

UK FIRES Absolute Zero (Cambridge University)


4. An additional note: Research is showing that the fastest, least expensive, and most powerful, solution to climate change may be cultural education, particularly among the affluent, who have enormous leverage on emissions. Education makes broad adoption of new norms possible, and can be coupled with financial tools that accelerate the transition to zero carbon energy. Other approaches may be marginal in comparison, given the scale of the problem and the time pressure. Watch Saul Griffith on the Green New Deal and finance (10 min), and read about the return on climate education as measured by a program at San José State University.

The role of climate change education on individual lifetime carbon emissions. Cordero E, Centeno D, Todd AM, PloS One, February 4, 2020

Adapting to 2°C, maintaining our cities on a profoundly altered planet, will require a heroic effort. Achieving 2°C, through rapidly curbing emissions, will also require a heroic effort. Heroic efforts require our cooperation, and we have to act on what we know.

Photo: Richard Reiss