Summary: After the midterm election, selling climate change got even tougher than it was before. Since the NYC sustainability discussion is mainly framed as climate change response, civic and business leaders should expand it to include the more marketable concepts of increasing resilience, and preparing for higher and more volatile energy prices. Those price changes are coming in the next five years, acccording to sources including the US military and the International Energy Agency, but NYC isn't talking about them, let alone preparing for them. In this post and the next, two parallel strategies to change that are set out, based on the time-honored principle of WIFM - "what's in it for me?" First, highly targeted outreach to networks of thought leaders, on how their fields will benefit from initiatives that conserve energy, lower costs and build local resiliency. Second, outreach to NYC civic networks on behalf of appealing sustainability projects that offer something to all participants. Volunteers and collaborators will be invited.
Many New Yorkers are working to make the city greener and more sustainable. The official center of this sustainability effort is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, launched in 2007 to reduce the City’s emission of greenhouse gases, and maintain its vital infrastructure well into the 21st century. In 2008, SustainLane.com ranked NYC fifth in its survey of US cities working to be more sustainable. Yet looking at what has been achieved and planned so far, it’s clear that much more is required. To be sustainable over the long term requires not just improvement, but transformation.
To understand the scope of change required, we must consider the many factors involved. Besides a changing climate with more extreme weather events, we must also cope with a fragile economy and decreasing supplies of fossil fuels. For our communities to be sustainable, they must also be resilient enough to bounce back despite the disruptions which likely lie ahead.
Making NYC both more sustainable and more resilient will help us continue our role as a model for other world cities. This New York will be powered increasingly by sun, wind and water. It will be transported predominantly by the most efficient and cost-effective means possible – by rail and subway, and by electric buses, trams, cars and bicycles. There will be a renaissance of industrial and agricultural production, both within the City itself and in the surrounding metropolitan region, which will diversify and stabilize our economy. It will provide citizens a satisfying urban life within climate, resource and economic constraints.
Climate change accelerating
After decades of work through UN sponsored forums, thousands of the world’s top climatologists have observed rising global temperatures, with arctic warming accelerating much faster than expected. They have concluded that human-caused climate change is already well underway. Many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments now say that the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere is no more than 350 parts per million, and we are already at 392 ppm. Unless we rapidly return to below 350 ppm, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and methane releases from permafrost melt.
The 21st century will have a hotter climate with more extreme weather, and rising sea levels. Experts working with the Bloomberg Administration have detailed likely impacts on NYC, and have set out a framework for future adaptation efforts. PlaNYC staff & partners are aware of how vulnerable infrastructure like subways, airports and power plants are to storm water surges. Climate change means more storms and hurricanes, and stronger ones.
Despite the widespread suffering climate change is causing, international and national efforts to respond have failed. Immensely wealthy business interests and their allies have skillfully muddied the waters and blocked action. The Pew Research Center found that US voters put global warming on the bottom of their list of priorities, with the economy, jobs and terrorism at the top. Is there any way to ignite broad public support for climate change response? Yes.
To build public support for sustainability initiatives, reframe them.
Let’s focus on climate change in ways that work. Behavioral studies suggest that we weave into our narrative how much we depend on oil, how much the upcoming increases in oil prices will affect us, and thus the value of lowering energy costs, creating green jobs, and restoring energy security.
A Columbia University report found that climate change is often perceived as an abstract and uncertain threat, with impacts taking place far in the future, or in distant places. People are more likely to make sustainable choices when clearly shown their near-term benefits – and how they minimize risk of losses from near term, local threats. Many sustainability initiatives can be reframed as preparation for higher energy costs, and are thus likely to attract broader support.
A report on increasing demand for home energy upgrades from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory confirms that explaining future losses is a good way to motivate action. Homeowners were most likely to get their house insulated when assessors provided vivid explanations of how much energy and money they were losing. (p. 49). Cited in the LBNL report was a campaign that motivated residents of six conservative Kansas towns to sharply cut energy use by appealing to saving money and creating green jobs, patriotism, and the religious theme of creation care - with no mention of climate change.
World oil production to begin decline by 2015, price volatility on the way
Burning oil, coal and natural gas has released the carbon that is a key driver of climate change, but discussing sustainability only in terms of global warming misses the other side of the fossil fuels coin. Our dependence on those fossil fuels to power our society means that declining supplies of those fuels will have profound affects. A growing consensus of expert observers and business leaders expects world oil production levels to go into permanent decline by 2015.
- Current oil production data from Association for the Study of Peak Oil
- Energy Bulletin’s peak oil primer
- Wikipedia on peak oil
Oil prices will become increasingly volatile, with a strong likelihood of oil price shocks or supply crunches. Unlike the effects of climate change, higher fuel prices will have local, near term, and immediately evident impacts. It will cost more to heat buildings and homes. Transportation costs will increase, affecting commuting, the trucking of goods, and the operation of police, fire, school and garbage vehicles. It’s possible that the biggest impact of higher fuel costs may be felt through more cutbacks in discretionary spending, and higher risk of loan defaults.
Higher energy prices on radar of military planners – but not NYC government
NYC leaders are apparently unaware of the paradigm shift in oil prices that may be just around the corner – but so are almost all US government officials, aside from a few like Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Assemblyman Terry Backer (D-CT). On the other hand, fuel depletion is being studied carefully by a growing number of military analysts. In a bibliography of 60 military reports on energy security, 40 cite peak oil as a near-term concern.
The U.S. Joint Forces Command puts out an annual report to guide future military planning. The Joint Operating Environment 2010 warns that despite technological innovations and non-conventional oils, “by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in [worldwide] output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” (P. 29)
A group of British companies issued a 2010 report warning UK government and business to prepare for an oil crunch within five years. There have been many other reports with similar warnings, including one from the US Governmental Accountability Office, and one prepared for the US Department of Energy.
Getting this issue on the radar of NYC government officials and thought leaders is a top priority. If NYC does not prepare now, we will have to develop responses to the next fuel shocks as they are taking place. Isn’t an ounce of prevention preferable to a pound of cure?
Yet, in spite of the need to take action to prepare, nothing has been done. A bill to create an energy shortage contingency plan was introduced to the NYC Council in 2004 in response to the Northeast regional blackout, but no action was taken. This writer's 2008 report requested the City reexamine this issue. It was distributed to many Bloomberg Administration officials and Council members, and to NYC print media. Rohit Aggarwalla, Director of the City's PlaNYC initiative, politely replied that an energy volatility task force would be duplicative of other existing planning boards.
How to erode denial and encourage action?
Perhaps an indirect approach will be more effective in reaching out to a broader circle of civic and business networks, as well as policy advocates and academics. This might take the form of an invitation to co-sponsor a presentation. Some potentially receptive communities might include insurance providers, emergency planners, security companies, transportation planners, local agriculture advocates, or medical facility administrators. Our goal is to get a critical number of New Yorkers to realize that sustainability requires developing resilience and preparing for fuel volatility. At some point, government officials will join the discussion.
Resources for government officials on preparing for fuel depletion
US municipal templates on preparing for fuel volatility already exist, in the form of official reports from the cities of Bloomington, IN, San Francisco, CA, and Portland, OR.
Post Carbon Institute has issued Post Carbon Cities, a guide for local government decision-makers, and The Post Carbon Reader, a collection of articles on how to manage the sustainability crises of the 21st century. With the oil shocks of the 1970s a distant memory, the literature on preparing for fuel supply disruptions deserves review.
How NYC officials can benefit from addressing fuel price volatility
Particularly in a time of constrained financial resources, government officials should proactively address energy price increases that are likely to take place before 2015 - within their terms of office. As more business, civic and thought leaders become aware of the coming increase in energy prices, it will be easier for government officials to acknowledge the issue. It will be less plausible for them to pretend to be surprised when fuel volatility takes place, and desirable for them to have responses available.
The strongest arguments for sustainability initiatives will be their ability to lower energy use and costs at times when, unlike now, those will be top public concerns. Expanding less expensive public transit options, reducing reliance on more expensive private transportation and cutting energy use in buildings are responses to fuel price volatility as well as to climate change. Especially in times of tighter budgets, why not use the more persuasive arguments of costs to encourage the better choices? Policy choices that will buffer impacts of higher fuel prices will make the City more resilient, while creating green jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Preparation for higher energy costs can be raised indirectly as part of the promotion of green services, killing two birds with one stone. Showing New Yorkers how to avoid likely increases in transportation and winter heating costs will be much more compelling than asking them to lower their carbon emissions.
Next post: the role of grassroots sustainability organizing...
Short version of this article
NYC sustainability in a time of climate change, fuel depletion and financial disruption
After the midterm election, selling climate change got even tougher than it was before. Immensely wealthy business interests and their allies have skillfully muddied the waters and blocked action. The NYC sustainability discussion, mainly framed as climate change response, should be reframed to include the more marketable concepts of increasing resilience, and preparing for higher and more volatile energy prices. Here’s how we can build public support for all of them at the same time.
Let’s weave into our narratives our dependence on oil, our vulnerability to upcoming increases in oil prices, and thus, the value of lowering energy costs, creating green jobs, and restoring energy security. world production of conventional oil. Even the International Energy Agency has quietly admitted that world conventional oil production peaked in 2006, and a growing consensus of expert observers and business leaders expect it to go into permanent decline by 2015. Oil prices will become increasingly volatile, with a strong likelihood of oil price shocks or supply crunches. Remember how upset New Yorkers were at slow snow removal? Unlike the effects of climate change, often seen coming far in the future, higher fuel prices will have local and immediately evident impacts. It will cost more to heat buildings and homes. Higher transportation costs will affect commuting, the trucking of goods, and the operation of police, fire, school and garbage vehicles.
So far, direct efforts to get busy NYC officials to address fuel depletion hasn’t worked. Most government officials aren’t aware either of the problem, or that tackling it openly will provide opportunities. New Yorkers will be more motivated to buffer increases in transportation and winter heating costs than to lower their carbon emissions. Initiatives that lower energy use and costs will align with top public concerns. Expanding less expensive public transit options, reducing reliance on more expensive private transportation and cutting energy use in buildings are responses to fuel price volatility as well as to climate change. Especially in times of tighter budgets, why not use the more persuasive arguments of costs to encourage the better choices? Policy choices that will buffer impacts of higher fuel prices will make the City more resilient, while creating green jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Two parallel indirect strategies may expand the sustainability discussion in helpful ways. First, highly targeted outreach to networks of thought leaders, on how their fields will benefit from initiatives that conserve energy, lower costs and build local resiliency. Second, outreach to NYC civic networks on behalf of appealing sustainability projects that offer something to all participants.
To carry out these approaches, Beyond Oil NYC is organizing spring presentations by public health expert Dan Bednarz, PhD to audiences of health system administrators. Last year, a consortium of volunteer groups partnered with NYC Department of Buildings in its effort to paint building roofs white, lowering summer energy use and costs. We’re developing marketing materials to set up more such projects in 2011. For more about these approaches, and to get involved, visit www.beyondoilnyc.org.
For a full version of this article, go to http://beyondoilnyc.blogspot.com/2010/11/nyc-sustainability-in-time-of-climate.html.