State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Urban Action: The Ultimate Reality Show

This is the twenty-first of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

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As the giant climate classroom in Copenhagen moves toward its closure, some will come away frustrated and even angry, while others may be satisfied or at the very least relieved. Whatever documents may be signed at the end of the meeting, these two weeks of December will have a lasting impact. The stresses on our planet caused by its nearly 7 billion people must be better understood and managed. We are going to need to develop the institutions, mechanisms of governance, management systems and, most importantly, the technology to manage this planet sustainably.

What does that mean? The planet of the future will necessarily be different from the planet of the past, just the one we grew up on is different from that of our parents and grandparents. Some of the change will be bad, but with some skill and luck, most of it will be good. At a meeting here at Columbia University’s Earth Institute about a month ago, Bill Gates questioned the goal of sustainability and urged us to do better. He challenged us by asking: Why would we want to sustain a world where millions of children die from preventable disease?

Indeed, why would we? While we must solve the problem of dire poverty, most of us would not trade the time we live in today for a time in the past. In fact, most of us could barely function in that world. The high throughput, resource-intensive urban lifestyle is here to stay. We like this lifestyle. Imagine a world without refrigerators, air conditioning, central heating systems, the automobile, the subway, movies, radio, TV, computers, cell phones, the internet and iPods. The technology and ease of life we have is seductive and has worldwide appeal. We are not about to turn back the clock. A sudden or dramatic end to this way of life would create unimaginable political instability and violence.

What is less obvious to some is that we can’t keep this global economy running by using the planet’s nonrenewable resources and dumping the waste into a hole in the ground. The conference in Copenhagen and all of the worldwide efforts to address the crisis of global environmental sustainability are strong indications of the growing awareness of the need to shift to a green economy. President Obama’s effort to link sustainability to the nation’s economic revival is another strong sign that the issue has moved from the fringe to the center of our political agenda.

More important in my view are the actions of the world’s mayors. International politics is often symbolic, with just a little action thrown in the mix. National politics also can be quite symbolic, but with enough money and law to make it a bit more real. However, local politics is the ultimate 24-7 reality show. Fires must be put out, garbage must be collected, water pumped and sewage treated, kids educated and potholes repaired. These are the non-ideological and non-optional tasks of government. The fact that we are seeing a large group of mayors gathering in Copenhagen is the surest sign that sustainability has become a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts issue for the world.

We see evidence of that here in New York City as our energy utility, Con Ed, and the New York City government itself puts in place a set of ambitious programs to improve the city’s energy efficiency. Because of our mass transit system and the widespread use of multifamily housing, New York City is already the most energy efficient metropolis in the United States. However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a wide variety of civic and business leaders are pushing the city to do better. We know that the city will add a million more residents by 2030, and we need to ensure that we can do that without building new power plants and employing unsustainable practices.

This is not a theoretical issue for the city and its leaders. There is no community in New York that will allow Con Ed to site a new power plant. While we can buy power generated elsewhere, the price is not likely to go down in the future. We not only need to avoid brownouts; we also need to use less energy to perform the same amount of work. Increased efficiency is clearly feasible, because we waste so much.

The growth of our national economy requires that we reduce the proportion of our gross domestic product spent on energy. Back in 1970, we spent 8 percent of the GDP on energy. This peaked at 13.7 percent in 1981. In 1999, it dropped to an all time low of 6 percent, due to a fast growing economy and low fuel prices. However, in recent years, this percentage has begun to grow once again–7 percent in 2000 and 8.8 percent in 2006, the last year for which we have government data. Reducing energy costs can and will enhance our competitiveness in the global marketplace.

But it is at the local level that energy actually gets wasted or saved. In New York state and California, utility users pay a tax on their bill that funds a wide range of efficiency projects. For the first time in New York, the state has allocated some of these funds directly to the utilities, who are in turn lining up private contractors to do energy audits and field projects. In New York City, the most visible marker of the emerging green economy will be the growth of energy audits in our offices, stores and homes. Under a law signed by Bloomberg in early December, every building larger than 50,000 square feet must undergo an energy audit. Con Ed is currently putting in place other programs to encourage audits in smaller buildings as well.

It is in New York City’s buildings that the real impact of sustainability policy will be felt. As our homes and businesses are weatherized and our old appliances are replaced by newer energy-efficient models, the sentiments expressed in Copenhagen become a reality here at home. That work is well underway. While we have a long way to go, it will pick up momentum and eventually transform our economy forever.

A version of this article previously appeared in the Huffington Post.

Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen is executive director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

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14 years ago

A very nice article but, regarding: “We are not about to turn back the clock and go back to nature.”

Might require qualification, since nature provides everything including the intelligence for adaptation to sculpt in pure solipsistic reverie; to build along with nature in quite elegant designs including human-mobility amplification devices in the forms of bicycles and commercial bike rail systems (before the beginning of the last century), high-speed sailboats projected to soon reach peak speeds of 65 mph, iceboats clocked at 144 miles per hour at the beginning of the last century; including passive solar homes, John Todd’s Living Machines waste disposal systems, wind mills and generators.

Though there is no need to turn the clock back, a sense of history, origin, derivation, and an understanding of the cognitive asymmetries and biases of intuition and deliberation in the progressive decisions driving the built environment are of considerable significance.

And, regarding: Bill Gates’ “Why would we want to sustain a world where millions of children die from preventable disease?” and “Imagine a world without . . . the automobile” is perhaps, a bit too utopian for dense urban environments where cars make absolutely no sense and are more like a treatable and preventable disease?

14 years ago

An, interesting article from New Scientist 20 February 2010 page 35:

Bright lights, bug city

Insect architects could help us build the eco-cities of the future
says Philip Ball

“In the heart of Africa’s savannah lies a city that is a model of sustainable development. Its buttressed towers are built entirely of natural, biodegradable materials. Its inhabitants live and work in quarters that are air-conditioned and humidity-regulated, without consuming a single watt of electricity. Water comes from wells that dip deep into the earth, and food is cultivated self-sufficiently in gardens within its walls. This metropolis is not just eco-friendly: with is curved walls and graceful arches, it is rather beautiful too.

“This is no human city, of course. It is a termite mound.”

13 years ago

What is sustainable is another story. It’s in people’s mind that need a change and an average citizen may not care about future that much. Or – if they do they only talk about it. Mother Earth cannot tolerate after a while. People will realize this but that might be too late. Hope that latest developments ring a bell with many people.