State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Understanding Today’s Climate Politics

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

When we first started to discuss and address the issue of adaptation to climate change, we were criticized for giving up on mitigation of climate change. Some believed that by adapting to climate change we were enabling global warming. That dispute is largely over. More than a decade later, we know that climate change is literally baked into the atmosphere and while we continue the transition to a renewable resource-based economy, we must also address the impact of the global warming that has already taken place.

The impact of climate change is exacerbated by four factors:

  1. Growing populations in places where people never lived before and in coastal cities;
  2. The expense and complexity of modern energy, communication, transport, water and waste infrastructure;
  3. Aging infrastructure poorly designed to deal with contemporary stresses; and
  4. Wealthy places have the resources to build and become more resilient while poorer places do not, and so negative climate impacts tend to be greater among those least able to respond to them.

Among more sophisticated city planners and real estate developers, the risks posed by extreme weather events have become routine design parameters for planning buildings and infrastructure. Building utilities such as boilers that were once placed in basements are instead being placed on higher floors. Subway and motor vehicle tunnels are being designed with the assumption that they will be periodically flooded or with measures to seal them if needed. An expanding flood zone map has required modifications in new building construction near the shore line. In some cases, government has purchased waterfront homes and owners have retreated to higher ground.

In the New York metropolitan area, the Corps of Engineers is engaged in a massive program of beach replenishment, jetty construction, dune engineering, and ocean-front planting designed to absorb and control flood water. New York City has nearly 600 miles of shoreline and the resilience programs that have arisen after Hurricane Sandy are only the first stage of what will be a century-long effort to protect the New York metropolitan region and its huge investment in buildings and infrastructure.

The long term cost of these adaptation efforts depends entirely on the success of global efforts to mitigate global warming. One inch of sea level rise requires less investment than one foot of sea level rise. Given New York’s dependence on a global economy and food supply system, resiliency for New York requires that we also protect our distant supplies of food, water and material production as well. All are threatened by climate change. President Trump and his pals deny the importance of climate change, but they have inadvertently mobilized America’s businesses, states, cities and civil society to engage even more intensely in mitigating climate change and in building a renewable resource based economy. President Trump has provided his opponents with a vivid and outspoken enemy, and has managed to transform apolitical and moderate corporate executives into climate activists.

Global climate change was always going to be a tough political issue in the United States. The causes of climate change are everywhere and include ordinary benign acts by average people: driving your car, charging your smart phone, heating your home.  The impacts of climate change are not immediate and are (still) largely in the future. Our political process is designed to address local issues you can see, smell and touch: raw sewage in a river, orange dust on your windshield, garbage rising from landfills to the skies. Climate adaptation and resilience in response to extreme weather are local responses to local impacts. You don’t need to understand climate models to understand that your basement has been flooded and your water heater was destroyed. The idea of rebuilding your home on stilts may be an adaptation to climate change, but it may also be a way to save money on flood insurance. The alarm and rhetoric of a few climate scientists and advocates has caused resentment by some people who simply want to continue to live their lives and do the things they enjoy, like driving an SUV or air conditioning their home. By advocating a carbon tax, climate advocates were seen by some as indifferent to the plight of working and middle class people struggling to pay their energy bills.

But climate adaption entered the political agenda on a different path than climate mitigation. It was not a response to a model of damage that is coming, but a response to extreme weather events such as Katrina and Sandy that many experienced. New York’s culture and assumptions about how the world works were profoundly influenced by hurricane Sandy. While first responders prevented large-scale loss of life, many in the region experienced visible property damage and suffered through a slow process of recovery. Today we live in a different world than the one before Sandy. Young people understand this completely, and their perceptions are consistently reflected in polling data on the urgency of climate change.

But understanding that the world is changing does not mean that people believe they should sacrifice their lifestyle to mitigate or adapt to global warming. They want to take action, but they want to travel, use energy, raise families and engage in an active social, cultural and educational life. No one should think that addressing climate change must come at the expense of the lifestyles we enjoy. We are already seeing modifications of lifestyles with the development of the sharing economy. But the modifications are not seen as a sacrifice; they are a way to fulfill personal needs in a new way. For example, in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Tim Higgins discusses the “end of car ownership”:

“Cars are going to undergo a lot of changes in the coming years. One of the biggest: You probably won’t own one.  Thanks to ride sharing and the looming introduction of self-driving vehicles, the entire model of car ownership is being upended—and very soon may not look anything like it has for the past century…Car ownership, for a long time, has symbolized freedom and independence. But in the future, it may be akin to owning a horse today—a rare luxury…. One-quarter of miles driven in the U.S. may be through shared, self-driving vehicles by 2030, according to an estimate by Boston Consulting Group. And the business of ride sharing may take on some new forms. Startups such as Los Angeles-based Faraday Future envision selling subscriptions to a vehicle—for instance, allowing people to use it for a certain number of hours a day, on a regular schedule for a fixed price…”

In the 20th century, auto “consumption” involved owning, maintaining, insuring and driving a car. By the middle of this century it will not be autos we consume, but “rides”. While riding, a passenger can phone, text, read, and be entertained, and the time is not simply consumed by the work of getting from one place to another. This is consumption, but a different form than the one we are familiar with. Other material resources could be shared as well. These changed modes of consumption, coupled with a renewable resource based economy, are the operational definition of sustainability. They are being initiated by consumer preferences and they are enabled by low priced communication and information technology. We adapt our consumption patterns and they have the important impact of reducing environmental damage and mitigating climate change.

But as this change continues, we need to deal with the impact of climate change that is already underway. Just as consumption patterns are changing, perceptions of the impact of climate change are underway as well. This past week it was so hot in Arizona that some jets had to be grounded. Each year is the hottest year on record. Droughts, forest fires and extreme weather events are all becoming more common. The era of climate change has begun.

The politics of climate change is heavily influenced by fossil fuel companies trying to deny climate science to help recover their investments and by the importance of energy to modern life. Modernizing the electric grid, improving energy storage, powering the developing world and transitioning to renewable energy is a massive human undertaking. We need to increase energy use while decreasing its environmental impact. It is amazing that most world leaders understand the need to do this, but it is not surprising that solving the climate problem seems less important to them than maintaining their own political power. My view is that the climate problem will be made less bad by technological, cultural, social and economic change that will force political change. Waiting for policy to be the change agent is an exercise in futility.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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