A climatologist, an economist, a policy advisor, and an epidemiologist. What they all have in common: big picture ideas about climate change, a solutions-focused approach, and a dose of optimism. To a captivated audience at an event sponsored by the Yale Alumni Association of New York, alumni organizations YANA and YBG, and chaired by Miranda Massie, director of The Climate Museum, the four experts outlined their strategies for climate action: the challenges, the opportunities, and the way forward.
Climatologist Heidi Cullen, Chief Scientist at Climate Central, began the discussion by highlighting why climate change is such a uniquely difficult problem: it challenges the basic biology of human brains, which evolved to perceive and respond to immediate threats, not to plan global responses to an issue with serious and far-reaching yet seemingly distant consequences.
As a climatologist, Heidi is used to be being to bearer of bad news on panels like these. Tonight she delivered some sobering statistics:
- 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record
- June of 2016 is the hottest month on record for the fourteenth consecutive month
- To find the last year we’ve experienced below-average temperature, you would have to go back four decades to 1976
- We now have a better handle on extreme event attribution, the ability to claim with near certainty that extreme weather and other natural disasters are directly tied to human-caused climate change. Studies of the Great Barrier Reef have shown that the coral reef bleaching is 175 times more likely with temperature rises caused by climate changes
- New research from Penn State has doubled previous sea-level rise projections to 50 feet by the end of the century
“2016 marks the point where we realize that climate change does not sit in isolation from other problems,” says Cullen, “but in fact is deeply intertwined with problems like poverty, inequality, and the long-term sustainability of the planet.”
Despite these alarming signs, Nat Keohane, Vice President for Global Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, is hopeful for three reasons:
- Growing public awareness (70% of Americans understand that climate change is happening, and 60% think it’s serious)
- Political momentum- The Paris Climate Agreement marked the first time 195 countries agreed to a universal, legally binding global climate deal. In the U.S., Obama’s administration has shown serious commitment to the issue with first-ever limits on power plants, automobile emissions limits, and “super pollutant” hydrofluorocarbons.
- Technology- Renewable energy costs are plummeting (although still a tiny share of the energy market) and green technology like electric vehicles is advancing
Rohit (“Rit”) Aggarwala, former Director of New York City’s Office of Long-Term Planning (which produced the much-lauded PlaNYC) and current Chief Policy Officer at urban innovation firm Sidewalk Labs, believes that “the battle [against climate change] is won or lost at the local level,” because that’s where policies on energy production and use, transit systems, and waste management are actually implemented. “Almost every government in the world, no matter how power-hungry,” says Aggarwala, “lets the municipalities pick the up the garbage.”
That could be a very good thing, because the co-benefits of climate action in cities is often more intuitive than it is elsewhere–urban-dwellers generally want less garbage and air pollution and more opportunities for housing and public and physical transportation.
The dangers of climate change are also less theoretical at the local level. Seeing a projection of La Guardia Airport underwater, for example, hits very close to home, meaning local governments are often more progressive than state or national governments. In developed countries, cities are already more carbon efficient per capita than suburbia or rural areas. As more of humanity moves into cities, Aggarwala argues, “if you want to save the planet, the answer lies in better cities.”
Zooming in even further, Yale epidemiologist Robert Dubrow reminds us that reducing carbon emissions is not just about protecting the planet, it’s about protecting ourselves. A catalogue of the public health dangers of climate change:
- Injuries and deaths due to extreme weather events.
- Occupational heat stress- in many parts of the world, factories and warehouses are not air conditioned, leading to dangerous conditions for workers. Certain parts of the world will become too hot to work or live in.
- The spread of vector-born diseases (like malaria spread by mosquitoes) and foodborne and waterborne diseases.
- Food insecurity, and water scarcity.
- Violent conflict due to competition over scarce resources (climate change was a possible contributing cause to the Syrian civil war).
- Refugees and migrants due to shrinking living spaces and the expansion of deserts.
On the flip side, implementing solutions to climate change will yield a host of public health benefits:
1) The shift to renewable energy will minimize air pollution, which currently causes about 6 million deaths a year
2) Enhanced infrastructure for walking, biking, and physical transportation- some of the best ways to stay active and healthy
3) The shift from animal agriculture to plant-based agriculture, which will reduce methane and CO2 in the atmosphere while also yielding health benefits.
But what about that nagging reality, cost? Some people say it’s “just too expensive” to solve climate change. Keohane, an economist by training, assures that the fight against climate change easily passes a cost-benefit analysis. The U.S. government estimates that the “social cost of carbon”(representing all of the impacts of climate change we can monetize) is $40 per ton. With every person accounting for about 20 tons of CO2 a year, we already have a price to pay. Keohane believes that economic policies we are already familiar with, like the carbon tax or cap and trade (which solved the acid rain crisis in the 1990s) can harness the market to help solve climate change.
One innovation we can’t do without? The transformation of the vehicle fleet to electric (even autonomous) vehicles, as well as further investment in public infrastructure like inter-city trains (solving for climate change may have the secondary benefit of solving for traffic).
To conclude the discussion, asks an audience member, what gives each of these professionals hope?
Cullen points to the exponential growth in solar energy. Keohane to the 195 countries that signed the Paris agreement. Aggarwala to the number of mayors who have pledged to reduce carbon emissions, and Dubrow to China beginning to take climate change seriously.
Something else you might want to check out? The price of Tesla on the market. Nothing says change like soaring stock in electric cars.
Originally published on City Atlas: New York here, July 26, 2016.