Making NYC more sustainable and more resilient
We can be proud of NYC’s record as one the greenest large cities in the US. For years, we’ve been describing green practices as making our communities more sustainable. That’s good, but a little vague – leaving us to guess about exactly which existential threat is being implied – and how much the green practice in question will help, let alone ensure our civilization is still around in 10 or 100 or 10,000 years. Then came Hurricane Sandy.
The storm was a huge wake-up call about the real impacts of climate change. Scientists warned that we were likely to see many more extreme weather disasters as climate change accelerates. Suddenly, environmental threats were no longer theoretical problems 10 or 20 years in the future – but tangible disasters that might hit next week.
It’s time to pair sustainability – which has become somewhat of a watered down buzzword – with a new term: resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and resume functioning after change or disruption. We still need to deal with long term threats and become more sustainable.
Huge government efforts are now underway to build resilience and prepare for near-term disruptions, creating opportunities. Billions in federal funds will be spent in NY City and State. NYC government has launched a Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resilience, and task forces on how to prepare our buildings and neighborhoods for climate change impacts. They will need public support and public input. Getting the public involved in exploring the places where sustainability and resilience responses overlap offers great opportunities.
Many sustainable responses are also resilient responses.
Good news: many of the responses that will make NYC and the US more sustainable and more energy-efficient, while slowing climate change and lowering our costs, will also make us more resilient.
- Encouraging NYC building owners to take advantage of existing energy efficiency upgrade options, and raising green building standards beyond LEED and NYC building code toward the new passive house standards
- Increasing the amount of energy we get from solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower, and encouraging solar system installations within NYC
- Supporting decentralized power generation and smart grids
Remember the transportation and shipping disruptions after Hurricane Sandy? Getting more of what we need from in or near our community reduces our dependence on vulnerable long-distance supply chains. It will also promote local economic development, create jobs, and improve our quality of life.
- Getting more of NYC's food from within NYC, NY State and the metro region
- Supporting a robust NYC mass transit system
- Expanding and improving NYC bus service
- Supporting biking & electric transportation
- Promoting massive federal funding of rail networks
- Opposing urban sprawl; promoting denser development of existing towns, cities and areas with mass transit access
Resilience topics most directly tied to the memory of Hurricane Sandy will include preparing at the individual and community level for a wide range of disruptions, to reduce both future hardship and future costs. There are many local resources and allies for this work, including NYC Office of Emergency Management, which has community programs including Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and NYC Citizen Corps Council.
The benefit of getting more New Yorkers involved
One area where PlaNYC could be stronger has been seeking public input and gaining public support. Consider what happens when the City comes out with sustainability or public health initiatives without building substantial public support beforehand.
- Getting diverse community based organizations involved - the majority of which don't focus on either - will build grassroots support and make City efforts more successful over the long term.
- NYC has many creative communities and networks of technical experts. most of which don't focus on either sustainability or resilience. Encouraging them to put some thought to these topics could catalyze innovations in organizational practices, messaging, business or technology.
It's not just hurricanes. We live in exciting and increasingly volatile times.
What steps must we take to ensure that NYC in 2033 is sustainable, resilient, happy and prosperous? Before we can address that question, we have to acknowledge that volatility and disruption in our future will be coming from more directions than widely recognized. Adding other challenges we may not be fully aware of now will lead to more effective and accurate actions.
Climate change, fuel depletion, and economic transition.
Structural changes in the environment, energy and the economy will ensure that the next twenty years will be completely unlike the last twenty. Before New Yorkers can address that question, they must be briefed on the broader scope of our challenges.
Likely climate change impacts on NYC include hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves. A subtle but crucial omission is that preparing for future climate change impacts often leave out the need to sharply reduce our carbon emissions from fossil fuels, to lessen the future impacts of climate change.
Another reason to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels is that we are highly dependent on them, and we are encountering limits to their supplies. In our recent history, the last 150 years in which our modern economy has come to be, we have always been discovering more supplies of petroleum, natural gas and goal. However, conditions have changed.
According to data from the US Energy Information Agency, world crude oil production has barely budged the last several years. Despite record investment in exploration and production development, crude oil production has been on a bumpy plateau. Oil companies are forced to drill in increasingly extreme locations, often miles under the ocean floor. It's because the easy oil has all been found. Even with the slight increase from unconventional oil supplies, world oil production has been stagnant - and could go into permanent decline at any time. We should start preparing now.
Likewise, we keep hearing that because of new techniques for drilling natural gas from shale, we'll have enough natural gas for 100 years and the US will even be exporting natural gas to other countries. New studies indicate we have far less gas than that, and we should urgently accelerate our transition to renewable clean power instead.
Our economy, beset with multiple financial crises, is already highly volatile. Entering a time in which availability of fossil fuel energy supplies is permanently declining instead of increasing will clearly affect economic conditions. Unending economic growth will no longer be feasible or environmentally desirable, but economic reform leading to a prosperous economy is possible. The policy responses noted above will help us move in that direction and adapt to a future in which price and supply of fossil fuel is increasingly volatile.
What's next? Where do you come in?
We are inspired by The Post Carbon Institute, www.Resilience.org (formerly www.EnergyBulletin.net), and the Transition movement, What these activist communities share is: (1) a conviction that major changes are inevitable, (2) we must focus on resilience as well as sustainability, and (3) with national level change hard to come by and personal action insufficient, community scale organizing is the place to focus.
We invite individuals and groups interested in sustainability, resilience and prosperity to get involved, contact us, and propose ways to expand this conversation.
To get it rolling, we plan to organize screenings of films that illuminate these challenges, followed by interactive discussions. At screenings we will introduce audience members to representatives of community groups and local sustainability & resilience initiatives.
Chris Martenson’s Crash Course
Chris Martenson, a former college professor with a PhD in biochemistry and an MBA, created a three hour series of free online videos called The Crash Course which shows how energy, environment and economy are interconnected, and what we can do about it personally and locally. His 45 minute summary video will leave lots of time for group dialog.
Crisis of Civilization
The Crisis of Civilization is a dark comedy documentary that connects the dots between global crises. It weaves together archival film clips and animations, along with detailed analysis and specific positive options transform systems. Watch it free online. “A really fantastic overview of the global situation. I don’t think I’ve seen a more comprehensive ‘welcome to the 21st century’.” – Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute
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