US needs White House Climate Change Council to protect lives and economy

ny dark

With the Zika virus spreading in Florida, it’s timely to consider how we will prepare for our increasing real-time manifestations of climate change. Once thought to be a threat in the distant future, the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident through events such as ongoing drought, extended severe heat waves, coastal and inland flooding and now possibly through what the CDC is calling an unprecedented insect transmission of a birth defect.

The year 2016 is on track to become the earth’s warmest year by a significant margin, with July 2016 being the hottest month ever recorded. Besides experiencing “Black Swan” events that might be tied to climate change (like the spreading of Zika), we have witnessed over the past year record numbers of drought-induced wildfires and deadly 1,000-year inland flood events from “rain bombs” in states such as West Virginia, Maryland and the cities of Houston, Baton Rouge and Columbia, SC.

Our public health and safety institutions, along with infrastructure, already outmoded and in need of repair, simply can’t keep up with the developing threats and pressures. It’s time for a more thorough assessment of climate change’s advancing impacts with a measured response of planning for additional resources, new technologies, public safety protocol, workforce development, as well as international and domestic security.

Without a doubt, the United States needs to further the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change mitigation with its national Clean Power Plan and become the world’s first clean-energy superpower. As essential as they are, mitigation actions are only one prong of critical over-arching policy and action needed. The other prong is to concurrently make our society, the economy and public institutions more resilient, and adaptive, to the disruptions and shocks resulting from an unstable climate.

The new president could help the nation better manage climate change risk by creating a cross-agency national Climate Change Security Council or National Resilience Council based in the White House. This council, for which retired US Marine Col. James Seaton and I are advocating, would be similar in structure to the White House National Economic Council or the National Security Council, the NSC. Seaton was an NSC staff member during the Bill Clinton administration.

The new national Climate Change Council would coordinate and prioritize domestic protection as well as foreign humanitarian and national security-related planning for climate change resilience across cabinet-level federal agencies. Key agencies would include Homeland Security and other major departments: particularly Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Labor. The Department of Energy, which is increasingly being tasked with climate change mitigation, would also participate in adaptation planning, particularly around the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to climate change.

Because climate change has a delayed impact from carbon emissions, we are only now experiencing the regional and local impacts of global emissions from decades earlier. How would the a White House Office of Climate Change Security start making our cities, regions and industries more able to cope with climate change’s apparent accelerating impacts?

The Obama administration has made a good start on climate change security with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Resilience Toolkit and climate change directives that every federal agency was ordered last month to consider. Canada has already created a Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment and its duties include climate change adaptation.

Looking beyond the Obama legacy, how do major US presidential candidates stack up on this critical issue?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denies the existence of climate change, a stance taken by no other world leaders after 195 nations formally adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, an agreement that Trump says he will not honor if elected president. This stance would endanger our national and international security.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the need for climate change mitigation; her campaign’s platform on climate change resilience or security is limited to the following declaration: “Clinton will work to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are resilient to both current and future climate risks, and she will partner with states, cities and rural communities to develop regionally coordinated, resilient infrastructure strategies.”

The incoming administration would be prudent to acknowledge that the nation’s current built environment and institutions were not designed for climate change’s increased stresses. From streets to utility sewer, power and water systems, the world’s increasingly urban population is living in cities and buildings that were designed for an era of greater resource availability, and for more benign, less volatile climate conditions.

Perhaps most critically needed is a massive program to plan metro area green infrastructure, to cool soaring urban temperatures and reduce destructive flash flood damages by capturing rainwater for storage and reuse in engineered, climate resilient landscapes. In urbanized or suburban areas, green infrastructure can include parks, transit and road rights of way, even rooftops, yards and parking lots. Green infrastructure reduces water consumption through stormwater capture and reuse, which can also significantly cut energy consumption.

The new council could champion preserving and restoring the eco-system services carried out by coastal barrier islands, wetlands, and forests. Wetlands and estuaries, for instance, provide habitat for wildlife while buffering coastal storm surges and inland flooding.

As mentioned, the energy sector and particularly our national power grid is unprepared for climate change. An influential 2014 report on the financial risks of climate change in the United States, Risky Business, estimated that the United States will require 95 Gigawatts of more power over the next 5 to 25 years to account for energy demand from climate change—equivalent to 200 more power plants. There’s also the specter of flooding, severe storms and heat waves damaging generation, capacity and transmission.

New more-resilient energy and water systems will need to be “smart”, able to use artificial intelligence, a field of scientific innovation being led by Google and others.

Smart energy systems reduce demand before critical energy generation limits are breached by climate stresses. These systems will require renewable and other energy-powered microgrids combined with battery storage to “island” affected areas from extreme weather precipitated grid failures. A White House-level council could scale these best practices at home through the Department of Labor and abroad through the Department of Commerce.

Climate change security would create positive economic impact. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs could be created through the replacement of aging and outmoded grey infrastructure with smart systems and urban green infrastructure, and through planning and constructing storm barriers and constructed wetlands. Restoration of wetlands, aquatic, riverine and estuarine ecosystems accounted for $3.2 billion in revenues and 40,000 jobs in 2013. Smart microgrids, resilient water systems and energy efficiency improvements are other big domestic job creators that can save lives during the most pressing climate-influenced events.

Numerous isolated examples of climate resilience practices already exist. These best management practices can be adapted to local climate, cultural and economic needs and replicated throughout the nation. Resilience skills and technologies will also be critical to our helping other countries faced with even more daunting climate change precipitated disasters.

Los Angeles is trying to recharge its aquifers by capturing stormwater in parking lots, streets and medians to recharge its drinking water aquifer. The city’s Department of Water and Power has utilized GIS-based 3-D imaging and cost-benefit analyses for its extensive properties, demonstrating how local rainwater can be economically captured to recharge the city’s underground water aquifers. Much of the city now depends almost entirely on faraway mountain range snowmelt that because of ongoing drought is already being reduced by climate change.

New Orleans, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco are reinventing themselves with multi-purpose public recreational-rainwater retention space in order to temper the more severe heat waves, floods and storm surges becoming more common. College campuses like the University of California at San Diego are using advanced innovation like microgrids with renewable energy sources to head off grid failures from climate change stresses while incubating exciting new smart technologies that save money for the campus and state taxpayers.

More fully-realized climate security solutions are being advocated by a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program; The Skoll Foundation Global Threats Program; the Natural Resources Defense Council’s push for green infrastructure; and the Post Carbon Institute’s community resilience program, as well as IBM, ESRI and others in the private sector.

But these efforts need to be scaled up and integrated with national planning, financing and job training.

Climate change security’s sphere of influence extends far beyond national policy at home. The World Bank said in a recent report that Asian cities in particular are “dangerously unprepared” for climate change risks like increased flooding and storm damage. Indeed, as the Department of Defense has indicated going back to the early 2000s, climate threats to food and water security—think Syria–are a serious issue for the defense of our allies and the world order (link added after Sept. 14 publication of bi-partisan US military “Climate and Security” report).

Domestic climate change security efforts have bi-partisan support. Moderate Republicans and independents in Florida are now demanding action to protect against climate change, including urban planning and infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make a trade-off with climate mitigation to reduce near-term climate change threats, risks and damages. We can and should continue the push to a Net Zero carbon economy to stave off the worst effects of future climate change. It behooves us as a species and nation to figure out how to adapt to climate change and how to steward the earth in the face of this existential threat.

Timely creation of a White House Climate Change Security Council would provide prioritized and coordinated solutions across federal agencies, as well as state and local government, to help make us better prepared and more secure for an uncertain and vastly different future.

(photo: Midnight in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, by Iwean Bain, New York Magazine)


Gulf Oil Crisis, Porn and the Burning Cuyahoga


Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery
white sands of Florida’s beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of

The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological
and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really
screwed up. News reports and even
songs, including Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness–I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the
burning river over in Cleveland.  

Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United
States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices. Earth Day was also launched within a year
and a potent social moment was hatched. The
Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation
in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight
agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent
industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated
regulations. One of the first cities the
agency “went after”
when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its
burning river.

We are facing the nation’s worst
environmental disaster, and it is becoming
visceral.  Models from the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill
will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida’s panhandle, toward
South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don’t be surprised
to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you
live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in
real life.


“The smell is the worst thing,” said NBC correspondent Anne
Thompson Friday. 
“Until you smell it, you haven’t
experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your
lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses
and chocolate syrup and it just stinks.”

As Pensacola’s famed white beaches are besieged by toxic
fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average
Americans are coming in, and they’re not pretty. 

In the world’s consciousness, it’s one thing to have oil
wash up on a coastal Louisiana “swamp”–though scientists and the fishing
industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary
wetlands for their existence.  It’s quite
another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the
beach, which endangers the Southeast’s tourism and fishing industries, along
with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their

What will happen next?  I wrote on early April

that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez
spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy,
consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be
changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.

Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course
priority number one.  Sunday some 10,000
barrels of oil a day
were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil
still spewing. 

Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:

  1. The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry,
    the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants,
    plumbers, etc.)  that could be
    impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf
    Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South
    Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough
    estimate below,  there could be an
    economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:

Gulf Coast commercial fish products $6.5 billion
Total–$2-3 billion impact?

Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast share of $42
billion Total
US recreational fishing equipment expenditures: $2 billion impact?

Gulf Coast $100 billion tourism industry Total –$30-50
billion impact?

Florida beach-related tourism $42 billion Total–$10
billion impact? 

Florida recreational fishing $5.4 billion
–$1-2 billion impact? 

Florida commercial fishing: $5.5 billion
Total–$1-2 billion impact?

Florida boating industry $18 billion Total:–$3-4 billion impact?

Georgia coastal tourism $2 billion Total–$.5
billion impact?

South Carolina coastal tourism Total $6.5
–$1-2 billion impact?

North Carolina coastal tourism Total $4 billion
(estimate)–$1 billion impact?

Regional services associated with tourism?

Impact on Ecosystem services (wetlands that
clean water, vegetation including mangroves that provide flood and hurricane
buffer zones)–incalculable?

Heath Care costs for workers, and residents impact
by air and water quality?

Such “full cost” accounting is now
more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental
and societal impacts.   

  1. US subsidies to oil
    companies–some $15 to $35 billion a year–need to be curtailed, and
    transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and
    also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.  
  2. The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS’s
    relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to
    reform.  “Obviously, we’re all part
    of the oil industry,” one MMS official said to investigators
    who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff
    and oil officials
    . The feds need to create a completely independent
    oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power
    as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy.
    The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP
    because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including
    being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
  3. Higher-vehicle mileage and
    alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more
    miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the
    development of more biofuel-burning engines that don’t use food as a fuel source.
  4. Can this finally be the time in our history when “recreational”
    cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms–at least oil and gas burning
    machines–stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived
    products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are
    causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air
    pollution, and water pollution from runoff.  Measures should be instituted
    so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
  5. The United States needs to consider less-polluting
    domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed
    natural gas.
    Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can–if
    used for transportation–can offset some of the need for risky deepwater
    drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local
    water supplies
    , and such activities need to be monitored closely).
  6. Here’s the most obvious
    yet least discussed solution in public or the media. 
    Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will
    reduce automobile dependence.  Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States,
    with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities,
    which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes,
    plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the
    gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?)  transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public
    non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping,
    entertainment and errands.

It is time to face the sobering truth.

We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until,
we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will
unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific
than BP’s gusher.

Denial and guilt, combined
with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful
forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent
community planning–walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public

It’s time to step up the post-oil conversation while
implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and
our nation have their work cut out for them:  there is a need to clean up not just beaches,
Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.

The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let’s
link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions
that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally
active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of
How Green is Your City? The
SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.