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

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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)

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Enabling Future Global Green Cities


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Between 2000 and 2030 the global urban footprint will double,
mostly due to growth in developing nation cities. Urban carbon and resource
impacts cannot, must not double during this period. What can be done by
policymakers, the private sector, civil society and urban leaders to prevent
the unthinkable, a global climate and ecosystem incapable of supporting stable species
populations and food production?

A botched transition to the coming urban future will ensure
stresses far beyond our comprehension.

So, I will be addressing the Global Green
Cities Symposium
in San Francisco Feb. 24 on “Enabling Future Global Green Cities.” In
my previous post I described how this event acknowledges a sense of urgency by taking
a novel approach to expert and cross-industry collaboration.

Clearly, cities in developing nations are the crux of the
matter: 90% of projected urban growth will occur in developing nation metros during the
next decades. By 2040, the developing nation urban sector will benefit from an
estimated total of more than $300 trillion in expenditures for the built
environment and transportation, both in infrastructure and operations. Increasingly
these city functions and services will be optimized to address both climate
change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

Before getting to the how, let’s address the issue of cities
on the basic level of benefits and risks.

Pros of increased urbanism:

  • easier provision of lower-cost high-value services (healthcare, education, water, transportation, communications, commerce)
  • enhanced cultural activities and opportunities
  • urban economic innovation in global hubs benefit their surrounding rural regions, and especially national economies

Cons of increased urbanism:

  • increased pollution and concentration of
    wastes, congestion, urban-heat island effect
  • negative social impacts which can include loss
    of sense of community, isolation from nature and decreased safety and
    security, exacerbated by a large-scale lack of affordable housing
  • sprawled urban borders place natural resources
    (agricultural land, habitat, fisheries, watersheds) at much greater risk

Beyond the pros and cons of urbanization, the populations
and economies of all cities are vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts
of global climate change, including rising sea levels, flooding, winter storms,
drought and extreme heat events. Besides higher rates of death and
disease from climate change-induced environmental conditions, mass population
migrations are expected to occur in the not-distant future. From New Orleans
to Bangladesh,
urban climate-related population diasporas have already begun.

Cities will need to
quickly begin shifting their spending from high-carbon intensity infrastructure
to green infrastructure that produces very low carbon emissions in production,
transport, implementation and maintenance.

Long-term and strategic action plans will be necessary to
guide capital toward infrastructure solutions offering attractive
returns on investment. Such returns can take many forms–reduced operating costs
(including reuse and disposal), low embodied and operating carbon emissions, lower air
and water pollution levels, and greater resource efficiency.

Global competitiveness may soon be defined in part by comparative carbon
emission rates. Low-carbon urban economies, for instance, will gain a decisive
edge over economies (urban, exurban or rural) that remain relatively heavy
per-capita carbon emitters. This competitive advantage will be gained not only
because of environmental and quality of life factors but also because of the
potential merger of international trade rules and carbon emissions regulations.

The OECD Mayors Roundtable in 2010
recommended that urban policy makers pursue integrated policy in three areas: the adjustment of firms to new sustainability related
business opportunities and energy volatility; enabling individual consumers or citizens to change their preferences
for products and services, and, finally; developing and effectively diffusing green
technologies in the marketplace.

Following are other leading strategies and recommendations
that will be covered in the United Nations “Shanghai Training Manual for
Sustainable Cities”
.
 (In order to be more likely to succeed, multi-sector
collaboration and transparency will be required of each):

  •  New integrated, long-term and multi-scale models
    for structuring, managing, measuring and financing city performance (e.g.,
    World Bank Eco2 Cities program)
    including life-cycle energy/ carbon, maintenance and capital cost management across
    budgets, capital planning and large-scale investments. Early examples include Curitiba,
    Brazil, and a Stockholm industrial district.
  • Mega-region and regional planning approaches,
    including those with “cascaded” micro-planning, such as Greater London (pdf).
  • Community-based natural disaster management, such as the Dhaka example (pdf)
  • Core ICT Planning and Strategy: With e-planning ICT can help cities avoid
    high-carbon land use. Digital technology
    makes it possible for cities to achieve lower carbon emissions from better planning
    and management of infrastructure, buildings, energy and transportation. ICT can
    provide valuable public access in communications and governance, such as Mumbai’s
    e-government
    platform.
  • Public-private partnerships that are well constructed.
    Early examples include South Korea’s Smart Grid 2030,
    and
    China’s Guangdong Province wastewater projects.
    Public-private
    partnership agreements should be part of a transparent public
    process that is beneficial to all parties, especially citizens.
  • “In situ”
    slum upgrading
    , versus indiscriminately tearing down slums. Vulnerabilities must be addressed for those slums that are located in areas
    particularly at risk to climate change, such as flood plains and land subject
    to severe storm erosion. The good news, however, is that
    most urban slums are high
    density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, made from recycled material, adaptive
    to changing conditions and can be socially inclusive with strong neighborhood
    social networks.

Green urbanization has the potential to shape the 21st
century as much or more than earlier economic and technological advances. The
key difference between this trend and prior economic waves–transportation,
communications, energy, advanced materials and industrialization–will be the
use of integrated urban system approaches.

Bonafide global green cities will only be
fully realized through combined cultural, managerial and
technological innovation that is constantly guided by the active participation of the civil and
private sectors, academia and government.

Let’s all get busy…

(“World Metro Map” image credit)

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to
the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 

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Oil Spill may be worse than Exxon Valdez

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As I Twittered early this morning, the BP Gulf oil spill now has the potential to become larger than the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, devastating the Alaskan fishing industry and state’s economy.

The Exxon Valdez spill resulted in an estimated $5 to 7 billion dollars (in 1989 dollars) of damage over a two-year period (shore clean-up below).

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The fire-caused break and leak of BP’s oil well is blasting a now-estimated 210,000 gallons a day (5,000 barrels) into the Gulf deep under 5,000 feet of water. An attempted controlled burn of the oil is occurring before the oil is forecast to hit the wetlands and beaches of the Gulf Coast tonight or tomorrow.

A BP spokesperson said on the McNeil News Hour this afternoon that the UK corporation will be sending two ships to drill nearby relief wells. The wells will take up to 90 days to get in place, meaning 18,900,000 gallons of oil may spill in the meantime–almost twice the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident.

Look for the event to have major consequences on US energy and disaster-response policy, the Gulf fishing and tourism economies in up to five states (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida), and wildlife. The economies of New Orleans; Biloxi, MS; Mobile, AL; and Pensacola, FL, and Panama City, FL, are the communities most vulnerable to the spill.

Oil prices and the debate about a potential coming 2014-2015 energy crunch may also flare up with this tragic event. Already, 11 lives of workers were lost on the offshore rig when it blew up.

Drilling for oil under such enormous and biologically sensitive areas like the Gulf Coast is a reality that is occurring to meet the demands of the current global economy.

Without new sources of renewable energy, better planning and comprehensive clean energy policy and clean tech job creation, the Gulf and many of our nation’s (and our planet’s) waters, our coastal communities, and marine and shore animal-bird populations will be at severe risk, as easy-to-drill oil becomes less and less available.

In the meantime, there will be an acute need to drill even deeper, in more sensitive places and to drill almost everywhere, until we diminish our global addiction to oil.

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
.  
   

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