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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Sustainable Cities: Past, Present, Future

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Eurozine‘s editor Almantas Samalavicius recently interviewed me on the evolution of sustainable cities. A wide-ranging topic, we covered everything from my 2007 book, How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings, to other past work with the United Nations, national administrations and cities of the United States, China, and South Korea, to the emergence of the sharing economy, net zero buildings and zero-car districts. What came to light by looking back is that the concept and actuality of sustainable cities have come a long way.

Where our cities will go, nobody knows and that’s what makes this emerging field so exciting. All we know for sure is that much of the action on climate change and resilience have been taking place in cities around the world. In the expansive interview, we touch upon China’s attempt to manage its 663 largest cities using sustainability Key Performance Indicators software (that I helped Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development devise), London’s rewilding of the Upper Lea Valley, the bikesharing system of Paris, West Coast US urban fruit exchanges and Brooklyn’s Maker movement.

Twenty years ago, I could have never foreseen the seemingly limitless growth of urban sustainability-focused resources (including Sustainable Cities Collective!). With the exploding interest in the area by practitioners, educational and research institutes, business, government at all levels, and neighborhood activists, we are on the cusp of an amazing epoch in human and biological history.

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My TEDx Talk: Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Cities

Warren Karlenzig at TEDx Mission

TEDx Mission recently invited me to speak at their San Francisco event on how cities are using collective intelligence approaches to address climate change and climate change adaptation. Crowdsourcing and savvy planning are producing healthier quality of life and more resilient urban economies.
The talk drew upon my experience with Common Current, which is working with governments, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) globally on urban sustainability master planning, policy and technology around energy, water, infrastructure, mobility, land use and economic issues.
An underlying premise is that as we increasingly become an urban planet, diverse cities will provide the key to sustainability innovations. Others, such as Asian Development Bank’s Guanghua Wan and UCLA’s Matthew Kahn in a report released last week (pdf), “Key Indicators for the Pacific (2012)“, have made similar observations.
Common Current is now helping Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory design indicators software for China’s Ministry of Urban Rural Development so China can better manage its 654 cities as “Low Carbon Ecocities.” China has been leading the trend toward urbanization, going from approximately 20 percent urbanites in 1980, to 53 percent now, to an estimated 70 percent by 2030. In our lifetimes, China has already experienced the fastest and largest mass migration of humans in the history of Earth.
Within this dynamic context, Common Current collaborates extensively with the United Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, as well as individual cities and communities, on green urban development policy and projects.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, effective strategy and management by city leaders is critical, but bottom-up approaches are also having surprisingly dramatic and replicable impacts that address climate change and resilience.
Climate change has been shown to be linked to prolonged drought, more frequent and damaging heat waves, record number of high temperatures (a 2-to-1 ratio over record lows in US over past decade), wildfires, record urban flooding, record urban rainfall amounts and record deadly superstorms, including violent tornadoes.
Nonetheless, on every inhabited continent, legions of talented and dedicated urban citizens (yes, suburbanites are included) are acting to slow climate change and protect us from its worst impacts through collective crowdsourcing, large-scale citizen participation and social media.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, green urbanization utilizing collective intelligence will assist a needed turnaround from our current plight. Instead of needlessly facing the brink of a volatile future completely unprepared, we are beginning to experience how the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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UN’s New Sustainable City Effort Starts With Asia


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2010 Shanghai Expo Closing Summit

We all need to reinvent urban planning for the 21st
century.

Never has the need been greater for integration across urban management,
systems, experts, policies and technologies.The world is rapidly becoming more urban,
especially in Asia, where hundreds of millions have begun moving to cities.This massive migration, largest
in human history, will produce colossal impacts–including innovation–in energy use, transportation,
housing, water and resource use. Economies will be impacted at every scale, especially beyond burgeoning metro areas in national and global markets.

Add climate change and adaptation issues to the development
of Asian cities, where more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emission
increases are expected to occur over the next 15 years,
and we are faced with the urgency–and opportunity–to reinvent urban planning. Planning for the
future of cities needs to now embody a process combining sustainability
strategies with information and communications technologies (ICT), supported by the
sciences (natural + social) in concert with engaged participation: from the
slum to the boardroom to the ivory tower.

Continue reading

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Urban Parklets: The New Front Stoop

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San Francisco’s parklets (left, from top to bottom: #1, Valencia Street, #2 and #3 Divisadero, and #4, Castro and 17th, bottom) are a vibrant testimony to the city’s Pavement to Parks Program, managed by a non-profit, the Great Streets Program. The city’s 15 parklets all started with two to three parking spaces, or other poorly-utilized urban space (the city says 25% of its space is taken up by streets or auto rights of way, while only 20% of the city is parkland–still one of the highest totals in the nation). With the help of architects, artists and landscapers, the asphalt is converted into living, breathing social settings.
The parklets do continue to provide parking space for the non-polluting form of transit: bicycles. I took a cycling tour this weekend of the city’s parklets, which offer cyclists a safe and convenient place to park their two wheels and take a rest with their steed.
In the Valencia parklet (top photo), which included edgy canopy steel structures, I counted 19 people hanging out, and 31 bicycles parked. The space was much livelier, more functional and attractive than any three cars could have ever been in the same space.
San Francisco is now analyzing the numbers, behind its parklets, which were started in 2010. The analysis includes the number of users, maintenance costs, and neighborhood economic benefits.
The City by the Bay admits it was inspired by New York City’s public plazas, just as it confessed using Bogota’s Sunday car-free streets Ciclovia concept for its own Sunday Streets program.
Imitation is of course the sincerest form of urban innovation these days. The beauty of such experimentation is that it can be adapted for local conditions, including climate, public tastes and zoning.
The Pavement to Parks program is one of the most exciting deployments in the trend of enabling reduced urban dependency on cars, while fostering artistic and nature-enhanced community. There are other major trends portending that the future of cities (and suburbs) is beyond cars: the increase in mixed-use zoning, transit-oriented development, car sharing and light rail.
To wit: adaptable use of public spaces has become a key indicator of urban resilience. (Photos by Warren Karlenzig: click on each photo for larger format view)
Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 
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My Two Cents in Wall Street Journal’s How to Build a Greener City

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I was quoted in the lead article by Michael Totty in Monday’s Wall Street Journal on “How to Build A Greener City.” The article (and quote) leads off a special section, including the following articles:

  • An Apple Tree Grows in Suburbia
  • The Urban Quest for Zero Waste
  • Testing Their Metals (on reducing industry material use)
  • Building Owners Want Water That Never Leaves
  • Power Play: GE Makes Big Bet on Little Firms
  • In Fracking’s Wake
  • Talking About Waste With P&G
  • Cities as Ecosystems a Fresh Look
  • Reduce Energy Usage at Home

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

Share