Climate Change: A Moment of Truth

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A couple of weeks ago, members of Brighter Green attended the Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Like many parts of the New York City shoreline, the Navy Yard has been undergoing considerable (re)development—not only in terms of converting old warehouses or brownfield sites into high-priced condominiums or tech start-ups, but also in industry (a new loading dock/pier was being built outside the Duggal Greenhouse, where the Forum was staged).

As a colleague and I waited at the entryway to the Greenhouse for the bus to take us back to the subway station, we fell into conversation with a man standing by a heat vent (it was a chilly morning). His name was Antoine Faye and he is Chief Resilience Officer for Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. He was set to go to Manhattan to meet with his counterpart, Daniel Zarilli. Both New York City and Dakar are part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. The aim of the initiative is for major urban centers to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change over the next several decades.

Mr. Faye was in a gloomy mood. His appointment, he said, was only for two years, during which time he had to forge a viable future for Dakar, which (like many cities in the developing world) was growing rapidly as populations moved from climate-stressed rural areas into informal settlements nearby in search of work and a livelihood. He told us that one of his major tasks was to figure out how to relocate inland tens of thousands of people from low-lying regions along the shoreline. This was difficult as institutions like the university were already packed with four times the number of people they were built for. He mordantly noted that a further influx of still more unemployed young men would only lead to trouble. Even more depressing from his point of view, he added, was that even were he to come up with a plan for the city, it could simply sit in a drawer and not be implemented precisely because it required forced removal of populations, unemployment, and the kind of tough decisions that not only could end someone’s time in office but throw the entire country into political turmoil.

As he looked out at the bustling Navy Yard, Mr. Faye observed that resilience for a city like New York was a much easier prospect. It had political structures, a private sector, and a civil society that might support the kinds of systemic changes that would enable a city to cope with a meter or so of sea-level rise. (I kept my mouth shut.) Dakar did not, he observed, and so would have to cede part of its land to the sea—perhaps those very areas that formed the more desirable parts of town.

At that point, our bus arrived and we parted ways, but not before my colleague and I had been given much food for thought. It would, indeed, be comforting to believe that New York City’s plans for the next century offer a genuinely resourceful (in both senses of the word) means of responding to climate change (especially in low-lying areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy). But it’s only human to retain a connection to the sea, to want to rebuild in the same spot you’ve always lived, and to defy nature and the odds: that’s no different in Dumbo or Dakar.

It’s an irony that SE4All took place in industrial Brooklyn—a place that for decades (like so much of New York City’s shoreline) was a place that the well-to-do and respectable avoided. As On the Waterfront or Last Exit to Brooklyn attest, for much of the twentieth century, the harbor and industrial areas were locations where organized crime, violence, prostitution, and the bodies ended up. When NYC developer Robert Moses ringed Manhattan and other boroughs with roads, he reinforced the separation of the shore from the interior, the poor from the rich. Now the shore is being reclaimed for the wealthy—even as it is threatened once again by violence and disruption, this time from climate change.

One final observation: SE4All serves as a forum for philanthropists, investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and civil society activists to collaborate on meeting the energy needs of the world’s populations while also reducing our carbon footprint to levels in the timeframe agreed upon by the United Nations. Despite the positive vibes and can-do spirit emanating from the participants on the panels, the globe is failing to meet any of the goals allotted.  And even were renewables to become even cheaper and more widely available, and even if the grid delivery systems and storage capacities improved, and even if governments set a carbon price that pushed the market further away from fossil fuels, and even if developing countries leapfrogged old-school industrialized development based on extraction and the externalization of environmental costs—even if all this happened, it still wouldn’t obviate the terrible decisions that face Dakar now and New York City in the future. That will require the kind of political leadership, civil society engagement, long-term thinking, and realignment of values of what it means to live well that we are woefully ill-equipped for.

Under such circumstances, “resilience” acquires an altogether deeper psychological and even moral underpinning than building climate-surge barriers or phasing in our withdrawal from the coast. It means basing our decisions on equity and shared sacrifice, closing the gap between rich and poor and learning to live with uncertainty and scarcity. To that extent, the Vegan America Project can only offer gestures of support and solidarity, recognizing (humbly) that dietary and lifestyle change will only take all of us (human or otherwise) so far. Much of the remainder is, because of our behavior, now out of our hands.