THE BLOG
03/04/2013 09:22 am ET | Updated May 04, 2013

Understanding the Shifting Politics of Climate Policy and Sustainability Management

Last week, Columbia's Earth Institute and its International Research Institute on Climate and Society hosted a panel discussion on climate adaptation in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I moderated the discussion which featured Dr. Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Dr. Adam Sobel, a Professor of Physics and Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia, and Dr. Sergej Mahnovski, director of the New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. The panel was originally scheduled for the evening that Hurricane Sandy hit, and the inescapable irony was not lost on the 300 people gathered in Columbia's iconic Low Rotunda. The tone of the discussion demonstrated that we have entered a new political moment. Climate and environment have returned to the American political agenda.

The fact of climate change and the need to adapt to its impact may still be questioned in the U.S. Congress, but it is a central policy issue here in New York and New Jersey. New York's Governor Cuomo is allocating $400 million in federal aid to buy some badly damaged shore-front homes. Media coverage of the recovery from Sandy continues. Last week, New York City's all-news TV station New York 1 aired a special series on how the Netherlands has adapted to climate change. Last Wednesday, I participated in a discussion on NY 1's "The Road to City Hall" that was also devoted to the issue of climate adaptation after Sandy. While the crisis atmosphere we felt initially has dissipated, reconstruction is far from over, and the memory of Sandy's impact does not seem to be fading. In some respects, the issue of climate adaptation has quickly moved away from the edge of political discussion to the mainstream. The need to build a stronger and more resilient city and region is now an accepted part of the "New York conversation." You hear it in restaurants and bars, on TV, in theatre lobbies, and pretty much everywhere you go. We don't need special effects to see the Battery Tunnel filling up with water; we had our own disaster movie in real time last fall. Those images have changed political reality in this region.

The real estate industry and building developers find themselves facing questions about the location of boilers and other pieces of building infrastructure. Many buildings are examining the feasibility of moving these facilities to higher floors. Utilities are undergoing scrutiny of their energy restoration plans and are being asked to enhance the resiliency of their power generators and other facilities. Many individual homeowners are buying generators, and most are thinking about the prospect of another flood.

While political agendas can be notoriously fickle, the flood surge from Sandy was an event that will not soon be forgotten. The people who lost power for a few weeks continue to think about the hurricane and its probable causes. More importantly, nearly everyone knows someone who struggled during and after Sandy. These perceptions and beliefs shape the legitimacy and reality of political views and will be easily mobilized when climate policy debates are undertaken. In the December, 2012 Sienna College poll of public opinion in New York, 69 percent of those polled attributed Sandy to global climate change while only 24 percent considered the storm an "isolated weather event." Although national polls do not reflect this region's growing concern about the impact of climate change, the Pew Research Center's October 2012 poll of American public opinion reports that: "About two thirds (67%) say there is solid evidence that the earth's average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, up four points since 2011 and 10 points since 2009."

The Pew poll does not rank global warming high among urgent policy issues warranting the attention of the wizards running our national government, with only 28 percent calling it a top priority. Interestingly, the same poll saw a dramatic increase in concern about protecting the environment. In January 2012, 43 percent rated environmental protection as a high priority, a number which grew to 52 percent in January, 2013. These data provide evidence that the sustained attack on environmental protection policy and climate science may have peaked. While the priority of the climate policy issue suffers because greenhouse gasses are created everywhere and their impact is in the future; air, water and toxic pollution are impossible to deny. These forms of pollution can be seen and smelled, and the health effects of toxics are irrefutable (that's why they are called "toxic"). Although it is true that the urgency of environmental issues seems to fade in the wake of issues like jobs and safety, the sustainability perspective is causing more and more people to connect the health of our biosphere with the health of our economy.

The difficulty with the issues of environmental quality and climate change is that they are often framed as if their resolution requires individual sacrifice: "If only we were more virtuous we would use less energy and pollute less than we do." As long as environmental protection is equated in the public mind with eating broccoli, the issue will be difficult to address. As we learned during Sandy, our modern lifestyles and indeed happiness depend on a steady, secure supply of energy and water, along with ease of mobility. Right now, the only way to power the modern economy is with fossil fuels. When people give the topic some thought, they know that continued reliance on finite fossil fuels will someday come to an end. However, before reliance on fossil fuels can end, there must be a plentiful, reliable, low cost substitute.

The sustainability perspective integrates the idea of ecosystem health with economic well-being. A more crowded planet, with higher levels of material and economic consumption requires more careful management of the use of natural resources. Resource extraction, farming, factory production, consumption and waste management must be done in more thoughtful and careful ways. For example, when we extract natural gas from the ground while damaging fresh water resources we are practicing a non-sustainable form of management. Dumping toxics into the ground or the water is equally short sighted and idiotic. These mindless practices must be replaced with more careful forms of management, with what some of us have begun to call sustainability management. If we are to develop a renewable, sustainable economy, the search for a safe, cheap, reliable and large-scale form of renewable energy must become a far greater priority than it is today.

In the final analysis, our lifestyles and settlement patterns are an expression of our values. Those values find expression in our use of energy and in the location of our cities and homes by the water. Efforts to change those values will tend to fail. While crises and catastrophe might change attitudes and behavior for a time, political propaganda that calls the science fake can also impact public opinion. People doubt environmental science because they fear that if it is correct they will need to sacrifice their comfortable way of life. As long as the issue is framed as a stark trade-off, people will resist its premises. It is a political non-starter to argue that we must turn off the lights and get out of our cars or we will all be flooded out by sea level rise. The focus on adaptation is an effort to find another answer to the dilemma. That is why New York 1 sent a reporter to the Netherlands to study the Dutch approach to flood protection. The more promising long term response to climate change is to advance the technology of renewable energy. Science and technology got us into this mess. Only science and technology can get us out of it.