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Every year at this time, the International Energy Agency publishes its annual World Energy Outlook, which is the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for oil executives. That is, it incarnates their fantasies, especially the one about how this is an unchanging world, where attitudes and habits need not shift. Each year, the document forecasts a world in which fossil fuel continues to dominate for decades to come, and, because investors and governments often base their actions on those predictions, it’s almost literally the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem, of course, is that the world it confidently imagines is an impossible one. If, as the I.E.A.’s current “sustainable development scenario” predicts, we don’t shut off the flow of fossil fuel until 2070, then the World Habitability Outlook, if there were such a thing, would be grim. (September, 2020, was the hottest September ever measured. That helped set the stage for, among many other novel forms of damage, the first Greek-letter hurricane ever to hit the United States and devastating wildfires in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.) The rational goal of the I.E.A. (a club of oil-consuming countries, first proposed by Henry Kissinger in the wake of the OPEC embargo of the nineteen-seventies) should be to model what science says we require to survive and then chart a path toward getting us there. And, this year, after intense pressure from activists, that began to happen. Along with the main report, the I.E.A. released a miniature scenario that tries to foresee a world in which we reach net zero by 2050. That’s still too slow to meet the climate targets set in Paris, in 2015, but at least it’s in the ballpark. Next year, the activists say, that nearer-term forecast needs to be the central event, not the kiddie table—taken seriously, such a scenario could be a crucial document as the world assembles in Glasgow a year from November for a critical round of talks about carbon cuts.

An I.E.A. report that took science as its starting point would not be revolutionary. In fact, there are signs that important parts of the world’s financial system are already beginning to get the message, thanks to unrelenting pressure. JPMorgan Chase, the world’s biggest fossil-fuel investor, this month committed to a “Paris alignment” of its lending practices. (Full disclosure: I was arrested in a Chase branch near the Capitol, in January, to help accelerate this campaign.) As activists point out, this vague target is barely a start. But the pressure won’t be going away: members of the Rockefeller family, whose forebears helped build Chase into the giant it is today, announced that they are rallying wealthy peers to prod the bank into more aggressive action, demanding that it “embrace innovation and move beyond the profits of fossil fuels to develop banking models that will excel in a zero-carbon world.” Some of the nations that constitute the I.E.A. are clearly ready for more: in the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s government noised around the idea that all of its home electricity could come from offshore wind by 2030. (A truly great idea, in part because, at the moment, too much of it is coming from burning wood pellets shipped over from the southeastern United States, which, as a new report makes clear, is a definitional example of environmental racism.)

As with so much else, the outcome of the I.E.A. saga likely rests on the results of the Presidential election. If a Biden Administration were trying to mobilize support for genuine climate action, a World Energy Outlook that showed a working future, instead of a nostalgic past, would be a real assist, and Washington doubtless has the clout to move the agency in a new direction. So vote as if the veracity of statistical forecasts depended on it!

Passing the Mic

With Bobby Berk, from “Queer Eye,” presiding, the National Design Awards last week conferred their inaugural prize for climate design on DLANDstudio, for Sponge Park, a plan to help staunch the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The lead designer, Susannah Drake, says that there may be lessons from the project for cities trying to deal with sea-level rise.

New Yorkers know the Gowanus Canal. What’s the problem, and what’s the right fix?

The Gowanus Canal is a former industrial canal that is very polluted. In fact, it was designated an E.P.A. Superfund site because of coal-gasification plants, paint factories, and other industrial uses located along its banks. New York City also has a combined sewer system: in some areas, even a light rain dumps a noxious combination of sewage and storm water into surrounding waterways.

Back when the Dutch settled the area, they turned what was a swamp into farmland. With sea-level rise, that wetland is now trying to reëmerge. The dynamics of historic contamination, ground water, tides, and surface-water runoff make for a hot mess.

The Sponge Park is a nature-based infrastructure solution for cleaning up the area and adding public open space. Using early grant-funded pilot projects, we developed a system that could be implemented in the public right of ways of street ends and waterfront setbacks to clean the water and soil and enhance habitat. Plants were selected for their ability to bioaccumulate and break down toxins, as well as for their resilience to periodic salt-water inundation. We also tried to use plants that were attractive to pollinators, including monarch butterflies.

If this system was deployed across the whole city, it would absorb and filter almost a billion gallons of excess runoff water per year, making our waterways cleaner and healthier.

Is this a template for other work? How should we be thinking about public works in an age of climate change?

The Sponge Park is a replicable system that is now being considered for widespread implementation as a component of the city’s long-term control plan for storm-water management. The systems can be deployed in concert with hard engineering solutions to manage the increased severity of storms brought about by climate change.

We did a plan for the St. Roch neighborhood, in New Orleans, that deployed similar methods to the Sponge Park. We designed streetscapes with new absorbent green spaces that could hold water during storm events, to keep pumping stations from getting overloaded. In coastal zones of Miami Beach, we proposed restoration and development of mangrove swamps to hold soil, protect aquifers, and buffer storm surges.

Adaptation of coastal zones can restore their elasticity. Wetlands and softer coastal zones can absorb impacts of severe storms better than a hard edge. They are like a crumple-zone on a car or an expansion joint in pavement or a building.

What are the limits here? Can these kinds of schemes keep working if we get sea-level rises of multiple metres, if rainfall totals keep rising?

Projects like the Sponge Park are an incremental step in the development of waterfronts that manage the creep of sea-level rise. The Sponge Park landscapes are designed to be flooded. Eventually, plantings can be transitioned to manage more frequent salt-water inundation, and additional modules can be added upland to absorb and filter storm water. But there is a limit to what they can do. With two metres of sea-level rise, roads and other transportation rights of way may be blocked, making access to many urban waterfronts impossible to sustain.

Ten years ago, when I designed MOMA’s “Rising Currents, a New Urban Ground” exhibition, I believed that adaptation in place was a viable long-term solution for many cities. In some places, economics may still warrant elevating ground, redevelopment of sub-grade infrastructure, and making streets porous. Creating a reciprocal relationship to water, where water can be allowed in and out, seemed manageable at the time.

In my most recent work, I have advocated for migration-oriented adaption. The strategy calls for denser development on existing high-ground transportation corridors. These areas would encourage use of public transport and make new walkable neighborhoods for people on land that had already been degraded.

Movement of people away from coastal zones enables the restoration of natural ecologies. Restoring the dynamism of the barrier islands, inland waterways, and coastlines enables the powerful protective forces of nature to protect people and the environment.

Climate School

In case you missed it last weekend, Jonathan Franzen, Carolyn Kormann, and Elizabeth Kolbert had a great conversation on climate at the New Yorker Festival. (I joined in, too.) On-demand viewing has been extended through this Sunday, so you can still stream the video here.

It turns out that leaving natural-gas and oil pipes out in fields unprotected for years while you try to win permits for your pipelines is a bad idea: they corrode and may no longer be safe for use.



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