This June was the hottest June on record. This July was the hottest month in recorded human history. Right now, Greenland is melting at the fastest rate that has ever been recorded. Meanwhile, US and global greenhouse gas emissions continue to steadily rise, fossil fuel subsidies are something like 5x those for renewable energy globally, and active climate deniers control the US government.
I drove Upstate this week for my grandfather’s funeral, and found it jarring to encounter no less than five pickup trucks and roadside houses prominently displaying Confederate flags (generally in tandem with that of the United States), a phenomenon I don’t remember encountering in years past. In a rest stop bathroom, I passed an older gentleman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “Clean Coal, It Works.” And along Scenic Route 20, en route back towards Albany, I passed a house with a large, un-ironic sign in its front yard reading: “Windmills Kill: Friendships, Wildlife, Property Values”.
In view of the generalities and particulars above, it would be easy to indulge in head-shaking disbelief or self-righteous disgust. But it’s important to differentiate between the display of white supremacist symbols or the wearing of factually inaccurate slogans on the one hand, and the assertion of subjective claims which – although perhaps counterproductive – contain significant elements of truth and are rooted in specific lived circumstances, on the other. Further, it’s necessary to confront the passive denial in which we engage every day. Certainly, the global climate crisis is more than a personal problem, and the call is not to sink into despair, self-loathing, and guilt. We have to confront the organized political and corporate power that stands in the way of necessary action, and to embrace the good work being done by conscientious politicians in Washington, in Albany, and at City Hall, as well as the courageous activism of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Youth Climate Strike, among others.
Part of this confrontation with the life-denying forces currently dominating the world, though, is some soul-searching about complicity. Here in New York City, we’re in the midst of a protracted building boom, in large part concentrated in floodplains in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. The City is proposing spending approximately $1.5 billion dollars to destroy East River Park and replace it with coastal defenses topped by new parklands, while at the same time plans seem to be moving forward to build an eight-story office building on Pier 40 (so literally over the Hudson) because it is “the only way” to preserve the ballfields currently situated on the crumbling pier.
Certainly, we need to be urgently moving forward with many forms of what have been billed “adaptation”, “mitigation”, and “resiliency” measures. But while some folks Upstate, and in other Red(der) parts of the country are engaged in active denial, we’re mired here in our own deep forms of passive denial of hard climate truths. Current concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide correspond to sea levels more than 50 feet higher than those at present. More than 50 feet higher. Of course, it will likely take centuries for all of the sea level rise we’ve already “baked in” to unfold, and perhaps in the meantime new technologies will emerge that allow for some huge amount of direct air capture (DAC) carbon capture and storage (CCS) (or Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage, so DACCS, for short). Don’t hold your breath though. In the meantime, we should be preparing for a radically and rapidly changing world while we still have time. Sadly, that almost certainly means large scale retreat from the waterfront, and the loss of entire cities to the rising oceans, rivers, and seas.
This is the reality that we currently confront, and the sooner that we and our political representatives can embrace this fact, the sooner we can start making farsighted decisions about how to employ our vast but limited resources from a position of relative advantage rather than waiting until the multiplying crises deepen and then – as New York City did during Hurricane Sandy – scrambling in a panic to address the eminently foreseeable that has befallen us.
In New York, we should be making a planned, citywide retreat from the waterfront. We should have a total moratorium on all new construction in the existing floodplain, at very least. We should be planning to decommission the West Side Highway and FDR and to build in their place berm parks at least 30 to 40 feet high with the understanding that everything on the waterside of these berms (Hudson River Park, all the piers) will, eventually, be subject to re-wilding. We should start to confront the painful reality that many parts of the city (the Rockaways, parts of Staten Island’s south shore, much of Coastal Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and arguably large parts of Lower Manhattan) will not be defensible as the waters rise. In short, we should be planning for the future we are almost certain to face rather than squandering more precious time (after decades already squandered) lost in magical thinking of the worst sort.
Lest anyone accuse me of undue pessimism or of being, here, too depressing, I’ll just point out that when one faces a life-and-death challenge – or really, any major challenge – one does not rise to the occasion by pretending that everything is fine and taking no meaningful action at all. Denial is not hope, nor is it optimism. Denial is, however, according to the Kübler-Ross Model, the first stage of grief. Climate grief and pre-trauma are now recognized as widespread human responses to the global climate (and ecological) crisis unfolding all around us. Indeed, we have a great deal to grieve; however, to avert unnecessary trauma and avoid what remains avoidable, it’s incumbent upon us to move from denial to acceptance of our new climate realities and fast, as time is of the essence.
To that end, I just finished reading Mike Wallace‘s remarkable Greater Gotham (and can’t recommend it, and Gotham, more highly), and am devoting August to a renewed round of climate reading. Just finished The Water Will Come – an accessible, journalistic primer on sea-level rise – and am currently reading Extreme Cities – a more academic and radically political take on the same – and can happily recommend both (probably best read in the above order) for readers who may want to deepen their thinking around these issues.