A Vision of a Carbon-Zero Urban Future: An Interview with Alex Steffen

How the world's wealthiest cities can beat back climate change.

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Reuters

Alex Steffen calls himself a planetary futurist. That means he has confronted some grim realities in the nearly 10 years since he founded Worldchanging.com, an online publication that pioneered coverage of climate change and related issues in the early years of the 21st century.

But Steffen, who lives in San Francisco, is no fatalist. Since Worldchanging closed in 2010, he has published Worldchanging 2.0,  an updated version of his original "user’s guide to the 21st century." He’s kept busy writing and speaking about creative, sustainable solutions that could help us find a way to survive and even thrive in the face of a planetary challenge that political leaders in the United States have been reluctant to face.

His most recent book, which comes out November 26, is called Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet. In it, he lays out his case that "remaking the world’s wealthiest cities over the next 20 years may prove the best—perhaps the only—chance we have of avoiding planetary catastrophe."

I talked with Steffen the other day via Skype about post-Sandy climate politics, how to "ruggedize" a city, and whether we’re all doomed. This is an edited version of our conversation.

In your introduction you lay out an optimistic view of the role wealthier cities, especially in North America, can play in leading the way to a future that won’t kill us all. Why do you these cities have a meaningful, quantifiable role to play?

Countries that have traditionally been poorer are making a rational argument that they need to escape poverty before they start thinking solely about sustainability. Because there’s only that limited window of emissions potential, I think it falls on us in the global north to take the lead in reducing our own emissions. So we have to take the lead in a really simple global realpolitik kind of way.

But also I think we have a real stake in wanting to do that. We live in cities that are not optimal. The way we have built cities in North America, in Europe, in the wealthier parts of Asia -- these aren’t perfect cities. They’re cities that we built over time in a series of historical situations that made sense to the people living in them. That doesn’t mean that the way they work is the best way they could work or the most competitive or the one that delivers the greatest amount of prosperity.

I think we will find that building cities that drastically reduce our carbon emissions will also result in cities that achieve a lot of other ends that we want to meet, like becoming more economically competitive, becoming more rugged in the face of future climate disasters, and just producing a higher quality of life.

How do you show people that it is in their self-interest to do these things, when all the history and weight of tradition and the conventional wisdom that people have grown up with is going the other way still?

I think one part of the answer to that question is that we are in the middle of what is possibly the greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced. And I think an increasing number of people are realizing that business as usual is not working.

Another part of it is that more and more Americans are realizing there are advantages to living in communities that are compact, that have a nice neighborhood feel, that are walkable, that have access to transit, that have buildings that are green and well insulated and that have cleaner air because they are using less polluting forms of energy. I think there is a push and a pull. I am personally optimistic that could get us past some of the political roadblocks that we face.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo two weeks ago came out and spoke more forcefully, I think, than any other American politician about climate change in practical terms – saying, let’s stop kidding ourselves that these are hundred-year events, they’re something we have to deal with on an ongoing basis.

I have been doing this stuff for a while, and I have never seen a moment when the debate on climate change has shifted as suddenly as it has in the last few weeks.

There’s a palpable sense in America that Sandy was a wake-up call. In a year when we saw one of the worst droughts in American history, when we’ve seen catastrophic wildfires, when we’ve seen other floods and natural disasters, to also see a thousand-year storm says something about the world that we’re moving into.

I think that people are beginning to understand that climate change is not metaphorically like war, it’s existentially like war. It is a challenge to the continuation of our nation as we understand it. And I think it is a real test in some ways of our patriotism. If you really care about this country, it is important to stand up and say, this is what is happening.

You talk in the book about the idea of consumption-based footprinting. Why do you think that’s so important?

In the past people have tended to measure carbon footprints by measuring how many emissions we’re directly creating. But we live in a truly globalized economy. Many of the things we use in our everyday lives come from other places, and while the emissions may be released in another place – China, for instance -- they are in a really clear way the direct the result of our own consumption. So in the last few years, people have started trying to measure what’s called consumption-based footprints. Which is basically to say, everything we actually use in our lives, all of the stuff that we use, all of the materials and energy that go into the things around us, how many emissions are being produced.

I think this is a much smarter and fairer way of thinking about things because it really shows us what the ultimate effects of our actions are. And if we start to measure what we actually use, we realize that in order to change those emissions we actually have to change systems. We have to get at the ways things are done, and not just the behavioral choices we make.

To a really large degree the consumption choices that we can make are dictated by the systems around us. Whether or not we can walk or bike or take transit to work or to school. Whether or not we can reasonably live without owning every thing we might ever want to use. Whether or not we have access to food that is grown in ways that are more sustainable. The list goes on and on of things that are bounded by the urban systems in which we live.

So in many cases, it is changing the systems within our cities that allows us to change our consumption choices. Those are policy choices, those are investment choices.

Part of what Carbon Zero is, is an attempt to imagine if we took all of these solutions, in transportation, in building, in infrastructure, in product consumption, in water and wastewater systems, if we took all of the innovations that are already out there, and brought them together in one city, what could the effects be?

What do you mean when you talk in the book about the idea of "ruggedizing" cities?

The future is a tough place, and as we move into it, we are going to need to think of ways to reduce our vulnerabilities to not only climate chaos, but all sorts of instabilities that are happening as our economy shifts in the face of planetary realities. I generally divide those steps we can take into three categories: Ruggedization, distribution, and resilience.

Ruggedization is simply making stuff that is harder to break. Many of the systems we depend on, including stuff our lives depend on, are extremely brittle. They’ve been optimized for a very narrow set of circumstances, which means that the minute something happens that’s outside those normal expectations, they break, they collapse. This is not a good thing. There are certain systems you want to make sure work no matter what. You want your water supply to be safe no matter what. You want medical care to be available no matter what. So the first step is just making sure the things you cannot afford to have fail, you future-proof.

The distribution piece is that the things that are able to fail, should fail in parts. You distribute the capacity to do things throughout your city, throughout your region. So for example if you have a more distributed energy system, you can have the energy system in one neighborhood go down, and energy systems in other neighborhoods remain unaffected. By distributing things, you make it possible for disaster to strike, and not have everything go down if something fails.

Then there’s resilience. How well do things bounce back? How well do we recover from extreme circumstances? Personally, I think a lot of the resiliency effort we ought to be investing is really human. It’s people’s skills, it’s connecting them to the way things work around them so that they know how to help fix things or how to keep people safe in hard times. And it’s having the ability as larger metro regions as states, as a nation, to get resources to people who have gone through a bad time and are suffering quickly enough to make a difference.

What do you think the results of the elections we just went through mean, if anything, in terms of our being able to confront the problems that face us out loud, like grownups in mainstream politics in America?

I see signs that something fundamental has shifted. Covering this topic for years a s a journalist, and now writing about it for the last several years as essentially more of a futurist, I’ve talked to a lot of people about what they see this crisis as being and how we ought to respond to it. Among people who know what’s going on, there’s been a consensus about what we need to do for a very long time.

The problem has been that there’s been a sense that the vested interests who are opposed to action are just simply too powerful to take on directly. And I think something there has changed.

I think some of it is America watching our first city, the city that for a lot of people represents American cities, get hit hard by a storm that is clearly at least to some degree connected to climate change, and even more clearly is a taste of what we can expect more of in the future.

I think that experience has galvanized a lot of people to say, OK, there may be political consequences here to speaking out more plainly, but I just need to do it. It’s the right thing to do.

Top image: Ina Fassbender/Reuters

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.