Earth as seen from Mars, taken by the rover Spirit, 2004. (NASA)



This is not a sugar-coated set of notes, but there is something optimistic about honesty.

Despite the era’s economic concerns, we’re living through a time of immense wealth. Some of the most daunting climate effects have not begun to bite yet. If any degree of prevention has a multiple return on investment, as compared to later attempts at adaptation, then we should also be living through a time with legendary opportunities to create value. This time should not be wasted.

1 - Some essential information about the future is gathered in a very readable chart from the Guardian on the heels of the UN climate conference at Doha. (To see the chart, click on the image at the link.)

PBS Newshour also covered Doha, in a report that can be seen below:

Watch A Fight from Behind to Keep Up With Rising CO2 Emissions on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


As summarized in the PBS report:

"...The two-degree mark [which we now will exceed] is the point at which the polar ice sheets will melt, leading to rapid sea level rise. It's also a point at which many areas of the world will no longer be able to grow food.

So, it's likely that we could see price spikes, food shortages. These are the kinds of things that will set off a lot of other rapid and potentially catastrophic chain reactions.”

Coral Davenport, the correspondent in the PBS piece, has a fuller report in the National Journal, titled “It’s Already Too Late to Stop Climate Change.”  The Guardian chart shows why we will inevitably cross over the 2° C “safe mark.”

Background info: Warming so far is still under 1° C, with more yet to come no matter what we do, because there is about a 20 year lag between emissions and effects. (The heat from our present level of CO2 hasn’t reached us yet.) Early signs being felt are the summer heat waves, diminished winters, fires, drought, and amplification of storms like Sandy and Botha in the Philippines. Heavier versions of all those coming up through the next twenty years. One big concern is that the planet will have more people, and climate change will make it harder to feed them.

The emphasis in the chart, and in Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” campaign (and his Rolling Stone piece), is that the amount of carbon left to burn is measurable, and we know how fast we burn it. As the calculations on the chart show, to try to meet the intended 2° C limit, the world would need to be abruptly off fossil fuels, ie ‘zero-carbon,’ thirteen years from now. Or tapering off very sharply over a slightly longer time span. That is a challenging sprint, even if we had all of our civilization’s resources dedicated to making it happen.

To have a better chance of meeting that target, our world would already have to look different. In a parallel version of 2013, we’d probably be seeing only a few electric cars tooling about. Our infrastructure would be mostly mass transit, with shorter commutes. Our power would primarily come from a renewable energy grid, and probably nuclear as well. We’d be in the midst of exporting that new technology to developing countries with growing populations, helping everyone through a massive, historic transition. Our own personal assumptions and behavior would have undergone a shift.

Essentially, what we missed initiating twenty years ago is something like the Manhattan Project, that could have accelerated us along the process to de-carbonization from the fossil fuels that remain the foundation of modern life.

2 - Taking into account that we can’t go back to 1990 and start over, how should we think about energy, carbon, climate, economics, life, and the future now?

An Oxford professor’s stark forecast for what’s in front of us became a sold-out show in London this summer. The professor, Stephen Emmott (who also holds a post at the Microsoft Research Lab), elaborated on his thoughts about our present course in an interview with New Scientist. His emphasis is on our only hope being found in vast behavior change.

Behavior change is also the solution seen by another technology expert, Saul Griffith, an MIT Ph.D. profiled in The New Yorker in 2010. Saul Griffith put together the numbers to show how big the technical steps to sustainability are, and created this very lucid set of slides to explain. And he presented the slides in a talk (2008):

PopTech 2008: Saul Griffith from PopTech on Vimeo.


Griffith's video is worth watching in full, as it puts all other news stories into perspective. The energy adaptation steps are big. (Ironically, just living a quiet life in NYC, not flying, and using mass transit gets you pretty close to the hard target for demand -- it’s the rest of America that struggles.)

Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, which is an advisor on climate to the British government, also calls for vast behavior change. Anderson directs his comments to the affluent classes of the West, who are among the 300 million top per capita emitters. His talk in November, 2012 reveals the contrasting messages of science, politics, and economics; he gave a separate, direct and personally searching interview prior.

It's also worth noting that emissions climbed between Griffith's video in 2008 and Anderson's video in 2012:

Perhaps by now there should be a $300/ton CO2 tax, which works out to 15 cents per pound of CO2. Interestingly, each gallon of gas you burn in a car creates about 20 lbs of invisible but real carbon dioxide*, and at 15 cents per lb of CO2, that tax would add about $3 to the price of a gallon of gas. (This would not make Americans happy. On the other hand, the end of the world won’t make us happy either.)

To visualize emissions in another form, a roundtrip NY/LA flight on a passenger jet produces about 1.5 tons of CO2 for each passenger. Pricing that CO2 at $300/ton would add a $450 surcharge to the ticket. (Robert Socolow, researcher at Princeton, gives some helpful individual energy use examples in a comprehensive essay in the Vanderbilt Law Review. As an easy change, I’ve given up air travel - easy for me since I’m a New Yorker already from New York.)

At present, $300/ton would probably viewed as too economically damaging a level to hit cold turkey. Or just politically impossible; The Economist looked at this conundrum in July, and concluded a last ditch series of innovation prizes is necessary, because there might not be enough time to institute the preferred gradual method of carbon taxes.

There are researchers, like Columbia physicist Klaus Lackner (interviewed by us in City Atlas), working on ways to absorb CO2 out of the atmosphere and inject it back underground. Here Lackner explains why it is already necessary to find a way to capture carbon:




That is a sensible direction to investigate -- a ‘fully managed planet’ is better than a failed, partially managed planet. But it implies building an entire global industry from scratch at the scale of the oil industry, which it would essentially reverse. Opinions vary. Kevin Anderson is skeptical; in Yale’s e360, James Hansen, NASA’s leading climatologist, estimates it would cost $20 trillion for a global series of air capture installations to remove 50 parts-per-million (ppm) of CO2 in the air. A more optimistic view of air capture is presented by Columbia economist Graciela Chichilnisky.


The carbon count now is just over 394 ppm (a bit higher in winter, then a bit lower in summer, due to CO2 uptake by trees in the growing season), and rising at about 2.5 ppm/year as we continue to emit much, much more CO2 than what trees, plants, and the oceans can take up. James Hansen’s estimate for a safe level is below that, at 350 ppm. Pre-industrial ‘natural’ levels -- from the early 19th century -- were 280 ppm.

A penetrating explanation of our predicament with rising emissions is found in a simple game made by MIT. Once you click the link, select 'Experiment 2,' and for most accuracy, choose '20 year delay.' As you play the game and attempt to hold emissions below critical thresholds, you see firsthand how rapidly the global economy needs to decarbonize, as a growing population with new levels of consumption pushes hard in the opposite direction. [Note that this game requires Flash, so it won't work on iPads.]

As a reminder to how CO2 works as the planet's thermostat, A QUICK REVIEW.


Even if we were to start building a massive series of air capture systems tomorrow, full deployment of them would take decades; at which point the CO2 count will likely be climbing past 450 ppm, in which case, by those numbers, the first $20 trillion dollar investment would only begin to get us back to where we are today. It’s a tough nut. We’ve burned a lot of oil and coal, and now it’s largely floating in the sky, as CO2.

3 - Things to be concerned about.

To understand the depth and magnitude of our changes to the planet, there is a very clear and understandable piece in Scientific American on sea ice in the Arctic that is worth spending some time with.

The rapid disappearance of ice at the North Pole, leaving an annually increasing area of open water, is an elemental transformation of the planet, and it presages other deep shifts that will change how the planet works to support life. My guess is that the sea ice story is the most meaningful news from 2012 (despite Sandy, and everything else). [updated 4.4.13] Consequences of a warming Arctic, which slows the jet stream and creates unusual weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere, are discussed here and here, including outcomes like the lingering unseasonal chill across the Northeast of the US through March and April of 2013.

It is a story to consider when you try to think about what is more relevant and what is less relevant in the regular diet of news, and in your own life and decisions. The British National Weather Service (aka, the Met Office) has an interactive map that has layers of detail to show many of the negative outcomes of a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

4 - How should we live? It’s tempting to live in the past; enough remains familiar that sheer inertia keeps us in our regular tracks. But this bigger story is already part of our lives -- without us really acknowledging it, it’s the central fact of our lives.

We will pass through days of familiar weather, but the behavior of the climate overall will not be familiar. There will be enough randomness and uncertainty in the system to make it easy to want to guess that it might all blow away, and that other outcomes are possible. Actually, as well-pointed out by David Roberts of Grist, it’s more like Nate Silver’s election predictions -- at this point, it would be hard for them to be wrong.

Spend some time thinking about this story everyday. Artist As Citizen and our projects like City Atlas are the result of reflection on the story. There may be many other interesting responses to pursue and support, like funding, or another advocacy organization. Also, and perhaps most importantly, consider how you might redesign your life to fit this new reality.

There is a shortage on Earth of everything but talent. Your thoughts are valuable.

Richard Reiss



David Owen, in the Wall Street Journal:

“We already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don't like the answers...The only unambiguously effective method of reducing the long-term carbon and energy cost of air travel is to fly less—a behavioral change, not a technological one.”


A quote from Stephen Emmott, interviewed in New Scientist:

You say that by behaviour change you don’t mean small gestures but bigger, more fundamental shifts. How do you want to bring about this revolution?
It is a really difficult question to answer, because I don’t think the problem is that one dimensional that you can just list some prescriptive set of things that will solve it. You use a word that I think is required here, and that is a revolution in the way economies work, in the way governments do their job, and as a sense of collective responsibility as citizens rather than individual responsibility. Bringing about that kind of change is outside the domain of scientific expertise. That is the domain of politicians and economists and perhaps philosophers.

I may not be able to make a contribution to behaviour change, other than my own, unless this talk somehow miraculously makes some contribution! If the message of the talk did act as a catalyst to galvanise people into action and get them to talk of government action, then that would be fantastic.”

Read how the magnitude of the situation has affected an NPR journalist, a financier, and a recent meeting of scientists.

Good ideas that could use help: removing soot and other combustion products could buy us 20 years more time on the main challenge of CO2. Audi is pursuing renewable fuel research similar to Klaus Lackner’s work.


It would be deceptive to put together a list of readings about the future and not address the reality of culture and politics. Climate is about how we govern ourselves.

The American paralysis on the issue also paralyzes the world; that’s why the comparatively easy solutions to climate change have gone out the window. America is a composite society, with very different ideas of governance, held in tension.

Because of that, the very best education about the future may come from three books about the American past: Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer, Born Fighting, by James Webb, and American Nations, by Colin Woodard.

American lives can still be defined by two 19th century figures: politically, by Andrew Jackson (pro or con), and individually, by Thorstein Veblen. The ‘behavior change’ that Stephen Emmott and Saul Griffith advocate largely means changing patterns that are defined either by Jackson or Veblen. Particularly if you’re on a coast, there is a long essay by Walter Russell Meade on “The Jacksonian Tradition” that is a must read. (By the end of it, you will understand gun control, too.) These two forces in American culture interact: private wealth in ‘blue’ New York often uses red state Jacksonian politics as a lever in order to keep government small, taxes low, and finance less regulated.

On the bright side, recent studies show there is little link between excessive materialism and happiness, which suggests we'd be just as happy in a zero-carbon world as in this one. Plus, we'd have less to worry about.

Demographically the Jacksonian tradition may be on the wane. But the Senate requires a supermajority to ratify treaties, including climate change treaties, and House seats are slightly biased to rural districts. So it’s unlikely American voting patterns will change fast enough to anything about climate change without an enormous domestic effort. Paralysis makes us all vulnerable to escapism, which opens the door to group phenomena like a diffusion of responsibility ("someone else will fix it") and a natural fear of speaking up.

Behavior patterns can change ahead of voting patterns, though; a reference for us in designing City Atlas was a 2006 report from the British Government on sustainable consumption, titled “I will if you will.” The title says it all.


Updated: 2.10.13

Record heat fuels widespread fires in Australia (NYT 1.9.13)

Climate change set to make America hotter, drier and more disaster prone (Guardian, 1.11.13)

Climate change inaction the fault of environmental groups, report says [Theda Skocpol] (Guardian, 1.14.13)

Your biggest carbon sin may be air travel (NYT 1.26.13)

[on same: Economist, 2.13.13]

Probing the impact of warming on the world's food supply (Yale e360, 2.7.13)

2012 updates to model-observation comparisons (RealClimate, 2.7.13)

Patagonia plans global campaign for responsible capitalism (Guardian, 2.11.13)

US environmentalists challenged to get climate change laws through Congress (Guardian, 1.17.13)

"If environmentalists can't step back two years later and realise it's more than Obama failing to do something, then they are not going to be ready for the next opening that comes along," Skocpol told The Guardian.

"The whole world has a stake in the United States figuring out how to change energy-use patterns. It is really, really important for the people involved on all sides of this, those on the inside and those sitting outside to say: 'what did we miss about the politics here, and what can we do about it next time around?"

She said environmentalists needed to be "realistic". Even with extreme weather events like Sandy, there was little prospect of action on climate in the absence of a broad-based climate movement.

Hot Years and Cold Truths: The Past and Future of Climate Legislation (Huffington Post, Nathaniel Loewentheil 1/22/13)

"...A careful analysis of the failure of the climate campaign provides a clear moral for the future. The movement needs to begin investing in local and state organizations that can build a strong, enduring network of activists ready to spring into action the next time a realistic climate bill is up for grabs...

But that's not enough. The movement also needs to begin shifting public opinion. And to that end, we need a new generation of journalists who, like Rachel Carson, can capture the hearts of Americans, not just their minds. And not just writers but filmmakers, teachers and academics, an army of intellectual activists reshaping public debate for the better."

The Past and Future Politics of US Environmental Reforms [key findings] (Nathaniel Loewentheil, Yale 1/13)


Predictive tools that might be a useful example for a symposium (under construction)

UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) Adaptation Wizard

[Redhill School example]

In terms of how to think about the problem, UKCIP has a well-written and understated guide directed at adaptation, but applicable to the entire scope of climate problem-solving, and a good frame for a symposium. Pages 16 and 17 are the core message.

Climate predictions for NY State; predictions for NYC



World Resources Institute timeline of weather events in 2012: