Articles, Blog

Planning for Climate Change – Larry Susskind

December 5, 2019


My name is Larry Susskind. I’ve been on the MIT
faculty since 1970. During that time, I’ve
worked on a wide range of resource management, land
use, environmental protection, and development questions
in many parts of the world. My work really,
I think, reflects the migration or
the transformation of what’s happening
with what was once called urban and
regional planning as a professional field,
where people made plans. So the planner’s job
was to make a plan. And you brought your expertise. You analyze the situation. You looked at what was
done at other places, and you would make a plan. And the plan would
be the stated set of objectives and the specific
allocation of resources to achieve those objectives. Planning became the process
of managing the conversation, informed by scientific and
technical considerations, of making some set of
judgments about which policies should be given priority. I’m working on
climate adaptation. It’s a specialized
area within planning. Particularly,
coastal communities trying to plan or to organize
or to cope with the risks associated with climate change. You’ve got to learn something
about climate change. You have to learn something
about the kinds of ecosystem and human system interaction
likely to be affected by sudden shifts in the
way in which storms evolve, the way in which sea
level might change, the way in which intensity
of storms might alter. And all of that
affects how communities make choices about
allocating resources, but now in the face of a
different set of risks, which posed different gains
and losses potentially to different groups. The students who come here
will get a master’s or a PhD in planning, but it
means something different depending on which subarea
of the department they’re working on. And most of them will
go take a job that won’t have planning in the title. They might be the
senior climate change person for the Port Authority
of the city of New York. All of this management
of large streams of data will allow people to make
much smarter places, and make places that are more
responsive to the problems that are happening. And students today
think absolutely nothing of wading into these large
amounts of data, including digital data of many,
many different kinds. Simultaneously, we
have to give courses, not just on geographic
information systems, but on social media as
tools for public engagement, on methods of mining large
data sets in real time, in ways of getting
streams of new visual data about real time
changes in places, so that people can make
real time adjustments in those built environments or
in those natural environments. I’m convinced that
because there’s such inexpensive sensors
for everything now, we can monitor all air
quality, water quality, every kind of environmental
quality in real time at a very low cost. We can have streams of
data, and now somebody has to invent the way of
having machines read the data and say, send somebody
to that spot over there. There’s a problem there. The number one thing I would
suggest is very controversial. So let me just acknowledge
that the idea I’m going to put forward
about negotiating with regard to climate change
will not at first blush, be comfortable, or make sense
to people who are working very, very hard on climate change. And from my standpoint,
I don’t think we should be putting so
much energy into mitigation. I think we should put
a much more emphasis now into adaptation. What I mean by that
is people running around making enormous amount of
effort to reduce CO2 emissions, they don’t have as
widespread popular support as they need to cause
the changes in behavior necessary to truly
reduce CO2 emission. And it’s been steady. It’s not getting that
uptake amongst people. But if you go to
people and you say, we could have 15 days over 95
degrees this summer in a row. An awful lot of people
are going to suffer in the city who don’t
have air conditioning, or a lot of people
are going to suffer who are fragile because
they’re going to be dehydrated, which is going to create higher
instances of renal failure. And they’re all
going to try to go to the hospital
at the same time. And the hospital doesn’t
have dialysis, or other units adequate, to what 10 or
15 days of over 95 degrees would do in major cities. How should you prepare? We’re going to have
more intense storms. We’re going to
have more flooding. If you’re in a coastal
area or riverine area, you will have more flooding. That flooding will
cause still water to sit as the flood recedes. That will create a
vector-borne disease. What are you going
to do ahead of time to reduce the risks to the
population of the health effects of climate change? Because it’s too
late, when it happens, to figure out how do we
redeploy the first responders. Where should the food
provisions be in place when food can’t be delivered? Shouldn’t we have hardened
our electrical system so that when the storm hit
and the water treatment plant went out, and then the
water system went out, and the electricity went
out, and it’s now seven days, and everybody is trying to clear
out and nobody can get out. It’s too late. That’s climate
adaptation planning. How do you adapt? How do you plan ahead
to adapt to those risks? I know people are saying,
but that doesn’t get at the source of the problem. The source of the problem
is CO2 emission or methane or other kinds of
emissions, and we really have to work to reduce that. But we’ve already
seen that you can’t grab public support for
that activity the way you can around telling
people right now. I don’t care if you don’t
believe that climate change is primarily human-caused. We know there will be
more drought and more hot days and more floods
and more intense storms. And if you don’t do something
about them, your property now– not in 20 years,
not in 50 years– your property now
will lose value. Your life will be at stake. Your children’s life
will be at stake. And there’s small things
you can do that makes sense for a whole lot of reasons. Do those now. Now, if you can get people
working on that and they say, well, that costs a
lot of money to harden that electrical system– that’s right. We’re going to have to
pay that all the time– that’s right. What can we do to not have
to pay that all the time? Get at the source
of the problem. Like what? Reduce CO2 emissions, and
then in 50 or 70 years, the problem will get less. But as soon as you say 50 or
70 years, you lose people. So I’m for getting everybody
to switch their attention to climate adaptation
now, as a way of building a visceral
commitment to mitigation and CO2 reduction. So it’s a different sequence. People have said, let’s solve
the CO2 emission problem, and then we can
work on adaptation. I think politically and
behaviorally, first we should work on getting
people immediately to take steps to
help themselves now. Whatever the cause
of climate change, we know we don’t have enough
water in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s already started. There are things you can do
to cope with that– that’s called adaptation planning.

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