openalex: Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities that can Save the Planet

Alex Steffen, the man behind the excellent inertia defying and inspiring WorldChanging blog, has just released his new book.

Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities that can Save the Planet is a short punchy introduction to some of the most important ideas that are shaping how we are thinking about, and creating, green cities.

I worked with Alex on (the now sadly defunct) WorldChanging, and I also had a chance to give some feedback on early stages of CarbonZero. After almost two years of work the book is done, and it’s a real success.

Look at what discussions of “green cities” focused on in the 1990s and compare that to today and you’ll see a huge shift. We’ve gone from talking about one-off projects (think LED traffic lights) to complex and interconnected visions of cites that are simultaneously livable, efficient, and productive (economically, socially, and environmentally).

It’s been an exciting transition, and one that (finally) is getting us closer to realizing the transformative potential of city-regions. Anyone wanting a quick but still insightful flyover of this new way of looking at urban sustainability should take a look at CarbonZero.

The full text is up over at Grist, and you can also buy the digital version here.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Cities in the age of climate consequences: ‘Carbon Zero,’ chapter 1 


On Monday the 29th of October, 2012, a tidal surge 13.9 feet high (the highest ever recorded) washed up and over the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, pushed forward by the superstorm Sandy. That same week, the storm destroyed large swathes of coastline from the New Jersey shore to Fire Island, while driving torrential rains, heavy snows, and powerful winds inland across the eastern U.S. and Canada. By the time the storm blew out, it had killed more than 100 Americans, made thousands homeless, left millions without power, and caused at least $50 billion in damage. Sandy was, by any reckoning, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Maybe, though, the word “natural” belongs in quotes. Because what was surprising about Sandy wasn’t that it happened (indeed, many had predicted that rising sea levels and storms intensified by warmer oceans would make something like Sandy inevitable), but that it was seen so clearly, and so immediately, for what it was: a forewarning of what a planet in climate chaos has in store for us.

Sandy was far from the first sign that climate change is here — scientists have been warning for decades of the dangers of a heating planet, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen a flurry of unprecedented storms, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, and wildfires, as well as record-breaking heat waves following one after another. Sandy, though, knocked down walls of denial and inattention that have kept us from admitting what’s happening to our world.
What’s happening is that we’re losing the climate fight. Climate change is here, it’s worsening quickly, its effects are more dire than many thought they would be, and — if we continue with business as usual — we’re on a track to unleash an almost unimaginable catastrophe on ourselves, our children, and our descendants.
“Part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” He added later, ”Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

Our choice: “extremely dangerous” or “catastrophic”

To not warm the planet at all no longer remains an option. The Earth is already dangerously hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
We used to think that warming up to 2 degrees C fell within a sort of “safe zone,” where we could expect change but not crisis. But in a world we’ve warmed only by about 1 degree C above the historical baseline, we’re already seeing massive climate impacts across the planet. These unexpected impacts, along with new projections from ever-improving climate models, tell us that the climate is not nearly as forgiving as we’d like it to be. As the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research’s Kevin Anderson puts it, “1 degree is the new 2 degrees.” Two degrees, meanwhile, now appears not just dangerous, but extremely dangerous.

It’s not too late to avoid catastrophe

If that were the end of the story we could all just start drinking now. Hell, I’d buy the first round. But it’s not. We still have a choice. We still, just barely, have the option of choosing to limit warming to 2 degrees and then working hard to restore the climate once we’ve stabilized it. We can, yet, pause at “extremely dangerous” and pull back from the brink of chaos.

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