Superstorm Sandy to America: “You should have paid attention to those climate change people.”

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

But even more so “you should have paid attention to those ecocity people.”

Here’s the scoop, our very own “news analysis,” that is, what did the press say about causes and solutions to storms like Sandy, the quick-change artist?

The New York Times is usually better than most of the competition. Let’s see how it was on connecting Sandy the Hurricane, aka Superstorm Sandy, when it hit New York town and took on “extratropical characteristics,” as the weather wonks say.

Let’s do a little “news analysis,” that is, a look at the coverage itself in those pages.

Signs of the Times

In the New York Times October 31, 2012 front page News Section, we find 17 articles totaling 11,200 words approximately. In those 17 articles two mentioned climate change, but not very thoroughly, totaling 171 words. That’s 1/65th of the copy or about 1.3%. Infinitely better than our Presidential candidates anyway.

There was a lot to cover, after all:

  • Worst flooding in 108 history of the New York subway system, some sections flooded from tracks to ceiling.
  • Highest storm surge in New York History at the Battery (southern tip of Manhattan): 13.88 feet.
  • College testing interrupted; bad for students.
  • Electric service out for 8 million people.
  • Problems and opportunities for the candidates for President caused by the storm.
  • The many unfortunate ways about 40 people (about 70 by now!) died in the storm from the Atlantic City boardwalk (destroyed) to deep inland.
  • Thousands told to take refuge in shelters – but trick-or-treat OK Wednesday night (as I write this).
  • Obama pledges speedy clean up.
  • Detailed clean up actions you and the government, but mostly the government, can take.
  • The city’s founders never thought about high floods and rising seas.
  • Fire in Queens burns 110 houses to their ironically soggy foundations. In the aptly named area called Breezy Point the inferno is fanned by wind that fire department trucks couldn’t get to due to street flooding. Oddly, no speculation as to cause. This is a close as it gets: “When it began Monday evening, local fire engines were responding to other fires, or helping to rescue stranded residents…” And no more; a little incurious for the New York Times.
  • An editorial on how, when he saw the President pop into resolute action on Storm Sandy condolences and clean up, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey suspended his Romney-friendly election campaign attacks on Mr. Obama. Then, groveling in admiration of Obama, he quickly invited him to tour New Jersey’s share of the disaster with him the next day, managing to share the national presidential spotlight with him.

Here’s the best of what the Times had to report on climate change, in an article headlined: “For Years, Warnings That It Could Happen Here.”

“After rising roughly an inch per decade in the last century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as six inches per decade, or two feet by mid century according to a city-appointed scientific panel. That much more water means the city’s flood risk zones could expand in size.” (“Could”?!)

“‘Look, the city is extremely vulnerable to storm surges just for its geography, and climate change is increasing that risk,’ said Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise program at the research group Climate Central in Princeton, N.J. ‘Three of the top ten highest floods at the Battery since 1900 happened in the last two and a half years. If that’s not a wake up call to take action, I don’t know what is.’”

What action? The article suggested about all that could be done was to raise storm barriers across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and the bridge there is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. 4,260 feet. Very, even very, very expensive!

In the other place in the news section to mention climate change, Governor Como of New York complained as follows: “I told President Obama we have a hundred year flood every two years… I don’t call it global warming because you trigger a whole political debate.” So is he not a politician used to all sorts of debates? Why’s he a wet noodle on this issue? Actually maybe in his context, courageous to be the only one to bring it up at all.

The New York Times did have the unavoidable editorial on the Sandy hurricane/super storm, but what it dwelt on was how the regional governors and Mayor Blumberg did a good job of warning people and are proceeding admirably with first clean up efforts. Nothing on causes and strategic solutions to such storms. Tactical “solutions”? Good evacuation information and quick clean up response: call in the mops. And that’s all folks! as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig signed off in the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons.

What Can We Learn From History?

We all know fossil fuel burning is the lion’s share of the climate problem, with contribution also from cutting down forests. Eating lots of meat is part of the problem too since cattle emit methane from both ends and their grazing and lot feeding require ten times the acreage for feeding us than us just eating fruits, beans, vegetables, etc. But as to the biggest solutions?

There is always solar and wind energy to replace much, maybe eventually all fossil fuels. Not mentioned in any of the New York Times articles and editorials. Also, not even mentioned in an Amy Goodman interview aired on Democracy Now, October 31 (apparently recorded yesterday), of Bill McKibben, prominent climate change wake up activist. I’ll have more on their show momentarily.

There were some pretty strong hints going way back for solutions to the problem of dealing directly with floods, not mentioned – of course – in my cited sources of the day, or other ones not cited too, I’m 99.9% certain.

A da Vinci city – illustration by Leonardo da Vinci, 1488

Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1488, about the time Christopher Columbus was trying to outfit a boat trip to the Orient, came up with a notion that amounted to a very broad and insightful hint for a city design solutions. He suggested that cities be organized so that people could move about without having to compete with heavy traffic of carts, chariots and big work animals. Those would be relegated to ground level transport linking mainly crafts and light (the only kind of…) industry (they had in those days) and storage (aka warehousing). On a second level above, there would be the pedestrian city, much quieter, no manure and pee to smell, flies to swat, no wood and iron rimmed wheels to crush your toes. Upstairs the streets would be designed specifically for human habitation and social/economic exchanges face to face. He imagined building up, rather than digging down like we do now in subway systems. In many cases parts of the city on that second level, one up, would be linked by bridges as in many of my drawings of ecocities. Low lying cities since then might have noticed this version of three-dimensional development, but didn’t. Instead in many areas prone to flooding, the city gentry and decision makers dug down to make the floods much worse, as we saw in the drowning the subway system of New York just yesterday.

Approximately 4,000 years before Leonardo’s yet one more amazing insight (he had so many) the citizens of the Sumerian Civilization of the Mesopotamia Valley figured out another angle on best uses of three-dimensional design: They simply built on elevated fill, rising up over farm and field. When floods came, as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers often did flood, their cities, from Ur on into history, rode them out like big ships sliding upstream. It must have been pretty exciting, if safe, to be there 15 to 25 feet above the plain with a whole ocean of light brown water moving massively by.

A city built on elevated fill – illustration by Richard Register

Of course it is too late to elevate existing big cities en mass, but it is definitely possible to strategically withdraw from the most damaging and low lying areas, that is, the car dependent low density areas of coastal and many inland river areas prone to flooding and tsunamis and responsible for most of our CO2 producation. That’s also where approximately 1/3rd of all humanity live. The new development could concentrate the city of the future on higher ground or build the ground up for new development, call it “artificial mounds” or “artificial fill.” Many “new town” cities are going up in low-lying areas in Asia as I write – if only they were going up literally too, on elevated mounds of earth. If it could be done 45 centuries ago in the area that is now Iraq, all by muscle power and hand tools alone, it could certainly be done with today’s machinery. This method works for storm surge, river flood and sea rise all (if the sea rise doesn’t get way out of hand). Even in areas were larger buildings are torn down and replace the new buildings, the new buildings could, along with the streets immediately facing, be built up a few feet. But mainly for high density areas, it is either simply and crudely conceived and executed big dikes, or somewhat more sophisticated, moveable barriers often called barrages like the one recently built on the Themes downstream from downtown London.

“A lesson from 4,500 years ago in the Sumerian Civilization: build on
elevated artificial mounds of earth.” Fits the compact pedestrian town and
city perfectly. Can’t be done of suburbia – would require impossible amount
of earthen material.

More from the Media

Speaking of news analysis, how has the climate change sympathetic media done? One paragon of virtue in waking people up to social and environmental problems, and sometimes to solutions too is, Amy Goodman and her program “Democracy Now.” Today’s show featured an interview with climate change Paul Revere, Bill McKibben. They were both shocked as well they should be with the absolute silence of both presidential candidates – well almost silence… Mitt Romney did his best to make light of the subject and poke a friendly jab at the Old Obama. (The candidate New Obama has verily boycotted the climate change topic.) Here’s what Romney had to say in the Republican Nominating Convention with sly furtive glances around the room as if he were a ten year old boy who had just gotten away with tricking his mean fifth grade teacher:

“President Obama promises to begin to slow the rise of the oceans…” Pause for laughter, which he gets along with cheers for his victorious put down – loud cheers. Then he continues, “…and to heal the planet.” More and louder laughter from the good Republicans assembled. “My promise is to help you and your family.” Big cheers all around. I recommend you watch the clip yourself from the middle of Goodman’s interview. Here’s where:

I did notice, though, the camera scanning the Republican Convention audience seemed to reveal a fair number of people who looked at first uncomfortable with Romney’s sarcasm on the subject. But they fell in line pretty quickly and joined in the smiling and clapping like good sheep anywhere.

The problem isn’t just that the candidates are silent or fearful of speaking something more like the truth on this issue, it’s worse that the assumption is so broad throughout the populace of hundreds of millions of people, most of them addicted to their cars and their oil companies, that they have to ape retrograde knuckle draggers en mass. Our democratic country just can’t handle that? We are so cowed or stupid we’d freak out against any Presidential candidate willing to talk about it and vote against said candidate? Amazing and deeply discouraging. Have we turned into a nation of wimps?

But Goodman and Bill McKibben didn’t go beyond demonizing the oil companies (so far so good), while letting the public off the hook (not so good) and, as said already, didn’t even mention the main renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels (verging into the bad). Of course they didn’t notice that cities are the largest creations of our species and the largest contributor to CO2 build up in several ways: transportation fuels, including fuels for generating electricity for electric vehicles, heat and cooling fuels, and manufacture of certain infrastructure we need not build at all — freeway interchanges and parking structures for example — if we switch from cities designed around cars to cities designed around human beings. That last omission is the worst yet, but since so few people have thought about it I suppose they could be excused.

They could be excused except for the reason that I talked to Bill McKibben personally twice about that in the last year and a half and met Amy Goodman just two weeks ago after she gave a talk at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, California. Bill on those occasions did mention solar and wind energy alternatives but when I said why not mention city impacts and the associated relationship scattered urban form has with cars and oil, he said, no, he had to focus on the subject at hand and if we could beat the oil companies, the ecocity “would ensue.” I said I agreed we have to get off oil but we solved the smog problem in Los Angeles while avoiding the design and layout of the city for cars. We fixed the local air pollution problems by inventing and affixing the smog device – and got climate change by way of thousands of cities following the Los Angeles car-city model which was made to look much healthier because we “solved” the local air pollution problem in exchange – 45 years later – for global heating.

As to Amy Goodman, if I were among the 100 approximately that stood in line for her that night, why remember me? Maybe she would because I gave her my inscribed book, “Ecocities – Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature,” with an inserted half page – readably short – of printed out notes hitting a few important points for ecocities and inviting her to scan my drawings first. She’d said in her talk earlier in the evening that she liked to be a voice for those not heard from, so I mentioned I was heard from very little, in the US anyway, and never on her show – why not try out the subject? – very interesting! She’d said she admired the somewhat nature oriented architecture of the “Earthships” of New Mexico, built of recycled rubber tires and adobe mud and passive solar in design. I suggested the next step up from there would be designing architecture for whole communities, what ecocity design is all about. Plus I wrote her follow up e-mail notes twice. Silence. Well, what can you say? She’s busy and dealing with a lot of very squeaky wheels, all of them deserving their issues be heard – though of course some of their topics are heard literally many dozens of times on her shows. But not to complain too much about our partial allies.

And the Real Climate Solution Is…

Several things at once. We all do that all the time. We are a multi-tasking species by nature, (like the others) or we get swept aside by evolution, if a little more slowly than the slower of us might get swept away by a hurricane turned superstorm: we eat, exercise, sleep, work, socialize, produce, consume,  recreate and procreate or the species dies. That’s a lot to juggle in two complex environments, one natural and one we create ourselves.

So Sandy has come through the coastal states and is whirling around in southeastern Canada and the extremes of northeastern US as it dissipates as I’m writing. We should not only be helping as we can to repair damage already done but doing the best we can to avoid the climate catastrophes of the future. How?

Dikes? OK, for where all else has failed, they are useful for sure.

Alternatives to coal, oil and gas? Definitely.

Conservation in all sorts of ways? Definitely again – all that is very important.

Better cities, in fact ones that are conceived from the start to solve ecological – and even climate problems? In fact cities that can be net contributors to social and ecological health on the planet (Republican Convention delegates, this is not a cue for laugher and self-congratulatory clapping). There is no reason we can’t design cities to build soil recycling their organic wastes and to restore natural biodiversity, like they do in minor ways now with, relatively speaking, miniscule efforts.

And how to do that with the cities? As mentioned earlier build them for people not cars. In relation to storms there is avoiding flooding in the way I mentioned above, going back 4,500 years. (Yes we can learn some very important things for our distant ancestors.) If we build cities – and we can if we can imagine them – simply to shift from cars to the ecocity transportation hierarchy of feet first, then bicycles, then rails and elevators, then busses, and lastly for external application only, and rental at that, cars. Then we are half way there already.

And as we are bold enough to imagine cities actually positive for humans and nature, we can look to nature as Alan Savory has in an earlier article of mine in these electronic pages. He imagines strongly reversing global heating by techniques both ancient and new for massive carbon sequestration in the vast grasslands of the planet through techniques he noticed predators like lions accomplishing in compacting and steering the vast fertilizing herds of African herbivores mixing their manure, seeds and soil like enormous solar-powered agricultural machines. Then there are similar techniques for the forests, peat bogs and who knows where else if we put our minds to it, CO2 sequestering all. But as long as our media is so weak on the subject, our people afraid to think and our politicians dumb in one or the other or both meanings…

If we get the trick of building ecocities, we’ll reap the treat of a healthy, sweet future, for us and nature both. Trick or treat and happy Halloween after all.

Richard Register can be reached at


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