Skip to content



Food policy for breakfast

2014 September 10

Worker loading apples at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (Photo: NYC SIRR)


“One of the least-known but most impor­tant rit­u­als in New York takes place every night in the South Bronx at the Hunts Point Food Dis­tri­b­u­tion Cen­ter. There, in strik­ing abun­dance, del­i­ca­cies from around the state, coun­try, and the world are bought and sold—cabbage from New York, oranges from Cal­i­for­nia, blue­ber­ries from Chile, bell pep­pers from the Nether­lands, beef from Aus­tralia, and fish from Nova Sco­tia.” –– Open­ing descrip­tion in the ‘Crit­i­cal Net­works’ Chap­ter of the NYC Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive on Rebuild­ing and Resiliency report.

Food secu­rity and pub­lic health are at the heart of the issue of cli­mate change. Johanna Goet­zel fol­lows the sub­ject with a recent talk held at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Center.

Cli­mate change impacts the food sys­tem, glob­ally and locally. Tues­day morn­ing, at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York (CUNY) Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, a panel of aca­d­e­mics and busi­ness lead­ers explored the impacts of food acces­si­bil­ity and deliv­ery in NYC in a far reach­ing ses­sion called Cli­mate Change, Food and Health: From Analy­sis to Action to Pro­tect Our Futures.

Mod­er­ated by Nicholas Freuden­berg, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Health, CUNY School of Pub­lic Health & Hunter Col­lege, and Fac­ulty Direc­tor, NYC Food Pol­icy Cen­ter at Hunter Col­lege, the dis­tin­guished pan­elists included Nevin Cohen, Asst. Pro­fes­sor, Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, The New School; Mia Mac­Don­ald, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Brighter Green; Mark Ize­man, Direc­tor, New York Urban Pro­gram and Senior Attor­ney, Urban Pro­gram, National Resource Defense Coun­cil (NRDC)

Mia Mac­Don­ald began by speak­ing about the eco­log­i­cal and pub­lic health reper­cus­sions of the “global spread of US-style con­sump­tion.” One solu­tion she offered was ‘cool foods,’ those that are less energy inten­sive to grow and transport.

Mark Ize­man spoke about the dan­gers of sea level rise on the Hunts Point food dis­tri­b­u­tion hub. As the largest food dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter in the world, the increas­ing fre­quency and inten­sity of cli­mate change events like Hur­ri­cane Sandy will have sig­nif­i­cant impacts on the population’s well being. Address­ing these con­cerns and other resilience efforts, the Hunts Point Life­line project pro­posal offers an avenue for sus­tain­able future developments.

Pan­elists also dis­cussed trans­porta­tion strat­egy for the 5–7 mil­lion tonnes of food that enter NYC, 95% over the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge.  Nevin Cohen empha­sized the impor­tance of inter­de­part­men­tal coor­di­na­tion (trans­porta­tion, san­i­ta­tion, health) to address the entire ecosys­tem of food.

Since the bench­mark recy­cling law of 1989, mak­ing New York the first state to enact a pol­icy,  only min­i­mal progress has been made in state-wide com­post­ing pro­grams. This pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to ele­vate Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Food Print” pro­pos­als to reduce waste at mul­ti­ple points in the food sys­tem. Local efforts can be made in sup­port­ing farm­ers mar­kets, the major­ity of which accept EBT/food stamps.

Atten­dance at the talk was high and the dis­cus­sion was robust, offer­ing numer­ous solu­tions for greater involve­ment. One mes­sage that res­onated was the need to update meth­ods of advo­cacy. All were invited to par­tic­i­pate in the Peo­ples Cli­mate March Sep­tem­ber 21. The next dis­cus­sion in the Food Pol­icy for Break­fast series will be held Octo­ber 14, about food pro­vided in New York uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges. The rip­ple effects of local con­ser­va­tion efforts and per­sonal com­mit­ments to eat­ing bet­ter can have global impacts on the resources threat­ened by cli­mate change.


CliMates trains student climate negotiators in NYC

2014 September 2

CliMates participants meet French climate diplomat Adrien Pinelli at the French Mission to the UN (Ph: CliMates)

Born out of exas­per­a­tion at the slow pace of inter­na­tional progress on cli­mate change, the French-based group Cli­Mates pro­vides par­tic­i­pa­tion and train­ing to young peo­ple who want to help push for­ward for solutions.

This Fri­day, August 29th con­cluded the Sec­ond Cli­Mates Inter­na­tional Sum­mit, hosted at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity. Orga­nized by vol­un­teers and peer lead­ers, this gath­er­ing of stu­dents and young pro­fes­sion­als from over 15 nations focused on build­ing skills and train­ing atten­dees to dis­cuss the impacts of cli­mate change in var­i­ous sec­tors. Their mis­sion is to inspire and empower youth all around the world to find answers together.

Co-founder Mar­got Le Guen shared how the net­work has evolved since 2011 from a “group of peers at Sci­ence Po, in France, where we were reach­ing out to our friends to join to what is now a group of over 150 actively involved.”

Last year, Cli­Mates held a Latin American-focused gath­er­ing in Bogota, Colum­bia. This year’s events took the form of a ‘sum­mer school’ in New York City, where par­tic­i­pants attended sem­i­nars and engaged in dis­cus­sions on every­thing from entre­pre­neur­ship for social inno­va­tion, to craft­ing per­for­mance art, to the impacts of heat on health. A spe­cial dis­cus­sion lead by Ahmad Alhen­dawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, empha­sized the need to think about what moti­vates poten­tial part­ners to engage. The team also met with French cli­mate diplo­mat Adrien Pinelli, who spoke about the role of youth engage­ment in the upcom­ing COP 21 con­fer­ence held in Paris in 2015.

I had the plea­sure of speak­ing on a panel about cli­mate and health with Kim Knowl­ton, Senior Sci­en­tist, Health & Envi­ron­ment Pro­gram and Co-Deputy Direc­tor of the Nat­ural Resources Defense Coun­cil.  Dr. Knowl­ton and I pre­sented on how ris­ing tem­per­a­tures will impact poor­est pop­u­la­tionsmost dra­mat­i­cally and explored eco­nomic and social solu­tions for prevention.

The over­all tone of the sum­mit was one of excite­ment and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Atten­dees shared ideas for research col­lab­o­ra­tion, expand­ing part­ner­ships and plan­ning for next year, when the sum­mit will be held in France, gear­ing up for the world’s crit­i­cal test: the 2015 United Nations Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris. The announced aims of the 2015 UN con­fer­ence are noth­ing less than a bind­ing, world­wide agree­ment to limit green­house gases.

In the next month, UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki Moon will host a pre­lude to the 2015 con­fer­ence, at the United Nations in New York City on Sep­tem­ber 23rd. This pre­lim­i­nary meet­ing of world lead­ers is the focus of the People’s Cli­mate March, sched­uled for Sep­tem­ber 21st, which is draw­ing an increas­ing amount of media and insti­tu­tional attention.

For more infor­ma­tion on Cli­Mates and their social media pres­ence, fol­low them on Twit­ter and see their YouTube chan­nel. Below, watch Austin Mor­ton of the New Cli­mate Econ­omy project in his video for the Cli­Mates summit.

Book Review: Environmental Debt

2014 August 2



Reviewed by Johanna Goetzel, Lead Researcher for Environmental Debt.


Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy connects the financial and environmental crises – both causes and solutions. Author Amy Larkin shows how the costs of climate change, extreme weather and pollution combine to wreak havoc on the economy, as well as the earth, creating what she calls, “environmental debt”. Larkin proposes a new framework for 21st century commerce to empower profitable business that coexists with the environment. As she succinctly states: “No nature, no business.”

Intended for business leaders as well as those who acknowledge that ’business as usual’ cannot continue, Environmental Debt presents complex and provocative ideas in easy-to-read prose and includes numerous cultural touchstones to help ground the reader. Larkin artistically combines her expertise as an entrepreneur, producer and environmental activist, to deliver an approach for business to succeed without compromising nature.

Larkin introduces the “The Nature Means Business Framework”, comprised of three tenants: (1) Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized; (2) The long view must guide all decision-making and accounting and (3) Government plays a vital role in catalyzing clean technology and growth while preventing environmental destruction.

Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized.

In this first section, Larkin focuses on the example of externalities from coal production. A study developed by Greenpeace and researchers at Harvard showed that in just the United States, the full cost of coal extraction and combustion to society on top of the coal companies’ costs is $350 – 500 billion a year. These hundreds of billions of dollars, called externalities in economics, represent actual bills paid by fisheries, businesses, schools, municipal water systems, and unwitting families and their healthcare providers. Despite conventional wisdom, coal is not a cheap energy. Its price is cheap only because it is subsidized by its own victims. Larkin included two similar studies that estimate the externalities of oil in the United States at over $800 billion annually. In total the external costs of coal and oil is well over $1.1 trillion, the annual 2012 United States deficit. The section concludes that environmental debt is a serious contributor to fiscal instability. Larkin and her team at Greenpeace, where she worked as the Solutions Campaign director for six years, decided to take their names off the Harvard report so that it would have more salience in the business community.   As an environmental activist and businesswoman, Larkin and her book navigate this space expertly, drawing on personal anecdotes and peer-reviewed publications.

The long view must guide all decision-making and accounting.

This section recounts the catastrophic 2011 floods in Thailand and the historic land degradation that compounded the impact. These intense storms became catastrophic because of massive deforestation, much of which occurred in the 20th century. Without enough trees, the ground was unable to soak up the floodwater.   Local Thai factories that produced car parts were closed for months. These closures caused shortages for Toyota and Honda, and both companies were forced to suspend manufacturing in Kentucky, Singapore and the Philippines. Toyota alone suspended production of 260,000 vehicles (3.4% of its previous annual output) and tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Larkin explains how the logging in 20th century Thailand caused financial havoc around the world in 2011 — a good 20 years after it occurred. The people of Thailand, several governments, numerous companies and shareholders from around the world all paid the logging’s environmental debt. This section stresses the importance of long term planning with regard to business decision-making. Larkin commends Unilever, the first multinational corporation to do away with quarterly earning reports. Taking the long view requires a more holistic view of business success, focusing on the means to justify the ends.

Government plays a vital role in catalyzing clean technology and growth while preventing environmental destruction.

Calling on government to help support changes to the business world, Larkin focuses on how funding infrastructure has benefits for businesses and individuals. She provides the example of the Internet, one of the pieces of government-funded infrastructure we most take for granted today. The Department of Defense began work in the 1960s and 70s, and it was later catapulted to its full potential by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, and is now used by everyone, thanks to government support. With regard to the role the government can play for energy transformation, Larkin suggests that it will inevitably end up spending billions of dollars to keep the lights on, as “this is government’s job.” The choice is whether to pay now for clean technology or pay later with environmental debt.   Larkin re-frames the current energy debate with this in mind.


Environmental Debt is Not Doom and Gloom

One of the book’s surprising revelations is that large numbers of multinational corporations are pushing for smart regulation in concert with activist non-profits and are implementing environmental changes in their own operations ahead of regulation. Environmental Debt showcases the courageous work of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Tiffany’s, Unilever, Walmart and others as well as the frontier of innovation in design, financial reporting, and biomimicry to name a few. The emphasis on leaders within corporations helping to transform the Consumer Goods sector (a consortium of 400 of the world’s leading consumer brands and retailers) is inspiring. Larkin’s personal experience with these senior leaders allows her to draw on numerous examples of ‘revolutionaries in suits’ changing the world of business practice.

The book resonates with readers of all ages and no mater where they are in their professional careers by localizing examples of how transformations are possible. She concludes, “Today, wherever you are, there is a sense that the ground is moving, both financially and environmentally. We need to reboot a crashing system. There is a real hunger to build a foundation so that the twenty-first century doesn’t feel so bloody scary. Look around your office, your home, your school, your government. We are all facing very difficult choices. It is time to work together.”

Johanna Goetzel worked with Amy Larkin developing the content for the book, providing editorial support and guidance. Previously Goetzel and Larkin worked together on the Greenpeace Solutions campaign, helping transforming the business sector in the US and abroad. Goetzel now works on environmental health policy, focusing on the ROI for population and planetary health. She eared her Masters in Climate and Society at Columbia University and a Bachelors of Arts from Wesleyan University. She can be reached at




Climate Change and San Martin

2014 June 13

Prezi on drought and deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon:

Redhook or Bushwick

2014 June 13

Prezi discussing the storm surge risks in Redhook and Bushwick:

2013 June 26

coauthored with Jody Dean–

[Over com­ing weeks, the staff of City Atlas will be pre­sent­ing sum­maries, analy­sis, and pub­lic feed­back on the city’s mon­u­men­talSIRR report about rebuild­ing and resilience, which includes lessons learned from Hur­ri­cane Sandy and plans for the city in the face of new chal­lenges from a chang­ing climate.]

SIRR Climate Photo

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion includes this photo, a reminder that NYC has flooded in the past. (Photo NYT)

Extreme events often prompt ques­tions that begin with “why?”  Why now? Why me? Why here? Due to the chaotic nature of the cli­mate sys­tem, there is no sim­ple answer to these ques­tions. Part of the answer, though, can be found by exam­in­ing past cli­mate trends and pro­jec­tions for the future. Extreme events like Sandy cause huge impacts, the most jar­ring being the loss of lives and the dis­place­ment of peo­ple from their homes. There are also mas­sive mon­e­tary costs asso­ci­ated with rebuild­ing. We will all bear the bur­den of these costs, through taxes and resource reallocation.

The Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive for Rebuild­ing and Resiliency (SIRR) report offers tar­geted sug­ges­tions for pol­i­cy­mak­ers regard­ing the devel­op­ment of more resilient sys­tems for New York, in order to make the impacts of extreme events and cli­mate change man­age­able rather than catastrophic.

In time and with the increased polit­i­cal grav­i­tas deliv­ered by this exten­sive report and ongo­ing dis­cus­sion around it, the con­ver­sa­tion can shift from “why did this hap­pen to us?” to “how can we adapt and rebuild respon­si­bly”? This refo­cused ques­tion allows us to move for­ward and is made pos­si­ble by under­stand­ing the chronic haz­ards faced by the city and the poten­tial impacts of extreme events, whose fre­quency and sever­ity are likely to increase with the chang­ing climate.

The full report includes a cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion (hi res pdf) that doc­u­ments the impact of his­toric extreme weather events and pro­vides a con­text for future cli­mate sce­nar­ios, along with the pro­jected costs. The SIRR uti­lizes cli­mate mod­els devel­oped for the forth­com­ing Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change Fifth Assess­ment Report (IPCC AR5). The AR5 con­cludes that “long-term changes in cli­mate mean that when extreme weather events strike, they are likely to be increas­ingly severe and dam­ag­ing.” Despite the extreme and his­toric nature of the event, Sandy was not the first storm to cause sig­nif­i­cant dam­age. The time­line below illus­trates other coastal storm events with major impacts on New York City. As with Sandy, the effects of these storms were expe­ri­enced all along the East­ern Seaboard.

Major storm events in early history

Major storm events in recent history

The vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the city to coastal storms is noth­ing new, but as pre­vi­ously noted, cli­mate change will exac­er­bate the sit­u­a­tion by wors­en­ing extreme events and chronic con­di­tions. As indi­cated in the IPCC AR5, over the past cen­tury sea lev­els in New York City have risen over a foot, while simul­ta­ne­ously tem­per­a­tures are increas­ing. The sci­en­tific con­sen­sus is that these trends will accel­er­ate and this is high­lighted in the New York City Panel on Cli­mate Change (NPCC) 2013 cli­mate pro­jec­tions, which were included in the SIRR report.

NPCC 2013 Climate Projections

Source: NPCC

In addi­tion to these chronic haz­ards, another vul­ner­a­bil­ity high­lighted in the SIRR is the city’s use of out­dated Flood Insur­ance Rate Maps (FIRM’s), which show the per­cent­age of land that lies within the so-called “100-year” and “500-year” flood­plains. At the time that Sandy hit, the FIRM’s had not been updated since 1983, though in 2007 the City for­mally requested that FEMA update the maps to include the last 30 years of data. The lack of updated maps left the city with an inac­cu­rate view of the per­cent­age of land at risk for flood­ing and the areas that flooded dur­ing Sandy were sev­eral times larger than the flood­plains out­lined in the 1983 FIRM’s. The SIRR empha­sized the impor­tance of reg­u­larly updated maps to assist with adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies for coastal flooding.

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion also explained the fre­quently mis­un­der­stood clas­si­fi­ca­tion of a “100-year” or “500-year” event. Clas­si­fy­ing an area as part of a “100-year flood­plain”  indi­cates that there is a 1 per­cent chance of a flood occur­ring in the area in a given year and that expe­ri­enc­ing a 100-year flood does not decrease the chance of a sec­ond 100-year flood occur­ring that same year or any year that fol­lows. Fol­low­ing these cal­cu­la­tions, Klaus Jacob writes in the June issue of Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can that, “the chance of what had been a one-in-100-year storm surge occur­ring in New York City will be one in 50 dur­ing any year in the 2020s, one in 15 dur­ing the 2050s and one in two by the 2080s.” The city is now work­ing again with the NPCC to develop more accu­rate “future flood maps” to assist with the rebuild­ing, plan­ning and adap­ta­tion efforts.

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion con­cludes with spe­cific, forward-looking ini­tia­tives for plan­ning along New York City’s 520 miles of coast­line, includ­ing a net­work of flood­walls, lev­ees and bulk­heads to pro­tect build­ings and inhab­i­tants. More than encour­ag­ing “emer­gency pre­pared­ness,” longer-term sce­nario plan­ning will be nec­es­sary in order to ade­quately safe­guard New York and its grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther, cli­mate projects need to be reg­u­larly updated in order to ade­quately inform deci­sion making.

Advo­cat­ing that we “plan ambi­tiously,” the SIRR report sug­gests that mit­i­ga­tion efforts require buy-in from pol­icy mak­ers, plan­ners and insur­ers and civil soci­ety. Cyn­thia Rosen­zweig, NPCC co-chair, makes the salient point that adap­ta­tion plans can­not suc­ceed “with­out tak­ing the voices of neigh­bor­hoods into account.” In order to best address ques­tions of “why me,” vul­ner­a­bil­ity must be ana­lyzed at mul­ti­ple lev­els and the result­ing plans backed by finan­cial invest­ment for address­ing the con­tin­ued threat of cli­mate change. Above all, the SIRR report empha­sizes that build­ing capac­ity for resilience requires accu­rate data to assess the poten­tial impacts and the tools and finan­cial resources avail­able to imple­ment solutions.

The full report can be found here, and is a mar­vel of lucid expla­na­tion: it’s a self-contained, bench­mark work that inte­grates cli­mate and urban plan­ning for the most pop­u­lous city in the world’s largest economy.

Addi­tional Reading:

–Coastal sub­si­dence also plays a role in NYC coastal vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and vivid maps, Mark Fischetti’s Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can arti­cle explains how North Amer­i­can glac­ier retreat began over 20,000 years ago and lit­tle by lit­tle, has resulted in the east­ern U.S. land­mass sink­ing as the crust adjusts to the unloading.

–The ques­tion of whether or not rebuild­ing after nat­ural dis­as­ter has been hotly debated since Sandy. Tom Ash­brook tack­led this ques­tion in a Feb­ru­ary 2013 On Point Pod­cast.

Our inter­view with Klaus Jacob, who also raises the ques­tion of rebuild­ing in areas that will become increas­ingly endan­gered over time.