Confronting Our Problems

Below is an interesting e-mail sent yesterday to Transportation Alternatives. T.A. forwarded it to Streetsblog and we all thought that it would make fodder for an interesting discussion. The letter’s author gave Streetsblog permission to publish it. One of my questions is whether people think that this cyclist’s approach is a productive way for New York City’s urban environmental advocates to press their case?

Dear Transportation Alternatives,   

I feel obligated to share a story with you of my recent encounter with one of your members.  I was parked outside of a veterinarian in Park Slope this morning as a man on a bike rolled up beside my car. He asked me to roll down the window, and I did expecting him to ask for directions or something. Instead he began to interrogate me about my bumper sticker, which reads, "This car is on a low carbon diet." 

I suppose he was curious as to how a Jeep Cherokee could possibly be on a low carbon diet, or maybe he was just trying to pick a fight. Either way, I explained that I pay a monthly fee to a clean energy organization to offset the amount of carbon that is emitted by an average SUV. He then retorted with criticism of how much space I was taking up in the city, and then asked me if I was "guilt free." I told him that I was in fact "guilt free," and he turned in disgust and peddled away. I wished him good day — a gesture which he completely ignored.   

I began to think to myself, should I feel guilty for owning an SUV? Of course I would rather own a hybrid electric, but I’m driving a 1994 Jeep because Brooklyn rent doesn’t exactly allow for the purchase of a new vehicle, so there’s no guilt there. Besides, it’s a 6 cyl engine which gets 20 mpg and I only drive it when it’s absolutely necessary. For example, today I’m taking my dog to the vet, and the last time I put gas in this vehicle was NOVEMBER 12TH when I had to attend the funeral of a close friend out of state. So I guess you could say I have zero guilt for driving as opposed to riding a bike when I need to leave the city.   

I wonder if this judgmental attitude and overall rudeness is shared by the majority of your members. I know it’s certainly not representative of all of your affiliates because my fiancée is a member of Transportation Alternatives, and I myself support the idea of critical mass. Sure, why not? The city would be much nicer without any cars right? However, my guess is that this particular gentleman probably buys his organic produce from the Park Slope Co-op, and I seriously doubt it’s delivered to the store via bike messenger. I’m curious if he feels guilty for eating. Perhaps your organization should stress the importance of being nice to people in general and sharing the roads with respect and consideration to the needs of others.  Perhaps we shouldn’t assume that we know everything about a person based on their bumper sticker. Maybe we should try this instead of being such a critical mAsshole.    


Name Withheld

  • David Chesler

    Here’s a link to a paper by James Hansen

    I didn’t find the bad parts.

    Extinctions will occur. I’ve been reading for decades that we’re losing thousands or tens of thousands of species per year. Except for the Chinese freshwater dolphin (which I hadn’t even heard of until last month when it was declared gone) I can’t think of any. Mostly it’s one obscure species of ant or beetle whose niche is filled by another.

    Isotherms will move poleward. Yes this means pests and diseases normally associated with the low latitudes will move north, but so will their growing conditions and other good things; while the mid-latitude good and bad we enjoy will similarly move north. Again he’s showing how things will be different, but not how they’ll be worse.

  • Steve

    David, where did you learn so much about cars? You’re definitely on point with the observation that many SUVs routinely violate maximum gross weight limits on bridges and roadways simply because the owners probably don’t know how much their behemoth weighs and the police don’t enforce. I agree that it would be interesting to know whether there is an experience factor associated with SUV accidents.

    As for the long-term effects of global warming, I have not studied it in depth myself and will leave it to others to respond should they care to. But when it comes to “big picture” ecological items such as global climate and mass extinction, I am fundamentally conservative and believe that man-made changes should be avoided absent the clearest of evidence that no unintended problems will result, even if the science available to interpret that evidence is not yet crystallized. A carbon-warmed future marked by mass anthropogenic extinctions is not merely “different,” but far less desirable than the status quo and probably hellish in ways we cannot yet predict. As against such a future, I do hold the general view that “this is the best of all possible worlds.”

  • Karen

    Re: “I couldn’t find the bad parts.”

    David- Is that because you didn’t read the paper or because you selectively read the paper? I wonder why danger is in the title?

    Here’s something in that paper that I considered “bad”….

    “We live on a planet whose climate is dominated by positive feedbacks, which are capable of taking us to dramatically different conditions. The problem that we face now is that many feedbacks that came into play slowly in the past, driven by slowly changing forcings, will come into play rapidly now, at the pace of our human-made forcings, tempered a few decades by the oceans thermal response time.”

    So yeah, there have been ice ages and intense fluctuations in the history of the planet before, and scientists are learning more and more about the history of the climate all the time, but this scientist is saying it’s never happened so rapidly before. And guess what David? We (humans) weren’t around for some of those swings. Maybe we wouldn’t have survived them. Maybe we won’t survive them now.

    Here’s something else to read. It’s title is “The Threat to the Planet.”

    “If human beings follow a businessas-
    usual course, continuing to exploit
    fossil fuel resources without reducing
    carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering
    them before they warm the
    atmosphere, the eventual effects on
    climate and life may be comparable to
    those at the time of mass extinctions.
    Life will survive, but it will do so on a
    transformed planet. For all foreseeable
    human generations, it will be a
    far more desolate world than the one
    in which civilization developed and
    flourished during the past several
    thousand years.”

    Again, these are not my words, but the words of that same man, an expert scientist on a subject that he has studied intensely at the highest levels. I’ll take his word over yours anyday.

  • David,

    There is a load of information out there about the likely (and current) negative impacts of climate change.

    In NYC, Columbia University’s Earth Institute has probably done the most work on this. Their New York Climate & Health Project really drills down into some of the more personal and immediate impacts that New Yorkers can expect to experience and, in fact, already are experiencing as our planet warms:

    In no particular order, these impacts include:

    – An increase in weather extremes: droughts, heat waves, intense storms, blizzards. A variety of problems and economic dislocations are associated with more extreme weather.

    – More Katrina’s. Greater likelihood of hurricanes hitting the NE seaboard. Greater likelihood of more intense hurricanes as oceans grow warmer. Allstate has already pulled out of southern Brooklyn. I wrote a big feature story about it after I got ahold of the Office of Emergency Management’s hurricane evacuation map which, frankly, is incredible. Miami, btw, is in a load of trouble.

    – I thought this one was interesting: An increase in mosquito-born tropical diseases like West Nile and Malaria (Malaria in NYC — enjoying the balmy weather yet?) Already underway. My wife refuses to go out into our Bklyn backyard during summer now. This is, as far as I can see, the #1 worst impact of global warming for our family so far.

    – More intense rainfalls are already creating a number of problems for NYC’s water and sewage systems as well as the cleanliness of our rivers and harbor.

    – Increasing unpredictability in agriculture and food supply. Increasing extinction of species and difficulty in growing food as temperate zones change.

    The list goes on and if you care to look you can find a lot of info that’ll give you pause. Bottom line is we actually really don’t know what climate change is going to do. The last 10,000 yrs of human civilization have been facilitated, in part, by a stable climate. So, really, humanity has experienced anything like what is currently underway. I’d recommend the Al Gore flick and the Elizabeth Kolbert book.

    As for your northward migration: I’ve heard scientists say that regions around the poles are not likely to be nice places to be since those places will actually be experiencing proportionally more dramatic warming than, say, New England. In Fairbanks, AK, for example, the permafrost is thawing and houses are regularly falling into sink holes. Entire forests are dying and new insects are migrating north that have no natural predators.

    But, hey, it sounds like you are enjoying the warm weather and are looking forward to a tidy mass migration northward for your children. So, I’m sorry if I’m being a big buzzkill. I for one am increasingly concerned about what we’re leaving for our kids and am looking for ways to take action personally, locally, nationally, and globally.

  • gecko

    Two billion people on this planet are chronically poor and extremely susceptible to the least environmental change and stress. Competition for scarce resources in Darfur is but one example as described by Columbia Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs. Sixty to 100 million people living in Bangladesh have been described as being at great risk from elevating sea levels. From Encarta: “The cyclone of November 1970, in which about 500,000 lives were lost in Bangladesh, was one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century.”

    Many imperatives exist to act immediately.

    Ethics is not the least one.

  • David Chesler

    where did you learn so much about cars

    I hold a CDL-B (bus) but the dimensions were quick Google searches.

    “I couldn’t find the bad parts.”

    Is that because you didn’t read the paper or because you selectively read the paper? I wonder why danger is in the title?

    Because the title is where the author puts his claims, not his evidence.

    Here’s something in that paper that I considered “bad”….

    “We live on a planet whose climate is dominated by positive feedbacks, which are capable of taking us to dramatically different conditions. The problem that we face now is that many feedbacks that came into play slowly in the past, driven by slowly changing forcings, will come into play rapidly now, at the pace of our human-made forcings, tempered a few decades by the oceans thermal response time.”

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with positive feedback loops. If it were really the case that we are having fewer white Christmases than in the past that would be tangible, but that claim (for the period 1990 to present versus 1960 to 1990) is not true, and even if it were, it’s not necessarily bad.

    Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet.

    Transformed for the better or the worse?

    For all foreseeable
    human generations, it will be a
    far more desolate world than the one
    in which civilization developed and
    flourished during the past several
    thousand years.”


    I’ll go read the Columbia paper that Aaron recommends. Are the increases in tropical diseases in NYC due to temperature changes, or due to diseases brought by immigrants (who are drawn by other than temperature.) Malaria could be easily controlled a lot better than now if DDT were allowed for interior use. (I’m obviously not green if I think any use of DDT could be a net positive.)

    Rain? Not so long ago NYC was experiencing droughts. Rain can be managed. I don’t know — is the problem in New York combined sewers? Sure there is a cost in separating the storm and the sanitary sewer system, but it’s not a catastrophic cost.

    Katrina was much more about a century-old policy of building in the Mississippi’s flood plains, and it was only Category 3 when it made landfall. (The devastation was caused by the dike failures, not the wind, not even the storm surge; made worse by corrupt government, poor planning, and too many people who have been taught to depend on the government instead of themselves.)

    Bottom line is we actually really don’t know what climate change is going to do.

    Now that is a statement with which I agree completely!

    Is there global warming? Seems to be.
    Is it anthropogenic? Undecided.
    What will the impact be? Unknown.
    Is it cheaper to deal with the impacts or to try to avoid them? Not even discussed!

  • David,

    The people who have been doing the most and best science on climate change answer these questions very differently than you:

    Is there global warming?

    Is it anthropogenic?

    What will the impact be?
    Many impacts are known and underway and worrisome and costly.

    Is it cheaper to deal with the impacts or to try to avoid them?
    We have no choice but to deal with the impacts and, if we’re smart, we’ll try to stop pouring so much carbon into the atmosphere as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cost-benefit analysis but I bet it’s been done. Columbia U.’s Climate & Society program probably has this info.

    David, have you seen the Al Gore movie or read the Elizabeth Kolbert book? Mark Lynas and Ross Gelbspan also have really good books that provide very accessible distillations of the science. You clearly like to be a contrarian but I think you’d have a hard time maintaining your stance after viewing and reading these.

    At any rate, I think I’ll drop out of this conversation now. Flowers are blooming up at the Bklyn Botanic Garden. Gotta go check that out….

  • da

    Is this bad enough?:

    How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth’s history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

    Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

    [From “The Threat to the Planet” by Jim Hansen, NY Review of Books, 7/16/06]

  • dan

    Dave keeps writing…

    >>At 3200 pounds, that SUV was no Hummer. That’s less than plenty of minivans and bunches of cars.>>

    So our letter writer is hauling around herself and her dog in a 3200-pound vehicle that (by nature of its extra weight and internal cab size) puts out more carbon monoxide and a/c exhaust (i.e., hot air) than a mid-size sedan. This is happening in a city rife with mass transit alternatives and car services. Yeah, I think that’s selfish. and the fact the driver contributes to a pollution fund might help her conscience, but she’s still taking a big chunk out of the traffic pie that she’s sharing with eight million other city residents.

    >>Do they roll over onto pedestrians due to their ungainliness? I understand that in car vs. car or car vs. truck less weight can mean less safety, but does it make any difference car vs. bike or car vs. pedestrian how much the car weighs or how much ground clearance it has?>>

    The ground clearance has a direct bearing on being able to see other cars, cyclists and pedestrians. In the past year I’ve logged over 3,000 miles commuting on a bike, and all of my brushes with danger were with SUV’s and/or oversize minivans (which I put in the same category as SUV’s in terms of their mis-use as cars). In the first case, a driver in an Expedition thought he could out-accelerate the rest of traffic from the right lane. His right mirror missed my skull by no more than six inches. In the other two cases, an SUV and a large minivan respectively decided to try and squeeze into the bike lane to get past garbage trucks. First of all, both vehicles had blind spots, which is why they came so close to running me down. But because they were wider than conventional cars, they shouldn’t have been trying to pass in the first place. Cars could’ve gotten by me without difficulty.

    by the way, the extra weight and the high ground clearance of SUV’s have a direct bearing on traffic safety. The distribution of weight and the height of the bumper on an SUV makes it far more likely to inflict serious damage on a compact car and its occupants. This is made worse by the fact that most SUV’s are packing a huge high-horsepower engine. Their drivers (for the most part) don’t understand that they’re at the wheel of trucks, not cars–and it’s the people in front of them who pay the price. The extra weight plus the fact that SUV’s are not as manuverable as cars makes them dangerous. And call me crazy but I have a thing about SUV’s (or anybody else) driving up on the curb.

    Also, heavier vehicles undoubtedly put a bigger strain on the road bed.

    I would agree that many drivers (not just the people behind the wheels of SUV’s and large minivans) shouldn’t be driving. But all this begs a larger question–why should someone own such a personal vehicle in NYC at all? Dave would probably agree with me that providing for special screening for only people who own vehicles above a certain size/weight wouldn’t fly–AAA and GM would pour money into any campaign to regulate drivers of large personal vehicles. But I remember that (as part of the aftermath of the oil crises of 1973/1980, states like NJ put surcharges on personal vehicles exceeding a certain weight (I think I paid an extra $50 per year for my old and heavy Mercury Park Suite). Maybe it’s time to entertain that sort of regulation again.

  • David Chesler

    The best to internalize those costs is to raise the gas tax. (Which is close to what those who are buying indulgences, like the original SUV driver, are doing.)

    There would be no need to ask if the driver really drives so well that she gets 20 mpg, or if she only drives it every couple of months. (We might want some sort of adjustment: two cars burning the same gasoline are going to put out roughly the same CO2, but differing amounts of other pollutants; MPG is only a proxy for weight which is only a proxy for how much wear the vehicle puts on the road.)

  • karen

    If David or anyone else is interested in further researching climate change and global warming, here are some other resources:

    (NASA has a lot of useful information on their website about recent developments in the study of arctic ice and other important issues relating to global warming/climate change.) (website on climate by climate scientists)

    “The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery -Australian scientist’s comprehensive look at climate science

    Thanks goes out to Aaron for references to other resources, some I haven’t seen and am looking forward to checking out.

  • gecko

    Hell and High Water: Global Warming – the Solution and the Politics and What We Should Do
    By Joseph Romm

    HARPERCOLLINS, © 2007,
    ISBN 006117212x (EAN 9780061172120)
    Hardcover List price $24.95

    (Currently about $13 at the Strand Bookstore)

    A former official for the Department of Energy, and a renowned physicist and energy expert, Joseph Romm presents a searing indictment of the policies and politics that are hasteningthe planet’s destruction…

    One opinion: Probably could be more innovative with solutions and strategies but seems on-target describing the situation and need for immediate action.

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