After the Storm: Climate Change and Public Works

Blackout in Lower Manhattan after superstorm Sandy. [All photos by Paul McGeiver]

Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1881–1906

We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendors of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.
— John Maynard Keynes, Yale Review, 1933

Citizens United and super PACs have brought America to a historic juncture — one path leads toward oligarchy, the other toward representative government. Abraham Lincoln defined the latter as the American ideal. It was the cause of Thomas Paine, the Revolution, and the Constitutional Convention. Today it is the inspiration for good health care and a good education, for fair and competitive markets, for honest government, for a sustainable environment, and for a decent job and livelihood for everyone. For these promises to be kept, the deep pockets of the moneyed class must be countered, because to travel upstream of any major issue facing our country — from Too Big To Fail banks to climate change — is to encounter a small, extremely powerful group of well-connected and well-heeled interests controlling the flow of the stream.
— Bill Moyers & Arnold Hiatt, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Winter 2013

Three years ago I wrote an article for this journal underscoring a dilemma already evident as Barack Obama was completing his first 365 days in office. Confronted with the immediate crisis of a crashing economy and the looming crisis of a changing climate, the new president was failing to engage these generational challenges at the level of structure or paradigm or broader meaning; Obama was failing to follow in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan and lead a searching conversation about the future of the nation.

By now this is a familiar story. In an analytical piece for The New York Times Magazine, political correspondent Matt Bai wondered how the president-author who had written a sophisticated literary memoir could have “spent the past four years immersed in legislative minutiae and marching out dull slogans — ‘an economy built to last,’ ‘winning the future’ and so on — while failing to advance any larger theory of the moment confronting the country and what it required.” Bai’s piece was published one week before Obama’s re-election. But even for those who breathed deeply in relief when the Democratic victory was called, the question of how our eloquent president has, as Bai put it, “squandered his narrative mojo” remains wide open.

In my article of January 2010, “The Public Works,” I explored one possible “larger theory of the moment.” The premise was not complicated: If the Obama administration, and by extension we-the-people, have not risen to the challenge of the moment and pursued bold public works — as FDR did in the 1930s — it is because unlike then “we confront our crisis in a social-political climate that’s to a large degree contemptuous of public sector solutions, and more, hostile to the very idea of the public.” It is because the broad-based confidence in the capacity of government to carry out transformative programs — a confidence that spanned centuries, from the Erie Canal, transcontinental railroad and emancipation legislation of the 19th century to the New Deal, Great Society and environmental programs of the mid 20th century — has more or less collapsed under the weight of the privatization that has dominated America since the Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. I would like now — on the occasion of the second term inauguration — to revisit that proposition of “the public works” because it seems as relevant as ever; as Obama re-ups for the next four years, it seems clear that this tension between the pressing need for public action and the tenacious culture of privatization remains a fundamental political conundrum. It also suggests an intensified political agenda for the design disciplines.

Climate Change and Campaign Finance

To get a read on the extent of the problem, let’s consider two recent articles.

Nothing clarifies the need for government action and public investment more than the growing list of events — and catastrophes — that we shorthand under the rubric “climate change.” In July 2012, in a sobering and much discussed article in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben reviews a generation of non-progress since scientist James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony (“The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”), and calculates what he calls “the terrifying new math.”

Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious … position with three simple numbers.

The “three simple numbers” — the 2° Celsius that world leaders have agreed global temperatures can rise but which scientists call “a prescription for long-term disaster”; the 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide scientists estimate we can pour into the atmosphere before irreversibly damaging life systems; and the 2,795 gigatons already contained in the fossil fuel pipelines — are indeed terrifying. So too is the irresponsible and inadequate response on the part of world leaders, including U.S. presidents. “We’re in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction,” McKibben says, detailing the “spectacular failures” of Rio and Copenhagen and all the high-wattage, low-impact environmental summits of recent years.

To point out that political inaction on global warming — on CO2 emissions — is directly traceable to the influence of the oil and gas multinationals is to point out the obvious. But a month after McKibben’s “Terrifying New Math,” the Atlantic Monthly published “The New Price of American Politics,” in which the magazine’s editor, James Bennet, manages to make riveting what he calls “the deeply boring subject” of campaign finance. Bennet begins:

You may be one of those people who believe there is too much money in politics. … You may believe that the larger the financial contribution, the greater the chance it will corrupt your representative in Congress, or even your president. … But if you are one of these people, what you believe is turning out not to matter very much.

Bennet then proceeds to review the recent history of campaign finance policy, from the post-Watergate reforms of the ’70s to the rise of soft money in the ’90s to McCain-Feingold in 2002 and finally to the milestone 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has unleashed the “gold rush” of super PACs and ultra-secretive campaign donation vehicles known as 501(c)4s — and which, Bennet argues, is exactly what does matter these days. 1  One direct result of Citizens United is that in one month this past summer the presidential candidates of both parties “held more private events for donors than public events for potential voters. By late July Obama had held a total of 194 fund-raisers in his third and fourth years in office — more than his four predecessors in the same period combined.” As Bennet emphasizes, Citizens United — which ruled that corporate campaign donations are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment — has trip-wired a revolution that is confounding even seasoned politicians.

In the wake of Citizens United (though not only because of Citizens United), the combination of permissive judges, paralyzed regulators, and a deadlocked Congress has emboldened political operatives … to raise and spend money in ways they wouldn’t have dared before. Not since the Gilded Age has our politics been opened so wide to corporate money and donations from secret sources.

In his Rolling Stone article, McKibben emphasized that some of the most emboldened of those political operatives are on the payroll of the oil and gas industries. 2 With respect to the third of his “simple numbers,” the 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuel in the pipelines, he writes:

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. …

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground — it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide — those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

In short, the economic interests of the richest corporations on earth are at odds with the health of the earth. “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet — but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both,” McKibben says. “Do the math … That’s how the story ends.” So the connection, and the conundrum, are plain: on the one side, an accelerating threat to our civilization and survival, quantified by scientists worldwide, a threat that will require collective will, political courage and truly game-changing, paradigm-shifting state-based action; and on the other side, a financialized, polarized and often paralyzed U.S. political system in which the prospect of that action is increasingly remote.

Climate Change and Urban Design

When superstorm Sandy slammed into the New York metropolitan region one week before the election, not only did it flood the subways, crash the grid, level beachfront neighborhoods and turn President Obama and Governor Chris Christie into unlikely allies as they surveyed the ruins of coastal New Jersey in Marine One; it put climate change back on the political agenda, where it’d been missing for years. (As the New York Times reported, it went unmentioned in the presidential debates, during which Obama and Romney “seemed most intent on trying to outdo each other as lovers of coal, oil and natural gas.”)

The big storm also put back into circulation a group of speculative design projects created for the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront. Inspired by a research project led by Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt and Adam Yarinsky, Rising Currents was an ambitious effort, in the words of MOMA curator Barry Bergdoll, “to [reimagine] the city in light of the future effects of climate change” — including catastrophic floods. 3 But Rising Currents was hardly alone in its focus on climate change and urban design; in retrospect it was the high-profile culmination of a decade during which the most intellectually adventurous designers and planners were exploring how buildings, systems, landscapes and entire cities could be adapted in response to a warming planet. In the first decade of the 21st century, there were countless books and articles on how to make cities greener, smarter, more resilient, carbon-neutral, zero-footprint. There were sold-out conferences (Urban Design After the Age of Oil, at Penn Design; Ecological Urbanism, at the Harvard GSD; Urban Design and Climate Change, sponsored by the Council for European Urbanism; etc). There were new mission-driven initiatives like the 2030 Challenge, created by the New Mexico-based architect Ed Mazria, and the National Academy of Environmental Design, founded in 2009 by a network of leading academics to address “catastrophic challenges … including precipitous climate change.” There were ideas competitions like WPA 2.0, sponsored by cityLab at UCLA, which generated proposals for green infrastructure, and a series of “City of the Future” contests sponsored by the History Channel that produced daring visions for major American cities including San Francisco  and Chicago. 4

All of which is to say the relationship between climate change and urban design — between the design of a city and its carbon footprint — is increasingly well understood. Like the puzzling failure of the president to seize the historical moment, this too is a familiar story. And indeed, just as Bill McKibben admitted that environmentalists are “losing the fight, badly and quickly,” so too designers might acknowledge that to date our efforts — the cumulative message of the conferences, competitions, exhibitions, articles, books, etc. — have yet to gain the necessary political momentum or cultural traction. It’s telling that the recent coverage of Rising Currents in the mainstream media was almost invariably presented as a rediscovery, the evocative projects offered up as if retrieved from some esoteric archive.

You could argue that the broad recognition of climate change-responsive design was always just a question of time (and that the superstorm has now jump-started the clock). But I think the critical dilemma isn’t time, and so I want to re-emphasize the central point; which is that all the big-picture efforts to address a long-range and global-scale challenge have been created in an era in which we seem to have lost the political capacity to grapple with the big picture, the long range, the global scale. To a degree we’ve even lost the vocabulary. As the late historian Tony Judt wrote, the “discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world.” 5 In design circles it’s as if the perceived failures of mid 20th-century planning — exemplified by top-down urban renewal and personified by the power-brokering Robert Moses — have induced a kind of conceptual paralysis, an inability to formulate the public sector, or public works, in terms not beholden to a discredited history. As Reinhold Martin noted in a roundtable in this journal, on “The Housing Question,” it has become controversial “to [suggest] that the state, or the public sector … might play a more active, direct and enlightened role in the provision of housing and, by extension, education, health care and other infrastructures of daily life in the United States.”

In this light it’s not surprising that the expansive speculations of the past decade have been superseded by the current focus on the small-scale and DIY, on tactical urbanism and spontaneous intervention. Much of this entrepreneurial activism — which contributes to the burgeoning public interest design movement — aims to ameliorate the hardships of urban poverty, unaffordable housing and environmental injustice, and many of the projects are valuable and valiant. But often they are fragile and underfunded, over-dependent on sweat equity and the unpredictable largesse of philanthropists; and while they do scale through proliferation, they are by their very nature not scalable at the level of infrastructure or public works. As such they reflect the dominant political and cultural trend of our age, the privatization of responsibilities once understood to be public.

Today, as Obama begins his second term, the limits of privatization — the dangers of defunding public agencies charged with maintaining essential infrastructures and promoting the general welfare — have never been more apparent. Collapsing roadways, eroding coastlines, half-empty reservoirs, polluted groundwater, over-stressed power grids, antiquated rail networks, shuttered institutions, semi-ruined cities — all are evidence not only of the feckless neglect of the magnificent legacy of public programs inherited from more civic-minded generations but also of our own failure to renew this legacy. Inarguably the most vital legacy would be a serious commitment to counter global warming, from remaking the energy grid to adapting cities and their systems.

Lately there is renewed optimism that this commitment might finally be possible — that the post-storm devastation of America’s greatest city, along with a second-term president focused not on the next campaign but instead on his place in history, will jolt us into action. Maybe; but we’ve been here before, and shrewd observers are warning that the Democratic victory in November won’t halt the galloping influence of corporate money on American governance. As the political economist Robert Reich argued recently in his syndicated column, the billionaires who bankrolled the super PACs — including Charles and David Koch, the petrochemical plutocrats who’ve lobbied aggressively to repeal environmental laws and to approve what McKibben has called the “Koch-Stone XL Pipeline” — “will keep pouring in as much money as it takes to eventually win.” They are playing, says Reich, a “long game.”

Design and Politics

Given the “new math” of global warming and the “new price” of U.S. politics, what then can the design disciplines do? Clearly there is no neat or easy answer. But surely one answer is to redouble the efforts already underway and to proceed with new urgency and intensity, expanding the focus from episodic and project-based professional advocacy to sustained and structured political activism; in essence, to play the long game and raise the stakes accordingly, making the standard of success not only the project itself but also some significant measure of demonstrable impact — say, the passage of landmark legislation that would levy a tax on carbon and enable the next generation of public works and programs. For of course we know that a good idea — whether emancipation or environmentalism — is just the start; by now it’s clear that it has proven easier to envision a better future — a tomorrow of sustainable cities, renewable energy, net-zero districts, etc. — than to plot out and travel the routes that might actually lead us to that future.

Because of the staggering scale of the challenge, these routes will inevitably require us to negotiate the thickets of politics and policy, and to engage the contentious political debate about the roles and responsibilities of the state and the market. Clearly we Americans have a contradictory relationship with the state, with the size and power of government. But despite the heated and hypocritical rhetoric of limited government and low taxation, we have also a long history of entrusting the state to construct and maintain the infrastructures upon which we depend for personal comfort and national prosperity. Think about it. We expect to flip a switch or turn a tap, and so long as the power and water flow we pay scant attention to the immense systems of hydro-electric dams, coal-fired plants, nuclear reactors, mega-reservoirs, waste treatment plants and continental communication networks that enable us to cook dinner and take a bath and check email. We expect smooth roads, sturdy bridges, high-functioning air traffic control. We expect trained police and brave firefighters, a disciplined military and vigilant national security. And in the aftermath of disaster, like a monster storm or scorching drought, we expect that whatever was broken will be fixed, and that the government will need to cut a check.

The accelerating effects of climate change will only intensify the demands we make upon the state; they will intensify too the debate about public and private. In his final book, Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt surveys the recent history of this debate, the contradiction between the “practical need for strong states” and the “marked reluctance to defend the public on grounds of collective interest or principle.” 6 Judt devotes much of his short book to passionately defending the public and “thinking the state,” to detailing the ills and inefficiencies of unchecked privatization, and to upholding the values of common good, collective purpose, mutual trust and cooperation, which he believes we have forsaken and must reclaim to achieve real progress on any front. As he writes:

We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or a march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals — fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers — are united by nothing more than the common expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers; choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this. 7

  1. Among the more inspired critiques of this electoral gold rush were the Peabody Award-winning segments of The Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert launched his very own super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”
  2. For an overview of campaign spending, see the database of the Center for Responsive Politics, As reported, the oil and gas sector spent $104,118,544 on political lobbying in 2012, compared with thealternative energy production & services, which spent $17,863,270.
  3. Barry Bergdoll, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 13.
  4. In the interest of transparency: some of the projects listed or hyperlinked are the work of Places’ board members, including Rising Currents and Growing Water. In addition, several Places board members have played a role in the founding of the National Academy of Environmental Design.
  5. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 168.
  6. Tony Judt, 6.
  7. Tony Judt, 135.
Nancy Levinson, “After the Storm: Climate Change and Public Works,” Places Journal, January 2013. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.22.2013 at 14:08

    In light of this excellent piece, it’s worth looking at AIA’s advocacy efforts (not that AIA is the sum total of the design professions, but it is a large membership organization and plays a particular public role). On the one hand, AIA’s stated policy positions are good, emphasizing the need for energy efficiency, investment in the public realm, and carbon-neutral government buildings by 2030. AIA clearly believes in a strong and effective public realm – symbolically, “restoring the capitol dome” is on the AIA agenda. On the other hand, “ArchiPAC contributed over $265,500 to candidates and political parties this election,” they state. This is chump change in the influence business, and its distribution across the board – equal amounts to Republican and Democratic election committees, donations to both John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi – with a stated goal of reaching those who are likely to win and/or hold significant committee positions, shows this to be an attempt to buy access. It’s not a commitment to AIA’s own advocacy agenda, which matches Democratic priorities much more closely than Republican ones. It is proof close to home of the corruption of our political system –shouldn’t our representatives seek out AIA during debates on infrastructure, rather than demand donations as an entry price? Certainly we can do better than this. One way would be for AIA members should encourage AIA and ArchiPAC to fight for campaign finance reform.

  • 01.23.2013 at 09:18

    Thanks for this thoughtful call to politics, and to seeking ways to engage the design disciplines in a more structured and sustained "long game." As Ellen Dunham-Jones and I (and others) have noted about retrofitting suburbia, it took half a century to build the postwar landscapes of mass suburbanization, and it may take a half-century, or more, to retrofit these places for a more resilient future. The effort, however, has begun. How do we keep it up?

  • 01.23.2013 at 13:59

    Raphael and June,

    Thanks for the great comments. I agree, it's a big challenge to put climate change — and its unfolding effects on our environment — on the political agenda. Especially when there are so many big problems that feel more immediate, whether jobs and the economy or immigration reform or gun control. Just today I heard a radio commentary to the effect that "Hurricane Sandy was no Sandy Hook" in terms of giving the issue real political traction.

    It would be great if the AIA were to galvanize its organization and networks and mount a strong campaign on climate change and urban design. Right now it's hard to detect any focused effort; for instance, if you search for "climate change" on the national website, the results contain a lot of outdated PDFs and "page not found" links. And yes, the ArchiPAC contributions are trivial these days; they won't result in any real influence.

    So one question would then be: To what extent might the professional associations — the AIA, and also the ASLA, APA, AICP — function as the organizational vehicles for sustained political advocacy, for an ongoing movement? Perhaps in collaboration, so the efforts would gain strength in numbers? This approach would depend upon the efforts of leading practitioners, but it might work.

    But it would also be valuable for design activists to join forces with the environmental lobby, which is itself highly networked — check out the "partners" pages of groups like, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Citizens Climate Lobby, etc.

    In his Rolling Stone article, Bill McKibben makes a provocative argument to the effect that the climate change cause needs an enemy. As he writes: "The paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies." McKibben argues that the fossil-fuel industry is a good candidate to be public enemy number one, since — and here he quotes Naomi Klein — "wrecking the planet is their business model."

    Here on Places we welcome articles that continue the discussion on design and climate change, and how professional activism might contribute to a political movement.