Klaus Jacob’s ethical activism

Klaus Jacob's climate advocacy provides an invaluable lesson, writes design historian Noah Chasin.

Originally published on January 7, 2008.

Last night Klaus Jacob scandalized an unsuspecting audience at the Urban Center with an unrelenting discussion of the real, quantifiable effects of SLR (sea level rise) and CC (climate change) on New York City. Jacob had more than a bit of Cassandra in him as he recounted in terrifying detail just how strong a storm it would take to wet the soles of our shoes on the subway platform relative to one that would turn the IRT into a fleet of ill-equipped, non-watertight submarines. Our island “nation” of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs are at the mercy of the waterways that flow in and around them, and we’ve now been warned that the scenes of devastation so familiar to us from the I Am Legend and Cloverfield movie posters that currently abound on our streets and subways no longer reside merely in the realm of the Hollywood imaginary.

Jacob’s PowerPoint bombarded us for nearly two hours with graph after chart after diagram after rising waterline animation, and one couldn’t fail to note that the heat in the room was as much a product of rising tension and anxiety (and indignation!) as it was of the unseasonably warm weather (the next day was even worse, with temperatures in the mid-60s—in January!!!!) my body was screaming for maeng da kratom inside that room, the tension was too much.

The Northeastern US, we learned, would rank 7th in the world for overall greenhouse emissions, if it were considered a sovereign country (and by many, it is). This statistic dates from 2001, at which point the US as a whole was in the number 1 position. Jacob broke the news that a revised report had just been released days earlier naming China as the most egregious abuser of the world’s ecological system. Meanwhile, closer to home, the development of the WTC site proceeds apace without any evidentiary nods to a system for defense against the perils of flooding as a result of SLR. That the site is at the bottom of what Jacob called “the bathtub” (or the location of the greatest and deepest flooding should the Hudson and the East Rivers breach their banks) makes this “oversight” all the more inexcusable.

As a research scientist, professor at Columbia’s SIPA, and consultant to the MTA (and to many other international agencies), Jacob is well-regarded as far as his knowledge of impending disaster is concerned. He may be educated in the hard sciences, but as a human being and a citizen of NYC, his heart and soul are soft. It’s no surprise, then, that the underlying theme of his talk was not the tangible steps that planners and policy folk need to address in order to minimize future ecological disaster, but rather the moral and ethical need for them to do so—and the responsibility that befalls the rest of us to make sure that they follow through on their promises to safeguard against impending climatological catastrophe.

I found the ethical dilemma to be the most frustrating, and yet the most salient, aspect of his talk. On the one hand, we have irresponsible spending on military and defense, space travel, and farm subsidies, combined with inequitable tax structures that fail to capitalize on this country’s unimaginable affluence by favoring the interests of big business and the top 2% of our wealthiest citizens. Rethinking some of our government’s existing policies would result in a windfall of capital that would, at the very least, begin to provide the principal for an investment in infrastructural improvements and safeguards. On the other hand, the estimates that Jacob provided seem, at first blush, so astronomical—today, a minimum of $500 million per year for NYC alone to address what he calls “equity issues”, with increases up to a factor of 10 by the end of the century—that the task seems utterly Sisyphean. Or is it? In 2007, Wall St. firms paid out $38 million in bonuses alone; suddenly, that $500 million seems like the bargain of the century. The task of protection will not be an easy one, and the existing conditions don’t make retrofitting so simple. Jacob described the beautiful, modern subway in Taipei. When one enters the tunnel, one first goes down, then up over a kind of retaining wall, and then down again to the tracks. The hump serves as a levee against any future sea level rise, How do we begin to implement such safety measures in the relatively antiquated NYC subway?

Jacob insists that some solution be devised. So should we all.

Ethics, clearly, can only get us so far. The most important thing is for public outcry against policy decisions that forsake the potential dangers of climate change. Jacob spoke of a conference panel (I can’t recall the panel’s theme) that he chaired on which sat a representative from FEMA. Jacob recounted asking the rep point-blank when FEMA planned to update its future damage estimates, to which the FEMA rep replied, “When Congress asks us to.” The message is clear: The need for a widespread, grassroots revolt against self-serving governmental policies has never been greater, and the longer we cling to our automobiles, our 24-hour air conditioning, our need to purchase (and ingest) individually package slices of processed cheese, the farther away from addressing this untenable level of risk we will remain.

A final felicitous (and telling) idiosyncrasy of the evening was the unintended appearance, on the screen, of a warning message familiar to any Mac user without a power adapter: “You are now running on reserve power.” Nothing could have been more apposite to the presentation than this metaphorical reminder of our own irresponsibility regarding fossil-based fuels, energy usage, and the unbridled exploitation of other natural resources.

Jacob averted danger merely by plugging in his laptop. Would that a solution to the larger, looming crisis were that simple.