How To Close The Gap: What We Need To Do and What We Actually Do About Climate Change

New School Faculty in Design, Science, Fashion, Technology, and Literature Respond to the Latest IPCC Report

Faculty at The New School

Raz Godelnik

Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management
School of Design Strategies
Parsons School of Design

@godelnik

Introduction

In many movies and TV series there is a turning moment when the hero needs to say goodbye to their old life and start a new journey that will take them into an unknown future. In the last episode of “The Americans”, for example, undercover Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings realize that the FBI exposed them and rush to their daughter, Paige, as they plan their escape.

“The FBI knows about us. We have to leave for good,” they tell her. Surprised by this news, Paige is even more shocked when she realizes they need to run away NOW to Russia. “It’s over. This is how it works. We don’t have a choice,” Elizabeth, her mom explains. “What, are we supposed to just..”, Paige asks, too puzzled to complete her sentence. “We have to go and we have to go now. Come on.” her irritated mom concludes the conversation.

The IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C that was published earlier this month puts us in a very similar situation to the Jennings family. It is a turning moment, telling us loud and clear that “we have to go and we have to go now”, or in the words of the report:

“Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence).”

If you are not part of the 3.4 billion people, who, according to the World Bank still struggle to meet basic needs, you probably see more good than harm in the current way of life. It is no wonder then that for most of us the idea of rapid and far-reaching transitions in our life sounds as compelling as the idea of leaving everything behind and running away to the Soviet Union sounded to Paige Jennings (even though she was doing her first steps as a Soviet spy..).

Nevertheless, no matter how difficult it is for us to accept it, these changes need to happen and they need to happen fast if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. As Bill McKibben puts it: “Winning slowly is the same as losing”. The problem is that we’re not even winning — the IPCC report is very clear that the current national commitments that were submitted under the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5°C:

“Under emissions in line with current pledges under the Paris Agreement, global warming is expected to surpass 1.5C, even if they are supplemented with very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of mitigation after 2030.”

So what do we do? First, let’s not fool ourselves. Unfortunately, scientific-based facts and recommendations alone are not enough to get everyone on board with the radical transition the IPCC tells us we need to undergo. While this report is very important and much needed to understand what should be done, we still have don’t have a clear idea how to actually do it.

Figuring this out will be a joint effort that IMHO should include people from disciplines that may have less to do with environmental science and more to do with how to make change happen, like design and art. We need new perspectives that will help us figure out how to close the widening gap between what we need to do to keep global warming under 1.5C and what we actually do about that.

To start this conversation I invited colleagues from Parsons School of Design and The New School to share their responses to the IPCC report and what they think we should do next. The following responses are meant to provide some initial thoughts and reflections following the report that I hope can lead to more discussions and attempts to figure out how to make this IPCC report into a true turning point in the fight against climate change.

I think the communication challenge for climate change isn’t about the science. It’s about understanding what is at stake for a given community.

Jess Irish

Assistant Professor of Design and Technology
School of Art, Media & Technology
Parsons School of Design

@jirish + @pipelineImpacts

It is both inspiring and terrifying to see world’s leading climate scientists collaborating on such a massive scale, with clear evidence on a critical message: our shared ecosystem is at risk, and we must prevent its collapse. The science is clear, so how can design help?

How can we make this information relatable, memorable and actionable? This is especially challenging in our current era of dark money, influence campaigns and information bubbles. Yet we do have majority will on our side. We have the tools and the capacity for meaningful action.

I think the communication challenge for climate change isn’t about the science. It’s about understanding what is at stake for a given community, population or policy maker, then harnessing effective strategies to mobilize and innovate. No one wants to lose their home, get sick with asthma, drink polluted water or see local harvests collapse. Yet these events are already underway. As interdisciplinary thinkers and creative problem solvers, we must develop conversations for action on multiple scales that speak to what motivates us, what biases us, what affects us.

How can we move away from an idea of space as a homogeneous white expanse that is for humans to “conquer?”

Ioanna Theocharopoulou

Assistant Professor of Interior Design
School of Constructed Environments
Parsons School of Design

As educators, we have the potential and the responsibility to make the IPCC message clear to our students, and to contribute to enriching both conceptual as well as practical tools for the younger generations. Working within a historical point of view, I am interested to explore how architecture can give us tools for survival in the Anthropocene. More and more I see that our very ways of understanding our world, and within that the way that we understand architecture, has to somehow move away from its unquestioned allegiance to the post-WWII paradigm of “progress” and “development”.

In Architecture, our job is to offer compelling alternatives to the alignment of our profession to these outdated ideas of development—such as high-rise skyscrapers and sparsely populated suburbs in the desert, or buildings on flood-prone coasts. I believe that this requires a difficult conceptual challenge: how can we move away from an idea of space as a homogeneous white expanse that is for humans to “conquer?” […] a convenient fiction of [the] white imperialist”? (Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology 2016, 11). What other approaches can we explore? There are already many powerful examples of other ways to view cities, such as to see them as productive landscapes, where buildings help produce energy and reduce waste. There must be much more that we can think, plan, design and help our students to imagine and realize.

“We need to approach the economy as a design problem.”

Timo Rissanen, PhD, FRSA

Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability
Parsons School of Design

Associate Dean, School of Constructed Environments
Parsons School of Design

Associate Director, Tishman Environment and Design Center

@trissanen +@timorissanen

Designers ought to be an active participant in rethinking the global economy, including how we think of wellbeing. We need to approach the economy as a design problem. We need to resist the lazy assumption that economic growth is always and solely good; it comes with many costs, including climate collapse and irreversible biodiversity loss. In my teaching I use Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics a lot; it should be required reading for all designers.

The reason I say this is because to me there is nothing surprising about where we have ended up. Climate collapse is a logical outcome of our economic thinking and activity, a logical outcome of our economic belief system. I don’t think we can address it without creating a completely new belief system. This is not a job economists alone can do; designers ought to be play a role, as should all citizens. If we try to address climate collapse within existing thinking, things will only escalate further.

How is it possible that we designers are losing the battle of imagery to capture the imagination of the public?

Jessica Corr

Assistant Professor of Design
School of Design Strategies
Parsons School of Design

@tourmaline.nyc + @plia_nyc

When my kids entered elementary school, I was heavily involved in an initiative to ban Styrofoam trays from New York City public schools. As the largest school district in the United States, and the largest consumer of Styrofoam trays, we could actually make a huge impact. This was achievable! All we had to do was educate parents, students, and policy makers—then we could put a stop to this health and environmental hazard.

I showed up at an early PTA meeting ready to talk about the work I was doing with design students at Parsons to solve this problem, and to ask for support at our local school level. The PTA meeting opened with a passionate mother describing a tragic accident that happened at another school — a child was severely injured crossing the street to get to school when they were hit by a car. The mother painted a picture that left all of the parents in the room with vivid imaginings of their own children being mowed down by cars on their way to school. She was demanding that we rally together to get a traffic light on our very low traffic cross-street.

The room was filled with energy. Everyone was on board; ready to write letters, stalk our representatives’ offices, conduct surveys. One parent said she could get the news media here tomorrow to embarrass our school until they did something. The story transformed the room in less than 10 minutes. I could sense the very direct fear that motivated all of us. How was I going to get them to fear Styrofoam after that? This scenario has continued to haunt me through my work as a design educator. How is it possible that we designers are losing the battle of imagery to capture the imagination of the public? How are we failing to translate this true threat into a perceived danger that should easily motivate action?

Art and design… have the opportunity — the potential — to grab those who are unswayed by numbers.

David Bergman

Part-Time Faculty
Parsons School of Design

@EcoOptimism + @EcoOptimism

It’s obvious that we have a communication issue. Only 70% of Americans “believe” in climate change and the percentage of elected officials is even lower. The concurrent IPCC report and Hurricane Michael, in all probability, haven’t moved the needle. That means the current methods of getting the point across — statistics, charts, books — are not convincing enough. So, we need a way to engage the nonbelievers. Art and design, because they can provide a more visceral and sometimes more heart-wrenching approach, have the opportunity — the potential — to grab those who are unswayed by numbers.

Along with established artists and designers, this can become a role for our art and design students, who are the generation that will inherit what we haven’t successfully communicated. It’s a different role from the usual coursework focus on designing “green” products, buildings and garments. While that emphasis is important, it doesn’t address the roots of the problem and, ironically, can lead to the production of even more “stuff.” The communicator role is one that can address an often-missing part of our teaching, and can become an emblem of the civic and social responsibilities that “citizen designers” can embrace and perhaps become excited about.

Rather than intervening in Earth systems, our survival depends upon our co-creating with them.

Jean Gardner

Associate Professor of Social-Ecological History and Design
School of Constructed Environments, Parsons School of Design

To sequester carbon, the IPCC Report advocates untested geoengineering, continuing the mindset creating current humanly-amplified ‘natural’ events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, extreme droughts and raging wildfires. How does geoengineering do this? By disrupting natural systems as if humans were superior to these life-supporting systems, rather than dependent upon them.

But design-thinking and making is actually reducing carbon dioxide levels. How? By aligning what humans make with natural systems that sequester carbon. Examples are fashion and architecture systems that generate soil biodynamically.

Fashion: “A Fibershed is a geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base.”

Architecture: “Sponge Mountain is a proposal by architect Angelo Renna for a 90-metre-high mound of soil, which would absorb carbon dioxide from the air in Turin.”

What is Biodynamics? “Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition” now being applied to fields of design such as fashion and architecture.

Critical to soil sequestering reducing carbon in design systems is a major shift in relating humans to non-human systems. We are recognizing that, rather than intervening in Earth systems, our survival depends upon our co-creating with them.

Isn’t it time we just encouraged people to stop shopping, consuming, and filling landfills?

Greg Climer

Assistant Professor of Fashion Design
School of Fashion
Parsons School of Design

@GregoryClimer

Design should take a hard look at what we do in relationship to encouraging capitalism. While its sweet that we are designing better systems for making things and it feels good to say our products are better for the world than previous products, isn’t it time we just encouraged people to stop shopping, consuming, and filling landfills? The notion that growth, sales, more products, or better systems of making them is a solution is not addressing the underlying problem that we rely on consumption to survive. If we are serious about making an impact, then we need to advocate and enact serious actions. Instead of asking if I can create a lower-impact version of an existing system, why not ask if we can survive without the system. If manufacturing stopped for all clothing on this planet, no one would be unclothed. We have enough clothes to last decades. If manufacturing stopped on all furniture on this planet, no home would go unfurnished. We have enough furniture to last decades. If designers want to genuinely have an impact, they should shut down the systems they support.

Mark Bechtel

Assistant Professor of Product Design
School of Constructed Environments
Parsons School of Design

Following the IPCC report, I believe that support for mental health, well-being, and crisis management for students in college will become increasingly more urgent as young generations grapple with what is unfolding now, as well as confronting the bleak forecast of possible ecological collapse in our not too distant future. Student welfare services will require greater investment as an essential part of higher education. It is becoming more common that students in my classes are dealing with the consequences of natural disasters and political conflicts either firsthand or through their families and friends.

In our School of Constructed Environments at Parsons, our students have multiple different kinds of opportunities for project-based learning that is engaged in real world situations with all of the complexity and contradictions that it entails. I think this kind of learning experience with real world constraints is fundamentally important to better prepare our students for the considerable challenges ahead whether it is the multi-year interdisciplinary Solar Decathlon competition, the Design Workshop studio, a product and architecture student collaboration to construct kiosks used in the Climate March, or the recent collaboration between The Japan Foundation, The Zolberg Institute at the The New School, and our School of Constructed Environments for The Earth Manual Project and exhibition. There are too many other kinds of examples to list, but to answer the question about what to do next I’d say that we want to sustain our focus to continue providing these kinds of learning opportunities for all of our students.

Mathematical modelling has predicted a change in global temperatures of 2–3% could increase the number of people at risk from malaria by 3–5% (meaning several hundred million people).

Davida S. Smyth, PhD

Associate Professor
Department of Natural Science
Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts

@profsmyth + @profsmyth 
(
davidasmyth.net)

As a scientist and microbiologist, my major concerns relate to the spread and transmission of infectious diseases, which is a likely and major consequence of climate change. Viruses, bacteria, protists and parasites that are transmitted by insect vectors such as the mosquito, tick and fly, increase their range and capacity to infect new populations due to rising temperatures. Mathematical modelling has predicted a change in global temperatures of 2–3% could increase the number of people at risk from malaria by 3–5% (meaning several hundred million people).

Climate change is producing more and more extreme weather events, floods and droughts that can have catastrophic impacts on ecosystems and lead to the contamination of drinking water and the food supply, thus increasing infectious disease outbreaks and potentially contributing to the emergence of new and as of yet unidentified pathogens. As an educator and faculty member at the New School, I see this as an urgent and pressing challenge, and I aim to ensure that our graduates and future generations, not only understand the problems that they will face as a result of the increase in global temperatures but that they will be prepared, resilient and adaptable, able to look and tackle these problems through an interdisciplinary lens and come up with equitable and just solutions that help all of society.

Writers can imagine beyond the facts, but also present the facts in ways which encourage the very thing literature provides so importantly — empathy.

Elaine Savory

Associate Professor of Literary Studies
Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts

Literature is key in consciousness raising because it complements science and history and other fact-and-research-based disciplines by being able to help the imagining of different futures and presents, the enactment of stories which explore how people face and cope with climate change, engage with environmental injustice, health concerns- anything which is human experience. Writers can imagine beyond the facts, but also present the facts in ways which encourage the very thing literature provides so importantly—empathy. Literature also explores important unanswerable questions, options, consequences of actions- the contexts of what will happen, may happen, has already happened.

Critics and literary theorists teach people how to read with environmental consciousness, critique positions (such as nature writing, Anthropocentric thinking, ways of approaching environmental work), and recognize important innovations in literary form.

My field is key to getting consciousness raised—along with other fields of the arts.

Stephen Metts

Part-Time Faculty
Graduate Program in International Affairs
Schools of Public Engagement

@PipelineImpacts

At page 6 of the IPCC 2018 Summary for Policy Makers, readers are faced with a chart plotting an extremely compressed time frame in which the world must flat-line at net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to avoid just the worst of run-away climate impacts.

What is New York City and State doing about this predicament, if anything?

Two organizations — The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) — are particularly tasked with managing a downward trajectory of GHG emissions, and neither are anywhere near prepared for the steep decline of the IPCC report. Further, the fracked gas industry now has a stranglehold on all northeastern states, and the build out of power plants in particular is overwhelming with 4 massive plants designed to feed New York coming online in the immediate future.

In the city itself, a recent study from NY Communities for Change found that just 2% of all buildings account for 50% of GHG building emissions — and yes, those are often empty luxury buildings. Meanwhile temperature projections and sea level rise models portend disastrous impacts to local city geographies.

In the following piece — Precipice of Doom: the dire implications of the IPCC 2018 climate report for New York City and State — I expand on some of data points and draw the conclusion that there is only one viable path available to address the constraints and dangers presented in the IPCC report.