Build Support for NYC Sustainability Initiatives

Let's focus on economic benefits, as well as climate change response

New York City is a world leader in sustainability and climate change response efforts.  Long-term investments in mass transit, the electric grid, energy efficiency, water and energy conservation, and renewable energy are necessary to make the City sustainable, which includes maintaining quality of life and remaining, economically viable and competitive with other leading world cities. We need strong public support to fund and implement these efforts, despite the economic downturn.  Communications studies show that framing initiatives as responses to climate change will likely get weak public support. 

To get the support we need, the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council should expand their strategy for promoting sustainability initiatives - from one that primarily speaks to climate change and environmental benefits, to one that also focuses on economic benefits.

The world’s top climate scientists say that to avoid irreversible, accelerating global warming we must drastically curtail our use of fossil fuels.  However, environmental interests lack support when they are falsely perceived as counter to economic interests. As reported by the Pew Research Center, the top policy concerns of the American public are the economy and jobs, with climate change at the bottom of the list and dropping sharply to only 28% of the American public perceiving it as a priority.  Climate change is often perceived as an abstract and uncertain threat, with impacts taking place far in the future, or in distant places.  Many erroneously think this year’s snowy winter is evidence against climate change.

Near term costs and benefits are more persuasive. A Columbia University report on climate change communications explains that people are more likely to make the more sustainable choice when clearly shown how it will minimize their risk of losses from near-term threats with visible local impacts.  Many sustainability initiatives can be reframed as preparation for higher energy costs to attract broader support. 

Oil price increases are likely by 2015 or before, according to a growing consensus of expert observers and business leaders, as reported in the Wall Street Journal coverage of a UK industry task force. Unlike the effects of climate change, impacts of higher fuel prices will be local, near term, and immediately evident.  They will include higher costs for building heating homes and transportation - commuting, trucking goods, and operating police, fire, school and garbage vehicles.  Higher fuel costs will also reduce discretionary spending, and increase risk of loan defaults. 

City government, business and civic leaders should promote sustainability initiatives in ways that will maximize their public support and participation.  These initiatives will buffer the impacts of inadequately discussed and increasingly likely higher fuel prices, will increase the City’s resilience in increasingly turbulent times, and will create green jobs that can’t be outsourced.  Many examples of how to contain future costs can be found in municipal reports from San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR and Bloomington, IN.  For references, see Sierra Club NYC's own 2008 report at  Contact to discuss how the City should address these issues.


Near Term Costs and Benefits Are More Persuasive Motivations for Sustainability Action than Climate Change

Public's Priorities for 2010:  Economy, Jobs, Terrorism,” Jan. 25, 2010,
Pew Research Center,

“The Psychology of Climate Change Communication,” 2009, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University,

“Growing Green-Collar Jobs: Energy Efficiency,” Urban Agenda, 2007,

Apollo Alliance,

Estimating the Jobs Impact of Tackling Climate Change,” American Solar Energy Society, 2009.

Higher oil costs coming in near future

Goldman Sachs has predicted that oil shortages will reappear in 2011.
Oil Shortages to Reappear in 2011, Goldman Sachs Says,” Jan. 18, 2010, Bloomberg,

Global oil production will reach its maximum levels within five years, states the UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security, and then go into permanent decline.  Britain is unprepared for the coming oil shortages and price spikes.  "Governments need to urgently, urgently wake up," said Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group, to the BBC.
Oil crunch 'just five years away',” February 11, 2010, BBC,

The Wall Street Journal says peak oil is an urgent concern.
“…But the … Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security … arguments are well founded and lead it to the conclusion that, while the global downturn may have delayed it by a couple of years, peak oil—the point at which global production reaches its maximum—is no more than five years away.  Governments and corporations need to use the intervening years to speed up the development of and move toward other energy sources and increased energy efficiency …Governments should be doing all in their power to encourage developments that lessen oil dependency ... whatever the risk to the climate, scarce and expensive oil would be a threat to established economies …”
“The Next Crisis: Prepare for Peak Oil,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2010.

“Peak oil warnings turn up in the strangest places,” February 10, 2010, Financial Times

Corporate leaders warn oil demand will soon outstrip supply

Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total:  "We are running the risk of another oil crisis when demand outstrips supply around 2014 or 2015.  There won’t be enough oil and gas by the middle of the next decade."

Jeroen van de Veer, former CEO of Shell:  "Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.”

Katsuaki Watanabe, President of Toyota:  "Our view is that oil production will peak in the near future.  We need to develop power train(s) for alternative energy sources."

In Honda documentary “Racing Against Time,” company spokesmen discuss their race against time to discover new ways to power vehicles before the oil runs out.

Jose Gabrielli, CEO of Petrobras, says world oil production will peak in 2010.


Reports on how governments can prepare

Bloomington, Indiana Peak Oil Task Force Report, Oct. 2009,

San Francisco Peak Oil Task Force, March 2009,

Portland Peak Oil Task Force, Feb. 2007,

US Governmental Accountability Office:  “Crude Oil: Uncertainty about Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing the Peak and Decline of Oil Production,” GAO-07-283, Feb. 2007,

SAIC for US Department of Energy: “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management,” Hirsch et al., Feb. 2005,

UK Industry Task Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security,
The 2010 Peak Oil Report,

“Sustainable Energy Independence for NYC,” Sierra Club NYC, April 2008,

NYC Councilmembers and many senior members of the Bloomberg Administration were notified of the Sierra Club report release. Recommendations include: (1) revising all City planning and budgeting decisions to accommodate potentially higher energy costs; (2) creating contingency plans for price spikes; and (3) promoting sustainability initiatives as a way of avoiding rising energy costs. 

In its reply, the Mayor's Office of Sustainability and Long-Term Planning suggested that a task force to prepare for energy volatility wasn't needed because other City boards address general energy issues.

City officials are encouraged to reexamine this report in light of 2008's oil price spike, and reports from city governments of San Francisco and Portland, OR, as well as Federal and international agency reports.

beyond oil