Will Alaska Be the New Florida?

The current debate over the proposed construction of the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline raises a fundamental question: at what point will we acknowledge that we can no longer conduct “business as usual”?

Implicit in this question is another one: what does it actually mean to put this understanding into operation? Are we willing to move in a radically different direction, as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing as that may be? When will we stop saying, “yes, but …” and recognize that the time to act is now?

The County target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not just a nice idea; it’s the minimum necessary to avoid runaway climate disruption. If we can’t accomplish this task in Tompkins County, then where in the U.S. will that target be met?

Oroville Lake, California, in 2011 (top) and the same lake in 2014 (bottom).

A New York Times article in late September examined the issue of climate refugees, not in Bangladesh or the South Pacific, but in the United States. At current rates of global warming, one of the climate researchers observed, “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”

Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts that “millions of people” will be moving inland to cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit to escape coastal flooding in the East and Gulf Coast. By the middle of this century, California and the Southwest will be experiencing catastrophic water shortages and extreme heat.

Aside from the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be among the few refuges left. Even in these places the weather will be dramatically altered. “Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma – the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” according to Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center.

We still have time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we recognize that the decisions we make now will determine whether we do so or not.

The Importance of Collaborative Leadership

Growing climate disruption makes it increasingly clear that the old ideas about leadership aren’t working. When the worst drought in 500 years strikes California, England endures the wettest winter in 250 years, and an historic heat wave sets off a rash of bushfires in Australia all at the same time, the weaknesses inherent in traditional notions of the “leader-as-hero” become all too apparent.

Winter storm batters the coast of England in early February. 

In the face of such complex and interrelated challenges, we need to move towards a more collaborative and distributive model, one in which “leaders-as-host” build on a network of relationships, inviting people from all parts of the system to participate and contribute to the process of developing solutions. As Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley contend, this approach “is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.”

Since it was first launched in 2008, TCCPI has sought to demonstrate what this kind of collaboration looks like and the impact it can have on a region’s economic, social, and environmental health. But it is only one among many such efforts in our community. A terrific example of collaborative leadership can be found on South Hill, where Ithaca College, PPM Homes, Cornell Cooperative Extension-Tompkins County, and the South Hill Civic Association have joined hands to raise student awareness about the importance of energy conservation.

Energy efficiency in rental properties is notoriously difficult to achieve in part because of the problem of “split incentives.” Often landlords don’t make efficiency investments because it’s the renters who pay the energy bills. In cases where the landlord pays the utilities, the tenant has little financial incentive to practice energy conservation. The result is housing that wastes energy and costs more than it should.

Unless the different stakeholders come together and work out a solution that makes sense to everyone, the status quo prevails. In a community like Ithaca where 73% of the housing market consists of rental properties, split incentives pose a significant challenge to attempts to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

As a result of the South Hill collaborative process, PPM Homes carried out extensive upgrades to make its rental properties more energy efficient and provided free bus passes to encourage less reiiance on automobiles. At the same time, the process brought students into the conversation, helping them understand their role as tenants in improving energy conservation. Ithaca College, Cooperative Extension, and the South Hill Civic Association all reinforced this effort, working to heighten the students’ sense of responsibility to the community at large.

As the South Hill experiment underscores, collective efforts involving “leaders-as-hosts” draw together key stakeholders and engage them in a course of action that begins with discovering and making explicit common intention and ends with collectively creating the kinds of innovation needed to effectively address difficult problems. Such cooperative ventures provide a framework for multisector collaboration that helps to light the path ahead.