Marc Lefkowitz | 04/07/14 @ 2:00pm
Cleveland may have a natural edge if its stable climate can withstand the ravages of climate change. A new report finds it might have more flooding but also overflowing gardens.
A new report, "Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level" explains that the Industrial Midwest may be a rare example of a "megaregion" that won't be unsustainable if its rethinks its consumption (of land, energy, and products) as a model of growth.
"It is possible that many of the rust belt cities that have experienced population decreases will be more sustainable than more “successful” cities in the northeast and other areas. They now have a lower population density and tend to exist in rich agricultural regions. Indeed, abandoned land is being used for food production in a number of depopulating cities."
Why will “sustainability” help Northeast Ohio grapple with the challenges of climate change?
At its core, sustainability is “the ability of a system to maintain functioning over an extended period of time," they write.
Also, when looking at what will solve climate change, sustainability adherents ask, “...and then what?” In the realm of energy, the question could be a yardstick to measure the sustainability of fossil fuels versus renewables.
For example, the advent of hydrofracking has spurred a debate about its costs (i.e. more methane in the atmosphere which is a potent greenhouse gas) and its benefits (less CO2 than burning coal). But where does that leave the debate over what will happen when the relatively short supply of shale gas is depleted? And then what?
It’s an important question for a number of reasons. Fracking is being used in the debate over a freeze of renewable energy mandates in Ohio and other states that have shale gas to exploit. Also, as the “Sustainability and Place” report points out, in a world where conventional oil supply isn’t growing and prices are rising, fracking, tar sands and other unconventional methods of oil exploration are suddenly considered economical. Authored by five of the world’s most prominent ecologists, the report points out that the eastern seaboard and the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico will be increasingly caught in the net of this conundrum.
“Since so much of the economy depends upon the widespread availability of cheap oil for the production and distribution of goods, the onset of peak oil and the decline in net energy available to society has profound implications for overall societal well being. (Halland Day, 2009; Hall et al., 2009; Murphy and Hall, 2011).
Just as the first half of the oil age consisted of constantly increasing production, the second half of the oil age will consist of a continual rate of depletion that cannot be offset by new discoveries or low EROI (Energy Return on Investment) alternatives (Hall and Pascualli, 2012). This will cause price rises that accompany increases in demand (IMF, 2012). There is no substitute fuel source for conventional oil that is as plentiful, has as high an EROI, and can be scaled up in time to meet demand.”
As Zero Carbon Britain’s Paul Allen pointed out while in Cleveland, the answer to “and then what?” is powering down homes and mobility by scaling up energy efficiency and “de-carbonizing” our energy supply. The irony of not being able to meet the demand today is we either pay a little more now or a lot more later. If we are slow to respond, New York (not to mention island nations) will be more likely to get swamped by rising sea water. Phoenix will be more likely rendered uninhabitable from drought in the near future. The answer to “and then what?” is to build cities that make energy reduction the easy (and more enjoyable) way.
“Increasing scarcity and cost of energy will affect all of society but those cities and regions that can become less reliant on oil and other fossil fuels will be better off in the second half of the oil age.
For example, cities with electrified mass transit and multi-modal commuter transit options are better prepared than those with uni-modal, automobile dependent transit. Cities that rely heavily on oil for the import of goods and services across long distances will be affected disproportionately than cities located in areas that have less of a dependence on imports and can live, at least partially, off of the surplus production provided by rich local ecosystems.
In conclusion, energy scarcity will impact all areas of the country and all sectors of the economy. However, it will combine with other mega trends, especially climate change, to make some regions, such as the Southwest, highly unsustainable.”
The report maps where the most and least sustainable places to live in the future might be based on predictions of climate change impact. It shows that the Great Lakes has higher concentrations of “ecological services” because of a stable climate and relatively high annual precipitation. Predictions that climate change will produce 5-20% more rain in the Great Lakes likely in the form of rain, even in the winter, may increase flooding in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys (as was the case in 2010) . The costs for flooding and more extreme weather events in the Great Lakes and the east could easily exceed the $50 billion tally from Tropical Storm Sandy.
But the report also points out that many of the resource rich areas of the U.S. are in places with higher concentrations of poverty. In Cleveland’s case, the city could address both flooding and poverty by investing in a future as a place to grow food, and living closer to the land, even in existing urban areas. Cleveland and its suburbs have a new argument for looking at urban farming over vacant properties and for making it sustainable (which may include naturalizing historic waterways as the green supply lines. Historic waterways are the desire lines of nature, and they provide a natural storehouse for ecological services which will likely rise in the coming century).
This study calculates that certain places are more attractive because of predictions of “biophysical economy” growth. It shows that the U.S. requires more land because of its heavy diet of meat, and that a diet with more veggies can support more self-sustaining economies like local food.
These predictions, while dire if unheeded, could spell new opportunity for Cleveland and its suburbs. If Ohio unfreezes regional green infrastructure programs and doesn’t freeze its renewable energy policy, it will be in a position to protect its residents from increased flooding and to marshall the resources to return the growing power back to the land. Then, climate-induced change might be turned into a positive.