On the occasion of the UN Climate Action Summit, the Port Authority must reassess its capital priorities, particularly its $30 billion investment in the region’s airports.
9.26.2019 remarks to the Port Authority of NY & NJ
Last Friday, on the occasion of the UN Climate Action Summit,1 tens of thousands marched down lower Manhattan to protest complacency on climate change. Today, I will take stock of recent commentary and detail implications for the Agency.
Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old activist, embodies a generational indictment and call to action.2
Should her self-ban on air travel become widespread (“flygskam”), the implications for regional airports would be profound: a secular shift in personal and business travel patterns; mandatory carbon offsets added to ticket prices; and cancellation of flights with insufficient capacity.3 4 5
New York City Climate March, 9/20/19. Image New York Daily News.
A moral, as well as logistical, imperative
In the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen argues that while climate change can no longer be reversed, efforts to mitigate it effects are not futile. Rather, it is a moral as well as logistical imperative that we adapt to a moving target.6 7
As concerns our airports, higher temperatures will raise fuel consumption, decrease payloads and require longer runways. Sea level rise, storm surge and random weather patterns will increasingly disrupt operations.8 9 10
Veteran climate activist William McKibben argues that a few key industry players can counter entrenched resistance. If JP Morgan Chase stopped financing energy exploration, McKibben contends that smaller banks would follow and new activity would all but disappear.11
Transportation comprises NY-NJ’s largest category of CO2 emissions, which ideally positions the Agency to lead on mitigation and adaptation.12 13 14 It manages an extensive portfolio of assets with discretion to set use fees and is skilled at finessing the political actors, particularly under current leadership.
The Agency has thus far achieved modest reductions by upgrading its own equipment and vehicles. But it continues to enable its customers to pump out vast clouds of carbon at ever increasing rates by allocating the bulk of its capital spending to resource-emitting modes.16 17
Image Rhodium US Climate Service. Data EIA and US Department of Transportation.
Should it choose, the Agency could coordinate regional strategies to accelerate compliance and reduce costs. As a key member of the American Association of Port Authorities, it’s leadership would shape behavior across the hemisphere.18
The word “agency” defines an entity “established to organize transactions between parties.”19 It is also a literary term used to denote “a character’s ability to affect the narrative.”20
For 100 years, the Port Authority has facilitated interstate travel, but it has also presided over a massive expansion of the region’s carbon footprint. In keeping with the times, it must now exercise its agency to bend the trajectory of the impending environmental crisis.
Image Carol Wood.
1 UN Climate Action Summit, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y453dmmk
2 “Greta Thunberg had one question at the U.N. climate summit: ‘How dare you?’ ”, Washington Post, 9/23/2019, https://tinyurl.com/y5qtfo5t
3 “Flygskam: What is the flight-shaming environmental movement that’s sweeping Europe?”, The Independent, https://tinyurl.com/y5u455j5
4 “The Port Authority announced that (it) handled a record-setting 43.9 million passengers between Memorial and Labor Day. ‘Our airports serve a wide range of passengers with high expectations of what a 21st century airport experience should be,’ said Executive Director Rick Cotton. ‘As we advance a $30 billion investment program to rebuild our legacy airports, we are totally committed to provide best-in-class customer experience.’, Region’s Airports Set Records For Passenger Activity in Summer 2019”, New Jersey Business, https://tinyurl.com/y4rkxnn4
5 “Airlines, for all intents and purposes, are becoming more fuel efficient. But we’re seeing demand outstrip any of that. – Worse than anyone expected: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions”- NY Times, 9/19/19, https://tinyurl.com/y43weph6
6 “If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it. What If We Stopped Pretending?”, The New Yorker, 9/17/19, https://tinyurl.com/y4metm73
7 Jonathan-Safran-Foer, who writes on food policy, compares inaction on climate change to denials of the Holocaust in its day. (Less harshly, we can empathize with those struggling to comprehend the unbearable, but at the point where others must pay with their lives for our inability to face facts, denial is ultimately immoral – particularly for those with the means and responsibility to safeguard our well-being.) “#CoveringClimateNow: Jonathan Safran Foer on Food”, The Brian Lehrer Show, 9/16/19, https://tinyurl.com/y5npb8tw
8 “Climate change can cause operational disruptions that lead to a decrease in activity. Higher temperatures alter airplanes’ aerodynamic performance and lead to a need for longer runways, shifting revenue from those that cannot provide the necessary facilities., A Lender’s Guide for Considering Climate Risk in Infrastructure Investments”, 427MT, https://tinyurl.com/ycn9zuvw
9 “How hot weather – and climate change – affect airline flights”, The Conversation, 8/2/17, https://tinyurl.com/ycvgfdzm
10 “The region’s airports are affected by sea level rise to varying degrees. Teterboro faces potential inundation with three feet. EWR and LGA are vulnerable to six. JFK can withstand six feet, but needs to be hardened for storm surge., Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the Region’s Airports Revisited”, Regional Plan Association, p. 20, https://tinyurl.com/ybuvzf99
11 “In the three years since the Paris climate talks, Chase committed $196 billion to finance ultra-deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil extraction, etc. ExxonMobil, by contrast, spent less than $3 billion per year on exploration, research, and development. Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns”, The New Yorker, 9/17/19, https://tinyurl.com/y5larbm5
12 “The transportation sector is the source of approximately 35 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions and growing. Mitigation of Climate Change, Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, https://tinyurl.com/y52nzr86
13 “Transportation remains (New Jersey’s) biggest source of carbon pollution, accounting for more than 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. Fine Print: Taking a Harder Look at Greenhouse-Gas Emissions in New Jersey.”, NJ Spotlight, 2/7/19, https://tinyurl.com/y5jfuf6b
14 “With tunnel repairs in the offing, bikes are key to keeping people on the move.”, NJ Spotlight, https://tinyurl.com/ya8ffz3e
15 “80 by 50”, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/yawf962h
16 “Demand for both diesel and jet fuel increased 3 percent in 2018., Air travel is surging. That’s a huge problem for the climate.”, Vox, 1/13/2019, https://tinyurl.com/y87k8tfa
17 “With the transportation sector overtaking power generation as lead emitter of CO2, the Port Authority must include tenants and customers in its 80% by 2050 pledge greenhouse gas reduction goals., 80 by 50”, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/yawf962h
18 American Association of Port Authorities, https://tinyurl.com/y3nzjhc9
19 “agency: 1. a business or organization established to provide a particular service, typically one that involves organizing transactions between two other parties., 2. action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect.”, Google Search, https://tinyurl.com/y42ex5hr
20 “character agency”, Google Search, https://tinyurl.com/y3w7llvz