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Measuring Progress In The Fight Against Climate Change

by Larry Susskind
July 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
At a recent Burlington, Vermont meeting hosted by Robert Costanza (the leader of the ecological economics movement) and the Seventh Generation Corporation, we tried to figure out how to measure progress in combatting climate change over the next five years. ( I'm of the school that says "If you can't measure it, you can't fix it."  So, five years from now, what do we have to measure and how do we have to measure it to know that we were making progress in the fight against climate change?  

50 years vs. 5 years

Next year's global gathering in Copenhagan will be focused on how many parts per mission of  carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) we are pouring into the atmosphere and what we should do about it in the long term. National negotiating delegations will try to set reduction goals for 2050 and 2100 -- fighting about what the developed world ought to do FIRST (because of the mess they have already made) and what the developing world has to do (because of the even larger mess they will make in the years ahead if they copy our unsustainable patterns of development).   The Copenhagan Climate Change Conference needs to make sure that we don't permanently raise the earth's temperature by more than 2 degrees F.   The key number for them seems to be 350 parts per mission -- we need to stabilize emissions at 350 parts per million. Unfortunately, we are already beyond that level and climbing.  (See Bill McKibbon's  We are not going to see global CO2 levels reduced any time soon.  So, how can we measure progress in the fight against climate change over the next five years while the nations of the world fight about what to do over the next 50 years? 

The four most important things to measure

My colleague Tom Dietz and I came up with four things to measure in the short term -- over the next five years.  The first is reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through increased energy efficiency.  Its pretty well documented that individual households could achieve 20% reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in just five years using off-the-shelf energy efficiency devices and strategies.  (We are talking about liquid fuels as well as electricity.) Most households would probably save enough money in something close to five years to get back whatever costs are involved!  The agricultural sector, the industrial sector, the government sector, and the commercial sector might not achieve 20% reductions in five years, but they could probably come close.  More work needs to be done to set reasonable percentage reduction targets for each sector.  No matter what our 50 years targets, increasing energy efficiency in the short term works to our advantage -- both financially and in terms of ecological sustainability. 

The second thing to measure is  increased reliance on renewable energy supplies. 
About half the states already have something called Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that commit them to generating 20% of their electricity by 2020.  Let's assume that the other half of the states catch up and pass something similar. Each state can meet this goal by stressing renewables that make the most sense in their part of the country -- solar in the west, terrestrial wind in the plains, biomass in the southeast, off-shore wind in New England.   In five year's time, a 5% increase in reliance on all kinds of renewable energy would be reasonable. 

The third way to track progress over the next five years in combatting climate change would be to see whether all states, and cities with more than 25,000 people, had put in place disaster preparedness plans and procedures.  We saw what happened in the aftermath of Katrina.  If climate change has already started, we are likely to see rising sea levels, increased precipitation (in some areas), storms of greater intensity, saltwater intrusion into freshwater marshes and wetlands, increasing numbers of really hot days (in some places), drought (in some places), and the like.  We better be ready.  An indicator of progress in the short term would be clear evidence that coastal communities, in particular, had put appropriate measures in place to protect their population and to make sure that key ecological services (like the supply of clean drinking water, the cooling provided by shade trees, the replenishment of the soil needed to grow our food, etc.) will be protected.  Reductions in vulnerability to probably can't be measured in a single number, but we could determine whether every place that should have a plan for reducing vulnerability to climate change has a credible plan ready to go. That's a reasonable five year goal.

The fourth measure of progress would be enhanced resilience in all these same cities and towns. Think of the worst storm in your extended family's memory. How long did it take your people to recover?  Houses had to be rebuilt, although soil erosion made that impossible in some places. Insurance coverage began to disappear. Farms (and crops) took a while to restore. Water supplies were ruined in some places. Infrastructure (including roads, bridges, waterfronts, energy facilities, parks, sewage treatment plans, water pumping operations, etc.) had to be rebuilt.  If we know that climate change is going to increase the number and intensity of such storms (What if they were going to occur once every 10 years rather than once every 100 years?), we must do some advance planning to make sure that places that are hard hit can spring back.  This might mean building protective seawalls or higher dams. It might mean replacing or relocating certain roads, bridges and pumping stations.  It might mean swapping which lands uses are allowed near the water, what building standards have to be met (maybe all structures along the water need to have a freeboard that can be raised to let water move underneath them).  Climate change resilient cities will probably have to do version of all of these things.  Five years from now, if a city hasn't put a Climate Change Adaptation Plan together, it probably hasn't made sufficient progress. We need a national advisory group to help set appropriate standards for adaptation planning.   In the most vulnerable areas (i.e. with the lowest elevations near the water), just having a plan in five years isn't good enough.   The top 5% of the vulnerability list should have begun implementing their adaptation plans by then.

Most cities and towns in the United States are still operating as if the 100-year flood should set the standard for how development and ecosystems are managed. These are not climate-change ready communities.

Who should do the measuring?

Measuring climate action progress will require collecting technically-credible information on a regular basis.  We collect consensus data for the nation as a whole and make it available on line to everyone every five years (state) or ten years (federal government).  So, we could do the same thing to track climate change progress.   We know how to measure changing levels of employment, shifting population characteristics, spending patterns, and a whole host of other things while still respecting individual confidentiality.  We need to get cracking with a Climate Change Measurement Project led by a team of federal agencies and states.  All kinds of interested groups and organizations should be invited to collaborate.  We only need to set targets for the first five years.  After that, once we've see what has happened, we can produce a better set of targets for the following five years.   Each set of five year targets will be set in light of the long-term goals established in  Copenhagen, but we can do something now and keep making adjustments along the way (as we learn more).

Getting the word out

It's clear that greenhouse gas emissions are in the process of altering our environment.  Those alterations will eventually eat away at our economy (in the same way that a terrible month of rain in June cut deeply into the profitability of tourism in New England).  While we need to set long-term CO2 reduction goals, we also need to track progress in every single place along the way.  Cities should benchmark their progress in the fight against climate change.  So should states and national agencies.  This is true in every country, not just the United States.  Different places will set more or less ambitious targets; that's fine. But they need to set measurable five year goals that can be used to chart their progress. And they need to use appropriate indicators that reflect the world's long-term efforts.  If we don't measure how we're doing in the short term, though, we'll never get started and we'll never get better.


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.


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