Have you ever looked both ways before crossing a street? The idea has been drilled into our heads since we were children. Drivers pose a significant threat to pedestrians in the United States, so it’s natural to be wary of them while walking.
Let’s ask an even simpler question: why do we do this? That part seems obvious; getting hit by a driver means severe injury or death. We look left and right to assess whether a driver is likely to hit us. When you look both ways to cross a street, you’re doing a simplistic version of what’s called “threat modeling.”
Threat modeling is something we do thousands of times per day, whether we think about it or not. We are experts in assessing potential immediate risks to ourselves. We choose to walk on populated, well-lit streets rather than in dark alleys. We put on seat belts when we take a trip in a car. We avoid eating spoiled food that might make us sick.
I work in information security and think about threat modeling often. Threats change quickly, so I ask three basic questions when considering risk:
- What’s the value of the asset I’m trying to protect?
- Where is this asset most vulnerable to attack?
- What are the most relevant threats?
In the context of our daily lives, the “asset” is exactly that: your life and overall health. Our health is vulnerable in many ways, and we handle threats as they present themselves and put ourselves in positions to reduce risk. Despite the low chances of being in a car crash, we still put on our seat belts to reduce the chances of severe injury or death in the event of one. We eat well and exercise to avoid heart disease and other health-related problems.
Our Defining Problem: Climate Change
While those things are important in our day-to-day lives, we face longer-term threats too. What’s the threat model of Planet Earth? In recent history, nuclear war was the primary threat to civilization. The Doomsday Clock is currently set at two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s ever been since 1953, when nuclear war seemed like a near-certainty.
Unlike the prospect of nuclear war, climate change is a “tragedy of the commons” situation. We’ve been historically bad at countering these sorts of threats (see: overfishing, pollution, water usage, etc.). But we’ve never been more connected than we are today. Although it can feel hopeless at the federal level, we are in a position to be heard and influence policy in a way we never have been before.
We have one planet, and collective human action will decide if we get to keep living on it. It’s time to start centering our lives around how we protect humanity’s future on this planet.
A Green New (Local) Deal
Within the context of climate change, can we say that the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve spent on projects like I-35W construction are making us safer or putting us at risk? What if we put that money into public transit to get people out of cars?
The costs of inaction are high as well. Every day we go without a gas tax, SWLRT, or an expansion of bus rapid-transit (BRT), we kick the can further down the road. As your doctor will tell you, years of inactivity can lead to hardening of the arteries. Climate change is the same kind of long term threat. By the time you’re facing the consequences, it’s often too late to make the healthy decisions that would have saved your life 10 or 20 years earlier.
What steps can we take? The local level is one of the best places to create change. Neighbors For More Neighbors helped shape the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan to advocate for land-use policies that help to combat climate change. Now leaders in other cities are looking to follow the Minneapolis example. Let’s not underestimate the power of our example to other cities.
Is reducing parking requirements going to save the planet? No. Is allowing triplexes going to save the planet? No. But those things create a city that allows more people to live a lifestyle that’s less reliant on cars. That means less sprawl, a lower carbon footprint for our region, and an opportunity to imagine what a city less dependent on cars can look like.
We can’t wait for national or international action to fight climate change. The stakes are too high and the impacts are coming, albeit slowly. We must make changes at the local level too. Local changes that seem inconvenient now become downright impossible later. We can’t let “too little too late” become a part of the narrative. There’s no better place than the local level to make our region a model for the future.