Breakingviews - Cox: Imagine the end of the oil supertanker era

PARIS (Reuters Breakingviews) - Imagine an oil supertanker. Not where it’s usually visible, on the watery horizons of the world’s great harbor cities, but instead standing up vertically from the sea. The longest of these would reach some 1,000 feet into the sky – higher than the Eiffel Tower and nearly level with the Empire State Building. It would be unmissable.

Dustin Yellin arrives at the Statue Of Liberty Museum Opening Celebration at Battery Park in New York, U.S., May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Demetrius Freeman

That’s what Dustin Yellin is hoping. The Brooklyn artist is embarking on what might be the most ambitious and symbolically significant sculpture in history. “The Bridge”, as he calls it, would be a striking reminder that mankind must soon bring the hydrocarbon era to a close, or potentially risk extinction. By literally upending the most tangible instrument of the fossil-fuel economy Yellin wants to erect a visionary monument as a beacon of hope for humanity’s greatest ambition: survival.

The artist's rendering of "The Bridge". Handout via REUTERS

It won’t come cheap. And it would require an extraordinary feat of engineering: No crane in the world, for example, can lift a 50,000 tonne object. It will also need a willing host – ideally a coastal city that shares Yellin’s vision to thwart the rise of earthly temperatures. Given the threat that bloating sea levels pose to so many metropolises, there may be a long list of takers. But the requisite approvals, regulations, air and water traffic considerations still make it a tall order.

“Global warming is so real and yet super difficult for people to get their heads around, so we thought of ways to picture it”, Yellin told me recently while giving a tour of his Red Hook studio. After Superstorm Sandy inundated the neighborhood with five feet of water in 2012, “I was watching boats sail by Lady Liberty and I imagined myself just picking one up with my little finger and turning it upright. Not only would you have this incredible sculpture, it would amplify the urgency.”

A rendering of what "The Bridge" will look like. Handout via REUTERS

Yellin is a celebrity in New York’s art world, known for three-dimensional artworks in glass and resin which recall the apocalyptic sprawl of Hieronymus Bosch, but offer some semblance of hope that humans can reverse the pace of environmental collapse. He also founded Pioneer Works, a non-profit art and performance space housed in a Civil War-era brick warehouse down the street from his studio. Its annual gala last month attracted boldfaced names from the borough, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Leaders in the energy patch or big business might not know Yellin. But billionaires fretting about a coming climate catastrophe like Jeremy Grantham, Tom Steyer, Elon Musk or Bill Gates should take notice of his project. Supporting a piece of art on this scale is potentially a way for them to persuade the public to focus on what scientists predict is an imminent global climate emergency. Without voters caring, politicians will be unlikely to act.

How the "The Bridge" compares to other landmarks around the world. Handout via REUTERS (New image corrects error in illustration)

Yellin knows it won’t be easy, but the 43-year-old autodidact is undeterred. And he has enlisted what he dubs “thought partners” to the undertaking, including Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, a designer of the 2 World Trade Center skyscraper in Manhattan, and Arup, the British engineering and design shop whose eponymous founder helped build the Sydney Opera House.

Yellin demurs on the project’s estimated costs at this early stage. He envisions an observation deck and roof garden on what would have been the decommissioned supertanker’s bridge, as well as lifts, hanging gardens, a waterfall, wind turbine and series of internal ramps from which visitors would descend, on foot or by scooter, past art and other installations.

If the project helps galvanize attention to the perils of global warming, the payoff would certainly dwarf the cost of inaction. There is a better than 50% chance that unchecked climate change would result in a 20% cut to global output by the end of this century, notes David Wallace-Wells in “The Uninhabitable Earth”, a book that Yellin exhorted the attendees of Pioneer Works’ recent fundraiser to read.

Yellin is confident “The Bridge” will become a self-sustaining, world-class tourist attraction throwing off cash for conservation and other projects. The Statue of Liberty receives around 4.5 million visitors a year, bringing in some $260 million of revenue, according to the National Park Service. Even if it attracted half as many tourists paying $30 apiece, “The Bridge” would bag about $70 million.

Profits would help fund education and other initiatives, including a didactic lobby that visitors must pass through showcasing in real time the science of climate change, such as the acidification of oceans and destruction of coral reefs. “You could be a climate denier or a flat-earther and still want to go to the top of ‘The Bridge’ because it’s so cool”, Yellin said. A climate clock would tick backwards to show how dollars spent on a ticket help combat global warming.

For the moment, Yellin has focused on finding a waterfront home in New York City for “The Bridge”. But he points to other cities with sufficient tourist traffic to make it economically viable and parts of which could be under water in the next 50 years if nothing is done. These include Miami, Los Angeles, London, Oslo and Hong Kong.

For big-city mayors, building “The Bridge” may not have quite the same short-term economic lift as, say, attracting a new Amazon headquarters. But if Yellin is successful, and the world pays sufficient attention to his audacious bid, the impact will be greater – even existential.


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