The Politics and Cost of Adapting to Climate Change in New York


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Last week the New York Times reports on a series of studies currently underway by the United States Corps of Engineers on projects designed to protect this region from flood waters. One proposal is for a six-mile-long seawall that would cost around $ 120 billion and take more than two decades to build. A recent play by Anne Barnard in the New York Times discussed controversy over flood control options studied by the Corps and discussed the mixed record of massive flood control infrastructure projects around the world.

The New York area has seen a number of studies and implemented a series of flood control projects since Hurricane Sandy. Reconstructed metro tunnels, restored beaches, reinforced boardwalks and hospitals, renovated office buildings and residences have all been built to withstand flooding and other natural disasters. But there is both controversy and more than a little confusion over what to do and how much we should spend. As the need for climate adaptation is increasingly evident, the urgency felt immediately after the retreat of Hurricane Sandy. As Barnard reports:

“The barrier debate comes as New York City continues to struggle to respond to Sandy, and the greater need to carefully reshape an entire region’s infrastructure to adapt to climate change. Seven years since the storm, the storm has killed 72 people and caused $ 62 billion in damage, agencies have only spent 54% of the $ 14.7 billion allocated by the to help the city recover and prepare for new storms. “

Faced with other pressing political issues such as public education, homelessness, public transport, and the slow and complex transition to a carbon-free energy system, it is no surprise that it has been difficult to find a solution. consensus around climate adaptation measures. There is uncertainty about the environmental future for which we are building infrastructure. I think sometimes we all just wait for the other shoe to drop as we anticipate a second super storm hitting the area. We watch wildfires in California and Australia, flooding in the Midwest, and hurricanes in the Caribbean, but we breathe a little sigh of relief when we realize the New York area has remained disaster-free since Sandy. The political impact of another Sandy-type storm would be significant, as would the human misery of such a catastrophe. The dike proposal deserves real consideration rather than last weekend’s instant sacking by President Trump who tweeted to New Yorkers; “Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops and buckets ready!” It took more than mops and buckets to drain five feet of water from homes after Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, other elected officials are taking climate adaptation more seriously.

Last May, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an excellent report on climate adaptation titled: Protecting Our Coasts — Protecting New York City’s Coastal Communities From Climate Change. The report examines the pace of climate adaptation work and concludes that:

“Meeting the challenge of climate change requires all available resources. Research shows that every dollar of federal grant spent on flood mitigation can save $ 6 in future disaster costs. It must be recognized that the implementation of complex resilience projects requires a lot of care and time. The City was also forced to navigate heaps of red tape imposed by federal agencies. However, given the urgency to prepare for the next storm, every level of government must do everything possible to ensure that these federal dollars are used to protect New York City. “

The Stringer team recognized the complexity of resilience work and the need for careful analysis and stakeholder engagement. They also recognized the bureaucratic demands of doing anything at one level of government with resources from another level. New York City has enough trouble building anything when it only needs to deal with its own bureaucratic processes, but adding state and federal rules to the mix certainly doesn’t make it any easier. .

Given the amount of greenhouse gases we have released into the atmosphere, it is clear that it is too late to fully mitigate and prevent global warming. The planet is heating up. The past decade has been the hottest ever. As Henry Fountain and Nadja Popovich pointed out in the New York Times Last week:

“The past decade has been the hottest on record, government researchers said on Wednesday,” the latest sign of the grip of global warming on the planet. And 2019 was the second hottest year on record, they said. reported, just below the record set in 2016. Analyzes by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shown that last year’s global average surface temperatures were nearly 1 degree Celsius (1 , 8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mid-last century average, in large part due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. This warming means the world is far away to achieve the objectives set to combat climate change.

Despite the facts of global warming, we cannot accurately predict the impact of this heat and its effect on extreme weather conditions or sea level rise. Investing hundreds of billions of dollars is difficult in the face of this. uncertainty. From a political point of view, the generation of income for climate adaptation must compete with the demands and the much more certain investment costs in public transport, housing, health care, education, preservation of a drinking water supply and the transition to renewable energies. It bothers me to say this, but the same dollar we could spend on a sea barrier could be spent on solar cells, micro-grids, batteries and electric vehicle charging stations. No one wants to pit climate change mitigation against climate change adaptation, but capital budgets are the ultimate zero-sum game. You can’t spend the same dollar twice.

The only difference is that we are already spending a lot of money on fossil fuels, so as renewable energy demonstrates its profitability, it will provide a source of revenue for the infrastructure it needs. Climate adaptation does not have such an advantage. Its financial benefit comes from lower costs due to less flood damage: more difficult to monetize. It is likely that the government will not pay for mitigation or adaptation. We have learned over the past decades that despite much rhetoric about the need to invest a trillion dollars in America’s decaying infrastructure, infrastructure policy is a case study of this nation’s political paralysis.

Unfortunately, the only thing that breaks the political deadlock is disaster, and although we cannot predict the shape of climate impacts, we can predict the high probability of a disaster. Stringer Controller Report outlines a number of steps New York could take to prepare for impacts, including:

  1. Accelerate the pace of investments in resilience projects.
  2. Development of a comprehensive coastal resilience plan.
  3. Expand optional home buyback programs for flood-prone neighborhoods.
  4. Increase access to low cost resilience loans for home and business owners in vulnerable areas who do not want to relocate.
  5. Develop new sources of income for resilience projects by levying a surcharge on insurance policies.
  6. Improve the “Build it Back Model” for rebuilding houses to prepare for future storms.

These are all reasonable ideas that were formulated last May and, six months later, are nowhere on the political agenda. Since the Controller is running for mayor, his political rivals are unlikely to support Stringer’s proposals. The current mayor and his team are probably resenting the implicit criticisms of the report, but to paraphrase Mayor LaGuardia, there is no Democratic or Republican way to protect us from the next flood. New Yorkers must develop and support a plan to adapt the city to .

New York City has approximately 600 miles of coastline with varied topography ranging from the Washington Hills and Morningside Heights to the near sea-level sands of Coney Island and Rockaway Beach. No one has ever estimated our total investment in the city’s transportation, power, water and sewer infrastructure, but it’s certainly worth spending hundreds of billions of dollars to protect. While some coastal communities might consider a limited and “managed” retirement, there is no way the city’s eight million plus residents are moving away. And of course, New York is far from alone. Most of the world’s cities are coastal. Climate adaptation requires national and local solutions. Hurricane Sandy put this issue on New York’s political agenda. We do not know either what could put it on our national agenda, but it is cheaper to anticipate and avoid a disaster than to recover from it.

Recommendations for the creation of a department of sustainability and climate change in New York

Provided by Earth Institute, Columbia University

This story is republished courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University

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