State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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The Urgency Of Adapting To Climate Change

We are near the merciful culmination of an endless process of electing an American president and, despite the noise and nastiness of this exercise in political dysfunction, the candidates have spoken very little about climate change and the urgent issue of adapting to the warmer planet we are already experiencing. Since I’m a political scientist I understand that issues only get raised during campaigns when they help win votes, and everyone already knows what Hilary and Donald think about climate change; he thinks it’s a hoax and she knows it’s real. So what do we campaign about? Let’s talk about e-mail, tax avoidance, misogyny and Bill’s philandering. It makes you long for, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

I can suggest two other things our country can do: mitigate climate change to prevent it from getting worse, and adapt to a warmer planet so we can continue to live in the coastal cities that most of us call home. And at a university such as the one I work at, I can think of two other things we can do: conduct research on the science and policy of climate change and teach people what we are learning.

Last week, here in northern Manhattan, we taught and learned about climate change together. Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the master’s program in Environmental Science and Policy held a panel discussion focused on how New York City – and other cities like it – can take steps to become stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change. I had the honor of moderating a panel of experts, including Curtis Cravens of New York City’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, and my Columbia colleagues, Professor of Engineering George Deodatis, urban design Professor Kate Orff, and environmental science Professor Adam Sobel. We spent a fascinating hour discussing NYC’s efforts to adapt to climate change in the years since Superstorm Sandy.

The politics of climate change is tough. Unlike toxics or water pollution, climate change is a global problem that is caused everywhere and much of the impact will take place in the future. However, we are learning that some climate impacts have already arrived and are local. As my colleague Adam Sobel has found, the need to adapt to the current impact of climate change is becoming more and more obvious in many cities, largely through extreme weather events. And no matter how much we hear that we should be abandoning the coast, the fact is there is a human dimension to climate adaptation that needs to be factored into resiliency planning and programs. People value their homes and are often emotionally attached to their communities, which means they won’t abandon them. In some cases we may have no choice, but in most cases we will take the steps needed to preserve our homes and communities.

New York City is devoting significant resources to adapting to the impact of climate change, but no one is minimizing the threat. According to New York City’s website:

“The impacts of Hurricane Sandy represented only a fraction of the climate change risks New York City could face in the future. Beyond storms, the city is particularly vulnerable to heat waves, heavy downpours, and severe drought. In 2013, the New York City Panel on Climate Change produced updated, peer-reviewed, local projections for climate change detailing these risks. Heat waves in New York City will be increasingly severe due to the dense built environment and the urban heat island effect that causes temperatures in New York City to be up to seven degrees warmer than in surrounding areas. Additionally, studies show that we may see as much as 30 inches of sea level rise and twice the number of residents (up to 800,000) living in the 100-year-floodplain by the 2050s.”

Fortunately there are many real, positive steps cities are taking to increase resiliency to extreme weather events. Cities are updating building codes, developing and implementing climate adaptation plans, building micro-grids to provide more efficient and effective energy systems, working with community groups and taking many other actions that indicate they know that climate adaptation is a slow, simmering, serious crisis. New York City has begun to implement a resiliency plan that will cost at least $20 billion before the current phase is completed. In last week’s discussion at Columbia we spoke about many aspects of climate change and resiliency, including what strategies are most effective for resiliency planning, how we can be most cost effective in our efforts, and what we can be doing differently to make our communities and infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

The process of planning and constructing upgrades to the city’s infrastructure and shoreline is complex and time consuming, but it is well underway. The effort to protect the city from future climate impacts was begun under Mayor Bloomberg and has continued without interruption by his successor. Climate adaptation has not seen the political positioning and posturing we have seen from Mayor de Blasio’s team in many other areas. This is local government in New York at its best: the city has tapped into some of its most talented public servants, designers, engineers, and academics and has worked hard to craft a set of plans that may enable the survival of the costal place we call home.

New York City’s progress stands in sharp contrast to the inactivity in southern Florida, a state where educators have been warned to avoid discussing climate change in their classrooms. According a report earlier this year by the Center for American Progress:

“In Miami-Dade—the United States’ seventh most populous county—the symptoms of climate change are undeniable. The sea level has risen about a foot since the pre-industrial days of the 1870s, and the increase is expected to accelerate in coming years, with projections of up to 6.8 feet sea level rise by 2100. Flooded streets are becoming routine even on sunny days, triggered not by extreme storms but by high tide. Rising seas will exacerbate the impact of hurricanes, which remain ever-present threats. The number of days with temperatures higher than 95 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida and other Southeastern states has steadily increased since 1970, putting the health of residents at risk. These dangerous climate change effects pack the hardest punch in the county’s sizeable low-income communities, which lack the economic stability and quality housing to safely weather the stifling heat and flooding that are part of the new normal. Despite these risks, a majority of residents and leaders in Miami-Dade are just starting to consider building resilience to the consequences of climate change.”

While I am hopeful that we can make the transition to a renewable resource-based economy and avoid some of the climate impacts now projected, we have already started to see some of the effects of a warmer world. We need to take these impacts seriously and start to plan for them now. For the past decade or so, many cities have taken climate adaptation planning seriously. According to Mary Gallucci of Inside Climate News, three years ago:

“Roughly 20 percent of cities around the globe have developed adaptation strategies, according to a 2011 estimate by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the United States, city, county and state governments have developed more than 100 adaptation plans, a separate count by the Georgetown Climate Center found.”

While ideologues continue to deny the reality of climate change, local governments do not have the luxury of indulging in the Tea Party and Koch Brothers’ favorite environmental fantasy. The impacts are real. The planet’s seven billion plus people and their machines are heating up the planet. We don’t need to shut down the economy, but we need to learn to run it without burning the place down or floating away in floodwaters. November 9th is less than a month away. Soon we’ll know who our new president will be. She should start by encouraging cities to adapt to the climate change already baked in, and then continue by building the renewable energy economy we all know must come. We’ve already wasted enough time. Let’s get to work.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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