State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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

This past week, the New York Times reported on a set of studies now underway by the U.S. Corps of Engineers of projects designed to protect this region from floodwaters. One proposal is for a six-mile-long sea wall that would cost around $120 billion and take over two decades to build. A recent piece by Anne Barnard in the New York Times discussed the controversy about the flood control options being studied by the Corps and discussed the mixed record of massive flood control infrastructure projects throughout the world.

The New York region has seen a number of studies and implemented a range of flood control projects since Hurricane Sandy. Reconstructed subway tunnels, restored beaches, reinforced boardwalks and hospitals, renovated office buildings and residences have all been built to withstand floods and other natural disasters. But there is both controversy and more than a little confusion about what to do and how much we should spend. While the necessity of climate adaptation is increasingly obvious the urgency felt immediately after Hurricane Sandy has receded. As Barnard reports:

The barrier debate comes as New York City is still struggling to respond to Sandy, and the larger need to carefully reshape an entire region’s infrastructure to adapt to climate change. In the more than seven years since the storm killed 72 people and caused $62 billion in damage, agencies have spent just 54 percent of the $14.7 billion allocated by the federal government to help the city recover and prepare for new storms.”

In the face of other pressing policy problems such as public education, homelessness, mass transit and the slow and complex transition to a decarbonized energy system, it is not surprising that it has been difficult to develop consensus around climate adaptation measures. There is uncertainty about the environmental future we are building infrastructure for. I think sometimes we are all waiting for the other shoe to drop as we anticipate a second superstorm hitting the region. We watch forest fires in California and Australia, floods in the Midwest and hurricanes throughout the Caribbean but breathe a small sigh of relief realizing that the New York region has remained disaster-free since Sandy. The political impact of another Sandy-like storm would be large, as would the human misery of such a disaster.  The sea wall proposal deserves real consideration rather than last weekend’s instant dismissal from President Trump who tweeted to New Yorkers; “Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & 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 issued an excellent report on climate adaptation entitled: Safeguarding our Shores – Protecting New York City’s Coastal Communities from Climate Change. The report discusses the pace of climate adaptation work and concludes that:

Meeting the challenge of climate change requires all available resources. Research shows that every federal grant dollar dedicated towards flood mitigation can save $6 in future disaster costs. It should be acknowledged that implementation of complex resiliency projects work requires significant care and time. The City has also been compelled to navigate reams of red tape imposed by federal agencies. However, given the urgency of preparing for the next storm, each level of government must make every effort to ensure these federal dollars are put to work protecting New York City.”

Stringer’s team acknowledged the complexity of resiliency work and the need for careful analysis and stakeholder engagement. They also recognized the bureaucratic requirements of doing anything in one level of government with resources from another level. New York City has enough difficulty building anything when they only need to address their own bureaucratic processes, but adding state and federal rules to the mix certainly doesn’t simplify things.

Given the amount of greenhouse gasses we have baked into the atmosphere, it’s clear that it is too late to fully mitigate and prevent global warming. The planet is heating up. The last decade was the hottest ever. As Henry Fountain and Nadja Popovich reported in the New York Times last week:

The past decade was the hottest on record, government researchers announced on Wednesday, the latest sign of global warming’s grip on the planet. And 2019 was the second-warmest year ever, they said, just shy of the record set in 2016. Analyses by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that global average surface temperatures last year were nearly 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the average from the middle of last century, caused in large part by emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels. That much warming means the world is far from meeting goals set to combat climate change.

Despite the facts of global warming, we cannot precisely predict the impact of this heat and its effect on extreme weather or sea level rise. Investing hundreds of billions of dollars is difficult in the face of this uncertainty. From a political perspective, generating the revenues for climate adaptation must compete with the far more certain demands and costs of investment in mass transit, housing, health care, education, preserving a clean water supply and transitioning to renewable energy. It troubles me to say this but the same dollar we might spend on a sea barrier could be spent on solar cells, microgrids, batteries and electric vehicle charging stations. No one wants to pit climate mitigation against climate adaptation, but capital budgets are the ultimate zero-sum game. You can’t spend the same dollar twice.

The one difference is that we are already spending plenty of money on fossil fuels, so as renewable energy demonstrates its cost effectiveness, it will provide a revenue stream for the infrastructure it requires. Climate adaptation has no such advantage. Its financial benefit comes from lower costs due to less flood damage: harder to monetize.  It’s likely that government won’t front the money for either mitigation or adaptation. We have learned over the past several decades that despite lots of rhetoric about the need to invest a trillion dollars in America’s decaying infrastructure, the politics of infrastructure is a case study of this nation’s political paralysis.

Sadly, the one thing that breaks political gridlock is disaster, and while we can’t predict the shape of climate impacts we can predict the high probability of disaster. Comptroller Stringer’s report outlines a number of steps that New York could take to prepare for climate impacts, including:

1.    Accelerating the pace of investment in resiliency projects.

2.    Developing a Comprehensive Coastal Resiliency Plan.

3.    Expanding optional home buyout programs for flood prone neighborhoods.

4.    Increasing access to low-cost resiliency loans for home and business owners in vulnerable areas who do not want to move.

5.    Developing new revenue sources for resiliency projects by levying a surcharge on insurance policies.

6.    Improving the “Build it Back Model” for home reconstruction to prepare for future storms.


These are all reasonable ideas that were articulated last May and six months later are nowhere to be found on the political agenda. Since the Comptroller is running for Mayor it’s unlikely his political rivals are going to support Stringer’s proposals. The current Mayor and his team probably resent the report’s implied criticism, but to paraphrase Mayor LaGuardia there is no Democratic or Republican way to protect us from the next flood. New Yorkers need to develop and support a plan to adapt the city to climate change.

New York City has about 600 miles of coastline with a varied topography ranging from the hills of Washington 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 transport, power, water and sewage infrastructure but it is certainly worth spending hundreds of billion dollars to protect. While some shore communities might consider a limited and “managed” retreat, there is no way that the city’s eight million plus population is going to move away. And of course, New York is far from alone. Most of the world’s cities are coastal. Climate adaptation requires national as well as local solutions. Hurricane Sandy placed this issue on New York’s political agenda. It’s not clear what might place it on our national agenda as well, but it’s less costly to anticipate and avoid disaster than recover from it.

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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