Protecting New York City from the Impact of Climate Change
Hurricanes Henri and Ida didn’t directly hit New York City, but both left us soaking wet. Ida’s rain was so intense that the city experienced a deadly flash flood. This was extreme weather without the impact of sea level rise, but still, our subways became inundated, and people died in basement apartments. Our pathetic Mayor blamed the weather forecasters and tried to kick the can down the road once again. While funds are available and plans have been developed, what’s been missing in New York City government has been a sense of urgency about climate adaptation. A city with about 600 miles of coastline, billions if not trillions of dollars of infrastructure and built environment is a sitting duck for damage from extreme weather events. We need to get on a wartime footing and focus massive attention on protecting our city from wind, heat, cold and water. While my focus here is on the five boroughs of New York City, this is a regional problem that will require solutions coordinated across political jurisdictions.
During the Blitz of London in World War II, residents knew that as soon as the air-raid sirens sounded, it was time to rapidly head for shelter. Last week, many of us heard our cellphones wail during the storm, but none of us knew what to do or what the sound meant. So, the first line of defense against extreme weather is to educate the public about what to do when floods, winds, heat, or blizzards are coming or have arrived. A more sophisticated system of warning should be developed using GPS and other tools that give specific instructions to the public in specific locations. Police and other first responders should develop and implement mobilization plans to be put in place when weather emergencies are predicted. Some of this already exists. Clearly, more is needed.
Next, we need to develop a system to improve the maintenance of our drainage system. The garbage that accumulates on sewer grates must be cleaned regularly. Other potential stormwater blockage points must also be cleared with greater frequency. Third, we need to improve the city’s drainage system. Too much of the city consists of impermeable surfaces, and more green infrastructure is needed. Of course, this past month, there has been so much rain that even the ground was saturated. There is a limit to what green infrastructure can accomplish. That means that holding tanks and pumps must be designed and installed throughout the city. A multi-billion-dollar five borough drainage system must be constructed. Just as the city built a massive water system and a mass transit system in the 20th century, we must improve those older pieces of infrastructure to cope with 21st-century challenges, and we must build a system and set of engineered structures of wetlands, green spaces, dunes, sea walls, pipes, and pumps to keep our shorelines and streets from flooding and to ensure that sewage is treated before released into our waterways.
Some of my Earth Institute colleagues have been discussing the need for a managed retreat from our climate-vulnerable places. There are certainly some homes that should be abandoned because they are doomed to flooding from sea level rise. But that is a rare exception, not a norm. If water was the only danger we face, retreat might make sense, but we also need to confront winds and forest fires. Where would we retreat to? Higher elevations often have streams and forests, and they are vulnerable to drought-induced forest fires and storm-induced floods. In any case, New York City is too valuable to abandon. Our communities are priceless, and our built environment is worth more money than we can afford to lose. For New York City, our approach can best be summarized by the words of Bruce Springsteen: “No retreat…no surrender”. We have nowhere to go anyway.
While we invest massive resources to adapt to climate change, we must also work to mitigate its causes. We need to decarbonize New York City and then export our technologies, policies, and organizational capacities to other cities in the world to help them reduce greenhouse gasses. Climate change is a problem that is created everywhere and cannot be addressed by any single nation or community. Humanity is in this together. COVID-19 has demonstrated the interconnectedness of our global society and our need to combat shared threats together. Climate change is a similar problem.
COVID-19 can be fought with vaccines and new treatments now under development. These must be shared globally, and if this virus is to be brought under control, rich nations must pay for vaccines and treatments for poor nations. Climate change can be fought with renewable energy and rapidly developing technology for generating and storing energy. This too must be shared with the developing world, and nations like China must resist the temptation to fund coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuel technologies in the developing world. Climate change must be addressed globally- by everyone.
But climate adaptation can and must be addressed locally. New York City is an expensive place to live, but we New Yorkers put up with the cost because we are addicted to the city. We love the pace, the diversity, the energy, and the craziness. It is a place where great ideas, art, technologies, and wealth are created and now some of that wealth must be spent on defense from the extreme weather that has clearly begun and will get worse before it gets better. But we need new and innovative ideas to address the problem of climate adaptation.
Our new mayor should recruit the most creative engineers at New York City’s universities and professional engineering firms to come up with some innovative, cost-effective ideas to address these growing threats. Some ideas and plans were already developed during the post-Sandy period when the problem was high on the political agenda. Those ideas and new ones must be brought together with a greater sense of urgency than the current Mayor devoted to climate adaptation. In addition to an engineering plan, we need a financial plan that identifies dedicated revenues to fund what will need to be a project that will take at least a decade to complete. Let’s enlist some of the city’s great financial minds to the task of developing a realistic business plan to design, construct and maintain our system of climate protection.
In the mid-1970s, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, and then-Governor Hugh Carey brought together the unions, Wall Street, real estate developers and elected officials to develop a city-saving financial plan. Everyone worked together, and within a decade, the city was on a sound financial footing. We need Erik Adams to bring key stakeholders together to figure this out. He must appoint and empower a highly visible “Climate Czar” to lead the effort at both decarbonization and climate adaptation. New York City has the brainpower to solve this problem. It can find the money to build whatever we need. The missing element is political leadership and a deep commitment to keeping climate adaptation near the top of the political agenda throughout the next decade.
The alternative is more disruption, destruction, and death. Just as property owners pay periodic bills for water and sewage treatment, I’d be surprised if a user-based tax structure couldn’t emerge here. Climate adaptation is expensive, and the money will not fall from the sky along with the rain. The city has many problems: homelessness, poverty, crime, and education, to name a few. But none of those problems can be addressed if we are literally underwater. The past few weeks were just a sample of what is likely to come. The climate crisis and the extreme weather it brings will get worse before it gets better, and New York City’s very survival depends on our ability to finally respond to the climate adaptation crisis before us.