State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Adapting to our Warming Planet Despite our Dysfunctional Congress

I’ve lived in New York City a long time, and I’ve never seen rainfall like all New Yorkers saw last Friday morning. The duration and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing due to the impact of global warming on our oceans and atmosphere. Until we complete the transition from fossil fuels, this will continue to get worse. That transition has begun, but it will not happen rapidly. One reason for the gradual transition is the sheer scale of the change that is required and our need to ensure that energy supplies are not interrupted. Our economy and way of life depend on energy. The computer I am writing this on and the website you are reading this on are not powered by magic: they largely run on fossil fuels. Another reason for the gradual transition is the self-interest and even greed of people who own fossil fuel companies and the politicos who live off of their donations. Nevertheless, even if these folks realized that they were in a dying business and started investing in renewable energy, it would still take a long time to get from here to there.

In the meantime, we need to invest in infrastructure and other measures that will enable human settlements to withstand the impact of extreme weather and recover and rebuild the damage that inevitably comes. Right now, Joe Biden just managed to get Congress to appropriate an extra sixteen billion dollars to help people in Maui and Florida recover from recent extreme weather disasters. Over the weekend, Congress passed a life raft that kept the government open for 45 days and kicked the budget can down the road a bit. The radical ideologues disrupting the House of Representatives tried but ultimately failed to block emergency aid and all other federal funds and, over the next 45 days, will continue working to reduce government spending and the federal deficit. I have bad news for them. We need to spend more money than we are now spending if we are to adapt to climate change, and that means we will need to (dare I say) raise taxes to do that. I agree that the deficit is too high, but I also believe that taxes are too low—especially for the many wealthy people and corporations who pay little or no taxes to the federal government. Moreover, we need more government, not less, if we are to adapt to global warming.

Emergency allocations for disaster relief are now a fact of life in the federal budget, and they are only going to grow in the coming years. This often delayed and uncertain funding directly causes human misery. We need to routinize the revenues and expenditures for reconstruction. This cannot be subject to the whims of the preening politicians in Washington, D.C. Since the number of people now experiencing extreme weather events in the U.S. continues to grow, I suspect that even these ideological legislative media hounds will figure out that the public is demanding action rather than delay—and reconstruction is expensive. Climate-induced disasters are already disrupting the insurance industry as they raise rates in many places and refuse to sell insurance in localities too prone to risk. We need a federally guaranteed insurance system to ensure that families and businesses can rebuild after an extreme weather event. People should pay for this insurance, but it must be affordable and may need to be subsidized.

Beyond the endangered insurance market, we also need to rethink our public infrastructure. Here in New York City, where long ago we destroyed our plentiful sources of groundwater, city leaders over a century ago spent enormous amounts of public money to build reservoirs north of the city and pipe clean water down to the five boroughs. Even today, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to patrol the areas surrounding the reservoirs and pay locals to keep toxics away from our water supply. Additional millions are devoted each year to retiring the debt of the third water tunnel and other long-term water-related capital projects. We also spent billions of dollars building a sewer and sewage treatment system to carry waste and water from our homes and streets and return it (hopefully in clean condition) back into our surrounding waterways. It is that system that failed New Yorkers last Friday as the speed, duration, and amount of rain exceeded the system’s capacity. According to Patrick McGeehan and Hilary Howard of the New York Times:

“All drainage systems have their limitations and New York City’s is 1.75 inches of rainfall per hour. Unfortunately for many New Yorkers, the storm that deluged the region on Friday dropped more than two inches between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. — and then kept on coming. The limit on the capacity of the city’s network of drains, pipes and water-treatment plants is the main reason New Yorkers across all five boroughs suffered through flooding. And this probably will not be the city’s last bout with heavy flooding as it plays catch-up with the pace of climate change, experts said… The rush-hour downpour on Friday overwhelmed the 7,400 miles of pipes that carry storm water and sewage under the city’s hard surfaces to treatment plants or into the nearest rivers and bays. The runoff backed up into the streets, causing flooding that swamped cars and seeped into basements and subway stations in Brooklyn and Queens.”

There have been efforts to construct green infrastructure as well as holding tanks to absorb water, but clearly, a far more massive effort is needed here. The issue, of course, is how do we pay for it? When the storm passes and the flood water recedes, we seem to develop storm amnesia and forget about the floods and destruction. Like other public policy problems, climate adaptation competes for attention and resources and will only result in action when the impacts are too widespread to ignore. Friday’s flooding will need to get worse and happen more often before crisis-sized funding becomes a priority.

At least New York City has the benefit of leaders who do not deny that climate change exists and that these events are a direct outcome of our warming planet. People in Florida are not even allowed to discuss climate change, and their elected leaders refuse to see that this is a problem that will only persist and get worse. Florida’s low taxes attract migrants and have resulted in development in areas that once were sparsely settled. Now, more and more people are in the pathways of destruction, and the hurricanes are getting stronger and more frequent.

As I have written many times in the past, the problem of climate adaptation is national in scope and requires federal resources. A location may avoid impacts for a decade but then will get slammed. If we all pay into a single reconstruction and infrastructure fund, we can systematically enhance our resiliency and routinely reconstruct our homes and communities when they are damaged. I recognize that this proposal is politically infeasible. We have a House of Representatives constantly disrupted by a radical minority that does not see the value of a functioning national government. While we narrowly avoided a government shutdown this past weekend, these fanatics have not completed their attack on our institutions. In a world as complicated and crowded as the one we live in, these folks are more interested in undermining our institutions than addressing our real and urgent problems. Fortunately, politics operates in cycles, and younger voters across the political spectrum seem to understand that we are in a climate crisis and will eventually take over from the folks now running the place.

Here in New York City, Friday morning was another scary taste of the impact of our warming planet. Our elected leaders understand the issue, but it must compete for resources with our combined crises of immigration, homelessness, crime, housing, and poverty. Unlike some parts of America, New York City probably has the resource base to build a more resilient and sustainable city without federal assistance. New York City’s wealth and dynamism came from our historic willingness to invest in water, sewage treatment, ports, roads, bridges, mass transit, and energy. But things will have to get a whole lot worse before we invest the billions needed to weatherproof New York City. While we may not have developed the political will needed to focus on resiliency, a few more mornings like last Friday might convince us that we have no choice.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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