A New York Response to Climate Change

Resilience, Renovation, and the Green Dividend

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The Challenge

Climate change represents an undeniable risk to continue to live as we are accustomed. Its primary cause — carbon based energy — is so pervasive in our daily lives that a serious response will be disruptive and expensive, but we must do it. If done smart and soon, the cost and dislocation will be far less than if we wait and respond only after catastrophes.

The positive impact of a smart response to climate change will be great. We will experience a cleaner and healthier environment, less death, disruption, and economic impact from extreme weather events when they occur, and fewer of them over time. We will also enjoy a green dividend in the form of new jobs in new industries that provide clean, renewable sources of energy.

Resilience

The Blizzard of 2010. Tropical Storm Irene and a week later Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 which devastated communities from the Catskills through the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys, and up to Keene Valley and Essex County. Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Each were dramatic and dangerous weather events. They are the sorts of things that are supposed to happen only once in 100 years, and yet New York State was pummeled three years in a row. Less dramatic but equally telling are many more recent events. In 2019, for example, flash flooding in Park Slope, Brooklyn left parked cars submerged underwater on some streets. Climate related catastrophes from Australia, to the Caribbean, to California make the global nature of the crisis clear.

Brooklyn post-Super Storm Sandy
Brooklyn post-Super Storm Sandy

Climate change is subjecting the world and New Yorkers to more extreme weather events more frequently than ever. New York State must respond by developing a resilient environment that protects the things we have built and the systems we rely on for 21st century lives.

Ninety percent of New Yorkers live in coastal regions along the Atlantic Ocean, the Hudson River, and the Great Lakes. Managing flood risk has taken on paramount importance. It requires a series of measures.

  • Flood maps created in the 1980s that went unrevised for thirty years must be kept up to date to show accurately the areas at risk in our changing environment. Policies to protect people and property from severe flooding must apply to zones that we now know are vulnerable.
  • The state should conduct a comprehensive inventory of locations at risk from sea level rise and flooding and work with local communities to develop plans for each.
  • Flood mitigation efforts should rely wherever possible on environmentally friendly solutions like barrier islands, dunes, and stable beaches, new and expanded tidal wetlands, living shorelines with salt-tolerant plantings that protect terrain, oyster reefs, and natural earthen berms and levees.
  • Power stations and transmission grids, transportation hubs and depots, and other vital infrastructure in flood zones must be hardened with man-made protections built to withstand the most severe events, or moved to safer locations.
  • Above ground electrical wires that can be knocked down by fallen trees during wind storms should be buried in casings that also protect them from salt and water damage.
  • Transit systems and tunnels must be protected from severe flooding. Lower Manhattan subway entrances that Super Storm Sandy flooded should be built up so they are comfortably above sea surge levels, and those stations must be hardened to protect them from salt water incursion and their drainage systems improved. Innovative inflatable technology exists that can seal tunnel entrances prior to major storms protecting critical routes that MetroNorth, the Long Island Railroad, and PATH rely on, and motor vehicle tunnels with connections to New Jersey, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as well.
  • JFK and LaGuardia Airports sit near sea level. Their runways and terminals must be raised and their infrastructure hardened. Regional airports in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, MacArthur Airport on Long Island and other airports elsewhere around the state must be assessed for resilience to extreme weather and steps taken to strengthen them where necessary.
  • Residential areas that cannot be protected from storm surge and sea level rise should be rezoned. New development should be constrained. Buy-out programs and land-swap arrangements like one that already exists in Suffolk County should be established to help residents and businesses move. The areas should then be converted into public space without structures that cannot withstand storms, or that can be easily and inexpensively rebuilt and repaired.
  • Emergency preparations for extreme weather conditions should ensure that a lifeline transportation network is protected and can be opened immediately after an event to bring essential goods into an affected region. Areas that cannot be reached by a lifeline network are candidates for public buy-outs. Residents of those locations should be made aware that in an emergency they are likely to be evacuated early.
  • In urban areas around the state more parks, and more trees planted in large swales are needed to absorb more rainwater. This will help control flooding and also reduce the urban heat island effect, the excess rise in temperature caused by acres of dense concrete roadways and sidewalks.
  • Combined sewers that channel storm and flood water through the same systems that remove solid waste must be upgraded to prevent release of biological contaminants during storms and floods. Use of catch basins that slow the pace of water flow, rooftop gardens, and permeable road surfaces should be expanded immediately. Separate systems for rain and flood water, and solid waste effluent should be installed as soon as practical. The state should work with local governments to create timelines for upgrades and programs for shared financing.
  • A rigorous assessment of the wisdom and practicality of a flood barrier across New York Harbor should be completed with strong federal support so a smart decision can be made about the possibility of building one, as other global cities at risk of severe sea surge flooding, like London and Singapore, have done.

Extreme heat is also occurring with greater frequency, and is the cause of more deaths than other weather related events. The elderly are especially at risk, and the proportion of New Yorkers over 65 is growing steadily and will soon account for more than a fifth of the population.

  • New York State should develop a comprehensive network of public and private places where residents can go when temperatures top ninety degrees to cool down. Local libraries and nursing homes, hospitals, major retail stores, state offices, town halls and other locations with adequate air conditioning should be integrated into a network of places people can rely on when health threatening heat occurs.

Renovation

Creating a more resilient built and natural environment to respond to the impact of climate change is an essential task, but it is not enough.

To reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, New York must undertake a dramatic renovation of the many systems it relies on to power everyday life. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 has set admirable goals — 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent clean energy by 2040 — but it is just words on a page until action is taken. The law established a commission to develop a plan. An urgent response is needed to make the commitment real.

New York State must take the lead working with utilities, local governments, and residents to effect a series of transitions.

  • Home and business heating systems must be converted from carbon fuel to electricity
  • Motor vehicles must be converted from gasoline and diesel to electricity
  • New York must create a 21st century rail freight system to reduce dramatically the worst-in-the-nation truck congestion and pollution in the Greater New York Metropolitan Region
  • Power generation must come from renewable sources, namely solar, wind, and hydroelectric, and not carbon fuels.

We will need to continue to rely on safe nuclear power for a time during the transition.

And, we will need to:

  • Replace our existing transmission and distribution grid designed to bring energy in one direction from power plants to users, with . . .
  • A smart system that can redistribute power from small micro-sources into a multi-directional grid, able to deliver power from multiple locations, to multiple locations. It must accommodate and promote micro-grids connected to major sources under normal conditions, but that can also operate independently with distributed sources of power in an emergency.

And,

  • Adopt peak load distribution strategies that rely on advanced technology and time-of-day sensitive rate structures for maximum efficiency.

And,

  • Replace gas stations with plug-in electric vehicle capacity, scaling the process rapidly by converting all state and local government owned vehicles to electric power within ten years. The state must also adopt programs to encourage businesses and families to convert to electric vehicles as well.

Building regulations in every locale around New York State must conform to state-of-the art energy efficiency rules, which should apply to major renovations as well.

Rigorous support must continue for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative among nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states which reduces carbon emissions through a mandatory cap-and-trade system on regional power plants. New York should consider expanding the initiative to include transportation and industry. Proposals to join with California and other jurisdictions to create a larger and more powerful cap-and-trade market should be explored.

New York State should adopt the New York League for Conservation Voters agenda for responding to climate change, promoting public health, protecting natural resources, supporting local agriculture, and ensuring generous funding for environmental issues.

The Green Dividend

Renovating our infrastructure and the systems we rely on to support the way we live in the 21st century, and making them more resilient will cost billions of dollars. Since we must make these changes to protect ourselves from extreme weather events, the transformations required are not optional. Moreover, the cost of inaction is great. Superstorm Sandy, for example, cost the local economy an estimated $19 billion in lost economic activity and billions more in repairs.

The strategies we choose for accomplishing the things we must do, and the pace at which we pursue them will have an impact on cost and on our readiness for the next major event. We should move sooner rather than later, and think longer term rather than shorter when weighing options. The challenges bring with them rich opportunities if we respond wisely.

For example, New York State’s utility workforce is aging and substantial expertise is being lost to retirement. Workforce training must respond to the need at the pace and scale required. In addition to ensuring the retention of the knowledge needed to maintain existing vital infrastructure, we should seize the opportunity to train a new cohort of workers to manage an advanced smart grid relying on distributed sources of renewable energy. The compelling task of upgrading our power systems offers a once in a generation chance to create thousands of new, well-paid, high value jobs that do not require four year college diplomas.

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The manufacture of solar panels and related equipment, installation, and maintenance is big business and getting bigger. Wind generated power is also rising. A move towards self-sustaining micro-grids will provide the basis for another new industry. New York State should review its existing regulatory rules and modify them to promote entrepreneurial approaches to making the power grid more resilient, with greater capacity and more redundancy.

Priority should be given to developing training programs targeted to workers now employed in carbon fuel industries and to workers in disadvantaged communities.

Conclusion

Global warming is far advanced, the polar ice cap is melting at a rapid rate, and the sea level is rising with detrimental consequences for coastal regions in particular. This includes parts of New York where millions of people live and where much of our economic activity takes place. We must respond with the urgency the situation demands.

We must protect New Yorkers at risk and the systems and infrastructure we rely on for modern life. We must also work rapidly and diligently to replace the power networks we now rely on with ones that will not continue to emit greenhouse gases and further damage the planet’s atmosphere.

As we undertake the major challenges climate change has created, we will want to protect workers whose jobs will disappear as we move away from carbon fuels, and we will want to make sure the economic opportunities are shared fairly, particularly for those who have suffered from economic disadvantage to date.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing us all. Collective action by governments, businesses, agencies of all kinds, and all people will be required to meet it.

Sources

New York League of Conservation Voters. New York State Policy Agenda 2020.

New York State 2100 Commission. Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of the Empire State’s Resilience. 2013.

New York State Ready Commission and New York State Respond Commission. Summary of Recommendations & Progress Update. October 28, 2013.

Regional Plan Association. Fourth Regional Plan: Making the Region Work for All of Us. November, 2017.

Regional Plan Association and Make the Road New York. Climate Action Manual: Policies for a More Sustainable and Resilient New York. February 2020.

Judith Rodin. The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong. New York: Public Affairs. 2014.

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.

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