One of Sandy’s subtle tragedies—and the unspoken backdrop for Bloomberg’s endorsement—is that New York City is far ahead of most other cities in the country in planning for the risks of climate change. Bloomberg observed in his endorsement that New York City has a plan in place to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Far more immediately relevant, in 2008, New York City established a climate adaptation task force designed to explore and assess the vulnerabilities of the city to future climatic shifts. Beginning in 2009, that task force began to release reports detailing the significant challenges facing the city. In late August 2012, the city announced that the task force would expand its focus and become a regular part of the city’s planning efforts. Legislation passed this year authorized the New York Panel on Climate Change, modeled on its international cousin, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to conduct studies every three years of the risks posed to the city by changing climatic conditions. In the wake of Sandy, their work will take on a new and far more profound level of urgency.
Sandy’s story goes even deeper, however. As important as the work of New York and its leaders will be, New York’s problems are a drop in the bucket compared with those facing the United States as a whole. The truth is that engineered infrastructures of all sorts are profoundly vulnerable to changing climatic conditions. Sandy showed some of that vulnerability: Rising sea levels and a more intense hurricane combined to create record storm surges that overwhelmed inadequate barriers. (One could argue that that was also the case with Katrina.) Put simply, the barriers had been designed for static climatic parameters that no longer reflect the real climatic conditions confronting engineered systems. Such problems are now cropping up routinely. High temperatures this summer melted airport runways and caused sagging in electricity transmission lines. Flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011 led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow up levees and open gates, flooding rural areas to protect urban communities. Floods, tornadoes, and droughts have all, in recent years, threatened the operation of U.S. nuclear power plants.
These problems are ubiquitous. Every building, bridge, levee, road, electricity grid, and power plant in this country has been designed and constructed to a set of engineering standards. Those standards embed static assumptions about the climatic conditions those structures will face. Few of those assumptions remain valid as the climate rapidly shifts away from the normal patterns experienced over the last 100 years. The further climate shifts, year after year, the less accurate those assumptions will be, and the more likely the country will be to face dramatic new systems failures. At one level, it doesn’t matter what the cause of these climate shifts is. The observational record is clear. The climate is changing. At another level, however, adaptation is, at best, a short-term solution. Despite what Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, might want us to think, adaptation to a continuously changing climate cannot prevent the kinds of risks illustrated by Sandy, magnified across all of America’s critical infrastructures.
Unfortunately, the engineering and policy communities are only just beginning to wake up to this challenge. Cities in this country have now had two warning shots, neither, unfortunately, over the bow. Mayors should be lining up to demand that Congress appropriate resources to enable them to assess the vulnerability of their infrastructures to climate change and to make appropriate adaptations. Every city and state should partner with its public universities to create their own climate change adaptation panels. The National Academy of Engineering should be commissioned to conduct a study of the vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure to further climate catastrophes and to recommend measures to address those vulnerabilities, including new educational standards for schools of engineering and public administration in the teaching of climate change.
Engineers and city managers must lead these efforts. At the end of the day, however, this is only partly an engineering and management problem. Upgrading city infrastructures to confront the realities of changing climates will require hard choices by the public. Communities will have to make difficult trade-offs between building protective infrastructures, forcing property owners to leave flood-prone areas, and preventing development in wetlands and other areas that provide natural protection from storm surges. Careful attention will need to be paid to issues of injustice embedded in how infrastructure projects distribute costs and benefits across diverse groups in society. Cities will have to confront the powerful necessity of provoking hard public dialogue and deliberation as they make these and other choices. After all, infrastructure is not merely concrete and steel—it is the backbone of urban life.
Since Katrina, the United States has suffered a series of weather-related disasters that suggest changing climatic patterns: flooding along the Mississippi in 2011, freak tornadoes in the Southeast earlier this year, the summer of drought and extreme temperatures in the Midwest, and now Sandy. Only time will tell whether these events were a portent of things to come or the signal that finally motivated action to curb climate risks. Cuomo and Bloomberg have the opportunity to lead America into the stark new world of climate mitigation and climate adaptation. But as the old saying from my home state of Wyoming goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Are the rest of us ready to go along? We’ll see.