New York State of Mind

The New York Times reports that officials in New York City are already contemplating major investments to mitigate damage from future weather events like “Superstorm” Sandy that threaten the city’s infrastructure, which are expected to occur with greater frequency due to climate change.

First of all, if cities worldwide recognize the threat of global climate change and insurance companies are adjusting their policies to account for increased risk, how is it possible that there are still so many climate change skeptics in positions of political authority? OK. Dumb question. It’s pretty obvious why climate skeptics and deniers hold considerable sway over US politics. Especially in the Republican dominated House, energy and social interests and an “anti-science” conservatism have significant influence over climate change legislation.

More importantly, let’s consider the economics of this. New York is looking at a $10B investment in huge sea gates to protect against future storm surges that might inundate the city’s low-lying areas and underground infrastructure. This is a prudent investment, given the reality that 3 of the top 10 highest floods since 1900 have happened in the last 2.5 years. Furthermore, making cities a desirable place to live and do business makes great climate sense, because on a per capita basis, cities are more sustainable than suburban and urban regions.

But we risk falling into a trap thinking we can build our way out of this mess or depend on future technological developments to save us from ourselves and the rising floodwaters. We’re trying to cure the symptoms not the cause. We can’t simply build a bigger wall. Instead, we need to be making critical investments in education, transportation, and energy efficiency, to name a few places. Unfortunately, every dollar spent on the symptom, is a dollar that can’t be spent treating the cause, and the cost of acting later will only compound as time goes on. The Bloomberg administration knows this, which is why I applaud the administration’s pioneering sustainability efforts, including the Mayor’s 25-year plan to create “the first environmentally sustainable 21st Century city.”

The political realities of implementing climate change policies are daunting, as evidenced by the defeat of one of Bloomberg’s landmark legislative items, his Manhattan congestion pricing plan, but if there’s a silver lining to natural disasters like Sandy and Katrina, it’s that they can get people talking about the issue.

If you’re a high school student or the parent of a high school student,we invite you to explore the subject of sustainability on one of our Sustainable Summer adventure travel programs for teens.