New York’s proactive plan to face climate change

Damaged homes on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy, 2012
© Aerials of damaged homes on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy. CREDIT: Bridget Besaw

New York State is pursuing a common sense, practical approach to addressing climate risks and creating resiliency.

By Stu Gruskin, Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer for The Nature Conservancy in New York

As we close in on the two year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, this is a good time to ask ourselves whether we are better prepared today than we were when the “superstorm” tore through the east coast of the United States. There is urgency to this question. The damage from storms like Sandy -- and Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which all caused devastating flooding in northeastern states –- was, and continues to be, so severe and complex that two years later recovery efforts are still underway. We are still picking up the pieces from those storms at the same time we are preparing to face this year’s new round of storms.

Here in New York, in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 storm, there was general agreement that Sandy was a wake up call. The unthinkable had happened: parts of New York City were underwater, power was out for millions of people, entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and as a result the philosophical and political climate debate turned practical. It no longer made sense to argue about climate change – we needed to replace the rhetoric with reality, and try to figure out how to face a future in which severe climate events would be stronger and more frequent.

Since that time, while we have for the most part been spared in New York, there have been climate-driven catastrophes all over the globe. In every case we learn the same lesson, over and over: the cost of reacting to a climate disaster – in terms of lives lost, business disruption, and rebuilding – is far in excess of what the cost would be of proactively taking climate considerations into account as we make decisions and accordingly mitigating potential future damage and destruction.

This is not a novel concept. In the business world, the planet’s leading corporations routinely address climate risk on par with other strategic factors. For obvious reasons evaluating climate risk is an essential part of the insurance industry. And as reported not long ago by The New York Times, the US military is integrating climate considerations into all aspects of its activities. These are good examples of the importance of being smarter about our changing climate, and it is past time for that same thinking to inform other government decision-making.

Lower Manhattan seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park© View of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park. CREDIT: Jonathan Grassi

One place to start imbedding climate considerations in government process is when permits are issued and taxpayer dollars are spent. That is exactly what New York State is poised to do with the Community Risk Reduction and Resiliency Act, which state legislators and key stakeholders worked to develop with the science-based support of The Nature Conservancy.

The Act, which has passed both houses of the state legislature, requires that major permits and projects funded through various state programs consider the impacts of our changing climate—sea level rise, storm surge and flooding—in the planning process. The proposed law also requires the state to create consistent sea level rise standards, and provides assistance to local governments as they address climate challenges in their communities. Significantly, New York’s approach also expressly recognizes the role of nature as we seek to enhance the resiliency of our communities. The Act requires the state to prepare guidance on the use of resiliency measures that utilize natural resources and processes to reduce risk.

New York State is pursuing a common sense, practical approach to addressing climate risks and creating resiliency. Perhaps that is why the legislation transcended partisan squabbling and was supported by a broad spectrum of interests, from the state Business Council, the Reinsurance Association, and the Association of General Contractors, to the New York League of Conservation Voters.

By incorporating more calculated, thoughtful, comprehensive and proactive efforts to take climate-related issues into account before projects are permitted or funded using taxpayer money, state and local governments can play a critically important role in protecting communities.

It’s hard to argue against a proposal designed to ensure that taxpayer dollars will not (literally) get washed away in the future. For me, however, the most compelling part of this measure is that it requires government agencies to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to future weather events. This thoughtful, comprehensive, and forward-looking approach will better prepare communities, safeguard economies, and protect people as the world’s climate continues to change.

New York’s proactive plan to face climate change
Legislators and The Nature Conservancy works on plan to make New York more resilient and protected from climate change impacts, such as extreme weather and rising seas levels.

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