THE BLOG

Climate Change, Chris Christie and the Truth

06/21/2013 12:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2013

To hear some on the political left describe it, the New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has decided to ignore what he knows is true -- that the climate is changing and humans impact it -- in order to become a more attractive national Republican candidate. In trying to paint him as what they call a climate change "denier," these environmentalists and Democrats point to New Jersey's loss of $100 million worth of rail cars in the wake of super storm Sandy and Christie's administration's own cutbacks in climate preparation change preparation before the storm. But this is purely an effort to score cheap political points. Christie isn't any sort of climate "denier" and the failures of his administration were more a matter of poor risk management than anything to do with climate science or preparation. In fact, trying to use climate change as a cudgel to attack political opponents distracts both liberals and conservatives from the common sense solutions needed to deal with a serious problem.

The basic facts aren't much in dispute. As a joint investigation from WNYC and The Record newspaper has found, New Jersey Transit, under Christie's leadership, cut funding for efforts to prepare for climate change in the midst of a dire state budget situation. Following the storm, New York's MTA, which had spent millions on a climate change adaptation plans and retrofits, lost only 19 subway cars while New Jersey Transit lost hundreds. After the storm, furthermore, Christie pointed out that no scientists said that climate changed had caused Sandy.

At first blush, this seems to prove that Christie's cuts were wrongheaded. As much as that story might flatter the biases of the liberal audience that makes up WNYC's base, however, it's not very accurate for at least three reasons. First, Christie was absolutely right to say that climate change didn't cause Hurricane Sandy; hardly any weather event can ever be linked to any particular human action. Second, Christie has always acknowledged that climate change is real in any case. Finally, New Jersey's failures had little to do with long-range planning, budgets or even climate preparation. Instead, they involved the technocratic, often humdrum decisions that are part and parcel of running any public agency and preparing for climate change.

The key point is this: Even after the budget cuts for climate change preparation, NJ Transit still knew in advance that there was a "80 to 90 percent chance" that the rail yards wouldn't flood, which means that there as a 10-20 percent chance that such a flood would happen. Given that the flooding did $100 million in damage, the existence of a 10-20 percent chance means that it would have been worth somewhere between $10 and $20 million to avoid the damage. Spending money on overtime and whatever else was necessary to move the cars would have cost a lot less than this. Instead, NJ Transit just decided to play the odds.

That was foolish by any standard. Consider: The chances of being involved in an automobile accident that requires massive medical bills are even lower but New Jersey requires that every driver purchase $250,000 worth of personal injury protection coverage.

Significant storms, likewise, are simply a part of life on the Atlantic coast. A major hurricane has hit the Northeast roughly once every 25 years. If climate change makes the storm problems worse -- and that seems probable -- then it's probably worth spending somewhat more to secure against them. But that doesn't mean that every penny spent on what someone claims is "climate mitigation" is wise. In fact, there's little evidence that New York did better because of its lavish spending on preparation. The key thing that New York did right and New Jersey did wrong -- moving rail cars to higher ground -- was a simple management decision, not a piece of long range planning.

And this is a lesson that just about every unit of government should learn in preparing for climate change. If the political left really cares about climate change, it should stop trying to score cheap political points and work towards simple, no-regrets strategies.