06/17/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Adapting to Climate Change in New York in the Absence of Federal Climate Policy

It is fair to say that none of us were fully prepared for the impact of Hurricane Sandy. Nevertheless, first responders in this region saved many lives and kept people out of harm's way, and determined leadership, especially from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie inspired many to rebuild and restore our shoreline communities. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg's team did what it does best. It brought together a talented team of experts, planners and policy analysts and released a nearly 500 page, $20 billion dollar plan for rebuilding New York's shorefront. Meanwhile, in our nation's capital, the federal government is doing very little to mitigate climate change and prevent these impacts from taking place. The contrast couldn't be more sharply drawn. Locally, we have determined and creative leadership, and in Washington, we have timid, ideological dysfunction.

"A Stronger More Resilient New York" is the result of nearly eight months of intensive work by a dedicated task force, the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), which was formed in December 2012 in response to Hurricane Sandy. The plan addresses how to create a more resilient New York City, with a long-term focus on preparing for the impacts of climate change. The plan presents specific, practical recommendations for rebuilding the communities harmed by Sandy and increasing the resiliency of infrastructure and buildings throughout the city.

In developing the report, the Bloomberg team addressed three key questions: "1) What happened during and after Sandy and why? 2) What is the likely risk to NYC as the climate changes and the threat of future storms and severe weather increases? 3) What do we do in our coastal neighborhoods and with citywide infrastructure?" In developing the plan, the Mayor's office met with government stakeholders across city, state and federal agencies; conducted monthly briefings for nearly 70 elected officials, 20 community boards, nearly 300 business, cultural, non-profit, civic, and faith organizations; held 11 public workshops with over 1,000 New Yorkers; and engaged with industry, academic and policy thought leaders across subject areas.

The report gives over 250 concrete recommendations to strengthen 15 critical areas. This plan is a comprehensive assessment of infrastructure, governance, the impacts of Sandy, and how we can better prepare for future climate risks. It takes a long-term perspective and is designed to influence city policy long past the Bloomberg administration. The report begins with a comprehensive review of Hurricane Sandy and its impact on the city, as well as a chapter dedicated to a climate analysis, developed by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC). The Climate Panel updated climate projections and risk analysis, identifying our growing vulnerability to floods and the growing portion of our city that could be affected in the future.

The total cost of the 250 recommendations detailed in the report is nearly $20 billion. The city has $10 billion of this committed through a combination of City capital funding already allocated and Federal relief, as well as $5 billion from additional expected Federal funding already appropriated by Congress. The report lists several strategies to raise the remaining $4.5 billion, including additional Federal funding. There is a precedent for this type of funding, as $9 billion was provided in federal aid to New Orleans post-Katrina after initial allocations.

The coastal protection initiatives will help protect over 400,000 residents live in the existing 100-year floodplain. The strategies developed by the city's team focus on fortifying defense and expanding natural protections, rather than abandoning the waterfront. These strategies include a number of actions to be taken immediately, which are aimed at protecting the most vulnerable shoreline developments. As Mayor Bloomberg stated when he announced the plan: "We cannot and will not abandon our waterfront; it is one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it. For decades the city allowed the waterfront to become polluted, degraded, and abandoned. And we spent the past eleven years reversing that history and reclaiming the waterfront for all New Yorkers to enjoy, and we're not going to stop now."

The specifics of the plan include a number of natural and built shore protection measures and changes designed to protect energy, transportation and other types of infrastructure. It assumes that we will see more extreme weather events in the future and tries to build a city better able to resist these storms. There is little question that these steps are needed and that the benefits of these investments will outweigh their costs.

New York City has over 500 miles of coastline. Long Island and New Jersey add hundreds of vulnerable miles to this total. While the ideologues in Congress continue to debate the reality of climate change, New York City is well past the debate and is going to invest at least $20 billion dollars to adapt to the impact of the changes we are already seeing. The contrast between local leadership and the absence of leadership in our nation's capital could not be more apparent.

It is true that Mayor Bloomberg will leave office soon and the implementation of this plan will depend on his successors. We can assume that part of the strategy will be picked apart and attacked, but I would not underestimate the long-term impact of this plan. In essence, the Bloomberg team has put down a marker and set a standard that future Mayors will be judged by. Should a storm come and damage the city in ways that could have been prevented by this plan, a future Mayor will pay a heavy political price for inaction. It will make Mayor Lindsay's slow plowing of snow in Queens look trivial in comparison: and remember way back in 1969 Lindsay needed to beg for forgiveness in order to get narrowly re-elected. My guess is that this plan will be the baseline from which additional safeguards will need to be added.

In the meantime, we should also acknowledge that this plan makes tangible the limits to climate adaptation. The hard work of mitigating climate change is the real answer to this problem. How many billions, if not trillions of dollars, must we spend before we recognize that we need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Our ecosystems are suffering long-term damage from increased use of fossil fuels by billions of people in an increasingly developed world. The longer we ignore these facts, the more expensive it will be to adapt to the changing planet we are creating.

President Obama has promised action on climate change, while allowing EPA's greenhouse gas regulatory process to be slowed to a crawl. The need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is clear. There are two ways to promote that transition. One is to tax and/or regulate fossil fuels to make them more expensive and reflect their true cost to the environment. The second way is for government to fund a crash program of basic and applied research to develop a practical, low priced form of renewable energy. These two policies are not mutually exclusive; although I tend to think cheaper renewable energy has a higher probability of success than making fossil fuels more expensive. Unfortunately in our nation's capitol we are pursuing no policy at all. Essentially the feds are doing nothing and leaving local governments with the job of reinforcing local infrastructure to adapt to the impact of our wholly inadequate climate change policy. We should all be grateful for the local action and disgusted by the climate policy vacuum in Washington.