Sandy Signaled Disastrous Century. Will U.S. Adapt to Climate Change?

Sandy Signaled Disastrous Century. Will U.S. Adapt to Climate Change?

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Editor’s Note: As the U.S. Senate takes up the $50 billion disaster-relief appropriation for victims of Superstorm Sandy, climate experts, such as Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law At Columbia University, are signaling that policymakers need to get beyond emergency responses and pay long-term attention to the changes ahead.

Sandy, says
Gerrard was neither a worst-case climate event nor a 100-year storm. Can the United States adapt quickly enough to the climate realities likely to face the country though the 21st century? Currently, the country has the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), plus a few state limited laws. But they only provide a framework for analyzing what the problems may be and pointing toward solutions.

Katherine Bagley of InsideClimate News (ICN) interviewed Gerrard about where things stand with U.S. climate-adaptation policy, what can be accomplished under current law. (A longer version of her interview is posted on the
ICN website.)

InsideClimate News: Do you think Hurricane Sandy will make it a priority for Congress to pass a comprehensive law on adaptation?

Gerrard: I think for the people who already believe in climate change, it may move it up a notch on the priorities list. I don't know that the hurricane is going to have a big impact on those who don't believe in climate change, and that is a group that regrettably seems to be controlling the [U.S] House these days.

ICN: Are we at a critical point where we have to pass a law?

Gerrard: Both in respect to mitigation [slowing climate change] and adaptation, the longer we wait, the harder it will be. It is hard to identify exactly what the critical point is. One could argue that it passed some time ago because regardless of what happens, things will get a lot worse before they get better.

But certainly, every month that goes by, we get further in the hole.

ICN: What would have to be included in the framework for it to be effective?

Gerrard: It would start with analysis of what is the whole varying array of problems that need to be addressed -- the power systems, the transportation systems, the coastal areas—everything . . . .

ICN: You say that land-use decisions involved in adapting to climate change are "heartbreaking." Why?

Gerrard: Some of the areas that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, for example, were communities where people have lived for generations. The question arises: Does it make sense to have rebuilding, especially with public money, in areas that are just as vulnerable now as they were before the hurricane arose? One possible outcome is not to have public money go toward rebuilding in extremely vulnerable areas. Or, to possibly go further, to say that rebuilding is prohibited in extremely vulnerable areas. But, that would have the effect of destroying a long-standing community, which is a heartbreaking outcome.

ICN: You live and work in New York City. Is it your sense that Sandy is inspiring action? 

Gerrard: Sandy very much got the attention of the political and policy communities in New York. It is leading a tremendous amount of thinking and planning and work on how do we guard against the worst effects of this kind of thing in the future.

ICN: Is there anything New York City can do at this point to "climate-proof" the city?

Gerrard: I think climate-proofing is not something we can do. There are so many different kinds of extreme events that can happen. I don't see any circumstance under which the city could be made invulnerable to those. It can certainly be more resilient and be able to cope with them better.

ICN: There has been a lot of talk about constructing a massive sea wall around lower Manhattan. Would that be your Number 1 priority?

Gerrard: That would not be my Number 1 priority, but I do think it makes sense to give it a serious study. There are a number of problems with it. There are various other kinds of extreme events that could hit New York and many who wouldn't benefit from that—protracted heat waves, extreme precipitation, events not associated with coastal storms and various other events that a sea wall would do nothing to address.

It is also quite possible that a sea wall would have adverse effects nearby. Those behind the wall would be protected, but those alongside it would get a greater brunt of the [storm's] energy.

I think the highest priority right now in terms of substantive work, as opposed to the planning and studies that need to go forward, concerns the electrical system. The most widespread suffering that occurred from Hurricane Sandy was because of protracted electricity service [stoppage] throughout much of the metropolitan region. I think making the electricity system more resilient deserves to be high on the priority list.

ICN: You say that Sandy was not a worst-case event or even a 100-year storm, as it once might have been. What does that mean about our climate system right now?

Gerrard: It means the temperatures are continuing to go up, and more extreme events will be more common and more intense. That pattern is going to continue for quite some time, get worse and worse. Temperatures are going to continue to increase until such time that the world significantly reduces its greenhouse gas emissions. When that will happen is anyone's guess. Clearly we can't afford to continue increasing fossil-fuel combustion. We needed to begin taking action ten years ago.

ICN: Even if we do take action now, climate trends over the next 100 years are unlikely to change, though it will have an impact at the end of the century. Will that be used as an excuse to not act today?

Gerrard: We're already seeing some of that. Regrettably, it is the case that greenhouse gas emission cuts that we undertake now will not have a direct positive impact on the climate for several decades to come. They can have other positive impacts. They can reduce conventional air pollutants. They can lead to greater energy security. They can save a lot of money. But they won't have much effect on the climate.

And unfortunately, there is nothing unique about our current place in time. Politicians are reluctant to spend a lot of public money on activities that will not yield a clear benefit in the short term--or even in the medium term. It is a very tough issue in trying to get enough of a consensus to spend money now that will help our grandchildren, but not ourselves.

ICN: Is there recourse in the law to force government action?

Gerrard: The efforts to use common law tools to try and slow down greenhouse gas emissions so far have failed, and I think that is likely to continue to be the case in the courts. There are a number of statutory rules led by the federal Clean Air Act. The EPA is moving forward with its use of the Clean Air Act and some other statutes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

All of that will be ferociously litigated. So far, the EPA has done pretty well in that litigation. But the courts will play a major role going forward in determining whether the EPA can continue to exercise that statutory authority in the way it has been doing.