By Felipe De La Hoz
There’s a growing feeling among those involved in all aspects of public policy that climate change is the one policy area that will come to encompass all others, touching on every aspect of our society and government.
Shifting temperatures and shrinking habitats will drive wildlife into closer contact with human populations, setting off new pandemics. Crop failures and ecological devastation will drive a migration crisis and redefine what it means to be a refugee. And, for urban leaders making decisions about housing and infrastructure and public safety, resilience against extreme climate will loom large.
All these issues don’t stand alone but are ultimately linked. Many of those driven out of collapsing ecologies in Central America and the Caribbean, for example, will try to find refuge in New York, which will be dealing with its own climate consequences. “They’re going to come into New York with no social safety net,” says Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator at Housing Justice for All. “So then you have people who are climate refugees living in incredibly unsafe, unregulated, expensive housing, doubled and tripled up.” It was this sort of concentration of immigrants in substandard housing situations that set the stage for the tragedy of this year’s devastating fire at the Twin Parks complex in the Bronx, where most of the seventeen dead had arrived in New York from Gambia or had parents who did.
The perils don’t have to be as immediately lethal as a fire to be acutely felt. Carol Johnson, a 67-year-old performer and organizer with the volunteer disaster relief group East Harlem Community Organizations Active in Disasters, described how the combination of a somewhat bumbling building management and the incoming perils of climate change were affecting her daily life. She’s lived since the ‘90s at an affordable Mitchell-Lama co-op at East River Landing (also known as 1199 Plaza), which her family has owned since 1973, but is frustrated by compounding issues.
Apartment fire on 89th Street. Photo: Nitin Mukul
“I can’t turn on the air conditioner because all the debris is being sucked into my home,” Johnson said in reference to construction happening outside her unit. That was a particular problem over the summer because one of her rooms gets hot enough that she even avoids storing any electrical equipment in it, lest it melt. “You’ve locked all of my windows because of the repairs, so every apartment window is locked, and we’re in the middle of summer, and then we had a brief heatwave. And I can’t open any windows or turn on the air conditioners.”
It’s the type of issue that would be problematic in normal times, but can be extremely hazardous in a future with successive heatwaves. Her building was recently taken over by Metro Management, the same company that featured in an April New Republic story about failures to make repairs at another Harlem co-op (Metro could not immediately be reached to discuss Johnson’s issues).
When political figures talk about climate resilience, it’s usually about flashy mega-projects like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project—massive, long-term, and highly visible infrastructural developments meant to protect large swaths of the city from specific threats like storm surges. There’s no doubt that such an approach is necessary, but it’s incomplete. For years now, urbanists and activists alike have been banging the drum for a more block-by-block approach, focusing less on conspicuous projects and more on small-bore improvements like sewer enhancements, additional green space to absorb excess rainfall, and aggressive enforcement of property owners who fail to maintain safe conditions.
Climate change’s all-encompassing nature means that a slate of policies that aren’t typically associated with climate are key to our response. Housing is a relatively obvious one, not just in terms of the fortification of existing residential buildings but the lack of available stock, as unhoused people are at extra risk of, say, subway flooding or the mixture of extreme heat and extreme humidity.
We’ve touched on this briefly before, but it is important to understand here that there are fundamentally two complementary approaches to urban climate planning. One is based around the notion of minimizing climate impact, or “going green,” where the idea is to actually participate in the global effort to cut down on harmful emissions and other contributors to climate change itself, such as by making recycling more robust or transitioning city bus fleets to electric. The other is focused on climate resilience or mitigation, essentially contending with the fact that some level of catastrophic climate impact is now unavoidable. In the latter case, the objective isn’t to prevent but fortify, and minimize potential devastation.
A failure to prioritize this neighborhood-level approach was grimly realized last year with the deaths of 11 tenants in basement apartments during Hurricane Ida. These dwellings are a perfect example of the sort of issue that policymakers will have to contend with: they’re a byproduct of existing policy and infrastructural failures (in this case, lack of housing stock amid sky-high demand), which it’s too late to retroactively address (as there’s hardly an ethical way to force people to simply leave their homes), and therefore require a new slate of solutions.
As is to be expected with any society-wide hazard, it is much more acute among lower-income communities and communities of color, for whom the inequities can compound, and even the solutions can end up mostly benefiting those already better off. Annie Carforo, climate justice organizer for the Harlem-based community organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, pointed to the example of poor building weatherization affecting people already less equipped to pay high heating and cooling costs, and weatherization incentive programs leaving them behind.
“They’re living in housing that has toxins in it, like mold, lead, and asbestos. So they aren’t even eligible for weatherization or retrofits because you don’t want to lock somebody into a home that is filled with toxins that could harm them,” Carforo says. Even as state funds go toward full weatherization programs and HVAC updates, she contends that current residents may never see the benefits, which is why they also view it as inexorably a housing issue. “We don’t want landlords accepting this money, putting, you know, investing in their units, and then evicting the tenants that live there so that they can have higher income tenants.”
It at least seems that this approach and philosophy is on Mayor Eric Adams’ radar, even if the relatively new administration still has to prove itself. At the end of his first month in office, Adams introduced a dedicated climate team made up of various climate policy veterans, emphasizing that the group would be tasked with taking a whole-of-government approach to climate, not siloing it as its own niche issue, looking into how every department could contribute.
Among the appointments was new chief climate officer and commissioner of environmental preservation Rohit T. Aggarwala, who’d spent decades moving between the private and public sectors on climate planning and urban sustainability, including as head of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability during the Bloomberg administration. After the announcement, I asked Aggarwala about the commitment to a nuts-and-bolts climate strategy focused on necessary but minute upgrades. He said that the administration was discussing all sorts of approaches, including that, but the team would need more time to develop proposals. In the months since, I’ve asked several times to have a follow-up chat with him, to no avail.
Several reference points already exist. A 2017 report series titled “Building a Climate-Resilient City” — developed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the University of Winnipeg at the behest of the Canadian cities of Calgary and Edmonton — highlights examples including Chicago’s investments into vertical farming, with its potential for ensuring food security amid supply chain disruptions, and Austin’s so-called smart grid initiatives, designed to route energy more efficiently around and ensure that it can be routed to areas in need in the event of localized grid failures.
Some candidates for elected office are now running explicitly on these issues. David Alexis, a ride-share driver and DSA organizer who’s running in the primary against State Sen. Kevin Parker in a district that includes Flatbush and East Flatbush, has made the intersection of housing and climate something of a signature issue. He pointedexplicitly to the strains on the power grid as an example of not just an infrastructural issue but one of quality of life and equity.
“I think the biggest story that came out was in 2019, where we had blackouts that had hit central and east Brooklyn, and we found that it was tied to Con Edison’s need to preserve the power grid in Manhattan, at the expense of underserved communities over here,” he said, in reference to speculation that Brooklyn was hit with massive blackouts days after Manhattan because of a rerouting of power to the wealthier borough, after the grid was put under strain by a heat wave. “These are all things that we can address with things like public renewables, which in addition to protecting families also creates thousands of jobs.” Alexis’ opponent, Parker, introduced the Energy Efficiency, Equity, & Jobs Act to attempt just these sorts of infrastructural reimaginings, but the organizer thinks the concept can be championed much harder. Read more.
It’s clear, unfortunately, that time is not on our side here. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned just last monththat we are on track toward “an unlivable world.” While we must move toward mitigation, it’s clear that we can’t head off all of climate change’s ravages. It is incumbent on local policymakers to think about resilience every day and from every angle, not just in terms of big projects but the more minute decisions that can make significant differences in people’s lives.