Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and this week we’re looking at climate resiliency policy in the city. We touched on this a couple of weeks ago when we discussed some of the issues that the next City Council and mayoral administration will be tackling, but it’s worth breaking it down further, if only because climate change is an issue of existential import to New Yorkers.
Photo: Ethan Hoover
For our purposes, it might be useful to break this down into two large buckets: forward-looking climate mitigation, involving initiatives like transitioning to more efficient energy use and lowering the city’s carbon footprint; and climate protection and resiliency, which is more about contending with the now-unavoidable consequences of the climate change that’s already occurred and is more about fortifying at-risk areas and preventing tragedies like New Yorkers drowning in their basement apartments.
In that first bucket are the long-term, preventive measures that have formed part of, for example, 2019’s Climate Mobilization Act. Among other things, the legislation established limits and standards for residential building’s emissions and directed new buildings to be constructed with efficiency measures already in place, including solar panels and so-called green roofs.
Jackson Heights. Photo: Nitin Mukul
The second bucket is perhaps more pressing. While it’s well and good for the city to do its part to curb greenhouse gases and other causants of our manmade climate cataclysms, recent storms and their impact not just against residences but the whole of our public infrastructure — who can forget the images of subway stations looking like whitewater rapids — highlight the fact that we’re really running out time to anticipate and contend with extreme climate events.
The city releases a climate change report
This week, the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency released a report laying out the city’s approach to “combating storm-related extreme weather.” There was a lot of the infrastructure improvement content you might expect, including novel proposals like pressing for billions of dollars in state and federal funding to completely reimagine and restructure the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes.
What really caught my eye, though, were the plans about engaging communities across the city and to an extent getting all New Yorkers on board with the idea that a climate catastrophe is simply going to be a part of life now. As stated in the first key objective in the executive summary, officials will strive to “educate, train, and acclimate New Yorkers to this new reality,” including the need to make sure “New Yorkers understand the new world we are living in,” a bit of a stunning statement to see in an official government report.
Photo: Robert Bye
The idea of having to always be at the ready for climate crisis is a bit jarring to us here, a city that historically has not been particularly prone to sudden and deadly forces of nature, though it’s certainly nothing new to our counterparts in hurricane zones or friends in western states where raging fires have become another facet of life. It seems like the city’s strategy, beyond conducting the physical fortifications it can, is to start getting us accustomed to the idea of a nebulous but constant threat from the changing climate, and in doing so help us understand that this isn’t cause for defeatism but for preparation even at an individual level.
Travel bans evacuation orders: what lies ahead
Among the proposals floated are enhancing the city’s powers to, for example, issue mandatory evacuation orders for basement apartment dwellers, travel bans on city streets, and shelter-in-place orders. These are almost certain to trigger some backlash from New Yorkers who view them as overreaching and overblown, as even after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the more recent chaos of Hurricane Ida, the enormity of what we’re facing is going to be slow to sink in.
Notably, the plan also starkly acknowledges that this is no longer going to be an issue mainly for low-lying or coastal communities, but that the whole of New York is now in peril, stating that “extreme weather events like Ida represent a new world, where even those far inland are at significant risk.” This will represent a bit of a shift in thinking from large-scale coastal resiliency efforts like seawalls and floodgates in the Lower East Side — which remain crucial and will continue to be developed — to more meat-and-potatoes projects like better equipping emergency services to respond to flood-related events inland, not just in what are traditionally considered flood-risk areas.
For his part, likely next mayor Eric Adams released his own climate resiliency plan, which included some similar approaches around enhancing the ability to alert city residents of impending climate effects, though his plan took a more reserved approach, saying that being overzealous in warning New Yorkers of any and all potential flash flooding and related climate dangers would end up causing them to tune all of it out.
The differences in approach highlight what will be one of the fundamental questions about climate change communications to communities around the city still struggling with the impact of Covid-19 and its economic after-effects: how do you introduce yet another slow-moving cataclysm and expect them to adapt to it, too, when many are just trying to survive? Whatever approach the powers that be end up settling on, they better do so quickly, because the clock is rapidly ticking down to a future where storms and floods will be as synonymous with New York as bodegas and dollar slices.