New York City Prepares for Climate Change

By Manishka De Mel

In October 2012 the world watched in disbelief as superstorm* Sandy battered the Eastern Coast of the United States. New York City, the metropolis best recognized through iconic photos and movie scenes, seemed invincible, and had nearly escaped the wrath of Hurricane Irene the year before.

Sandy was a life-changing event for many of New York City’s 8+ million residents, and left much of the city in darkness for days, weeks in some areas. Many lost homes while others were stranded inside high-rise buildings, unable to access basic services. As the world shifts its focus to more recent disasters and news stories, the communities affected by the storm continue to try to recover and bounce back from such a devastating event.

Sandy by the Numbers

  • 117 people in the US lost their lives due to the storm. 43 were New Yorkers.
  • The 9-foot storm surge, together with the tide, exceeded the 11-foot flood height forecast for battery in Lower Manhattan. The surge caused much of the damage as it flooded subway tunnels and streets, and affected the power grid.
  • Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane in United States history, affecting 24 states and costing $65 billion. In New York it cost an estimated $19 billion.
  •  It is estimated that for New York City, a day without electricity could incur over $1 billion in terms of economic output.
Damaged South Ferry Station in Lower Manhattan © Somayya Ali Ibrahim

Damaged South Ferry Station in Lower Manhattan © Somayya Ali Ibrahim

Preparing for Climate Change

Although Sandy took many by surprise, for a small group of people working as a part of the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), storms such as these were inevitable. Being situated on the coast, the city understood its vulnerabilities prior to storms such as Irene and Sandy, with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg launching the NPCC in 2008. This group is comprised of leading climate and social scientists and risk management experts, entrusted with advising the Mayor and the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force on climate change and adaptation. According to Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, the co-chair of the NPCC, work on climate change in New York began in the late 1990s, as a part of a larger national assessment. Dr. Rosenzweig was a part of a group that led the assessment for the metropolitan East Coast region, and says “it turned out that it was the first study that had ever been done on any city; not just New York, but anywhere.”

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg convened the second NPCC to provide up-to-date scientific information and analyses on climate risks. This information was the basis for the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) and New York’s climate adaptation plan, ‘A Stronger, More Resilient New York’, launched in June 2013. The cost of implementing the plan is estimated to be $20 billion, and initiatives include surge barriers, strengthening critical infrastructure, and reconstructing dunes, while community-level initiatives such as expanding Community Emergency Response Teams have also been planned. Recognizing the importance of sustaining the panel, the city passed Local Law 42 in September 2012, establishing the NPCC as an ongoing body.

Dr. Rosenzweig considers Sandy a tipping point: “for the first time increasing climate risks are being taken into account in the rebuilding.” According to Rosenzweig, the salient point of the SIRR is that it lays out the increasing climate risk, and it states that increasing climate risk needs to be taken into account in everything that is being done from now on.

Lessons for Other Cities

It is acknowledged that even with these current plans New York City will not be ‘climate-change proof’, a goal that is considered impossible. However, putting these adaptation plans into action will make the city far safer and more resilient than without them. Implementing New York’s resiliency plan is expected to reduce lives lost and damage caused by future disasters, with losses projected to reduce by up to 25 percent in the 2050s. Sandy is a reminder that cities, especially coastal cities, cannot escape the devastating path of storm surges, extreme rainfall, heat waves and sea level rise. It is also a reminder that often impacts far exceed expectations.

Dr. Rosenzweig stresses the importance of starting early on, stating “one of the important things is the knowledge foundation gets built up, so it’s really good for vulnerability assessments, impact assessments and adaptation assessments.” Another key to success is that the city decision-makers and the local researchers need to form alliances to work together on the issue. “In New York we co-developed with the New York City decision-makers a flexible adaptation pathway approach. What this does is it recognizes that decisions and preparations will need to evolve through time. “Another lesson learned from New York is that it’s vital to take ‘the metropolitan region approach’. “There’s been a lot of focus of climate change on cities, which is really the core city, but really to develop resilience we need to expand…” says Dr. Rosenzweig. She also says that in the case of developing countries it is important to consider peri-urban areas and rural-urban connections. Regional coordination is essential, and this can be challenging because not all cities have jurisdiction over the larger metropolitan area.

The Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN) based at the Center for Climate System Research at Columbia University, is bringing together a group of interdisciplinary urban climate change experts and practitioners to carry out an analysis of climate change mitigation and adaptation from an urban perspective. It leads the UCCRN Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities (ARC3), an on-going series of publications based on cutting-edge science, together with economic, and planning-related research on mitigation and adaptation in cities. “We need to really develop the capacity within each city to have the knowledge base and the science base for the decisions” says Dr. Rosenzweig.

Currently more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, and by 2030 this will increase to 6 out of 10 people, a trend that is projected to continue. As cities in developing countries expand, it is vital that resiliency plans are integrated from the very beginning. In fact newer cities can benefit from such lessons, and early implementation will be less costly than adapting once a city is well established. The lessons are clear; integrating adaptation is essential for long-term well-being of urban dwellers and economic stability of cities. While much of these actions lie in the hands of decision-makers, the climate change clock continues to tick away …


* Sandy lost some of the characteristics of a hurricane before reaching the Eastern Coast of the United States, and is commonly referred to as a ‘superstorm’.  

Acknowledgement

The author would like to thank Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig (NASA GISS/Columbia University), Somayya Ali Ibrahim and Daniel Bader of the Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University for their input.